Impossible mission? Dismantling the rape culture in Australia
Violence against women is still too often seen as inevitable, a vision that implies the impossibility of change and reinforces contemporary gender inequality. To dismantle this rape culture, we must consider the strategies of fear, threat, denial and confusion that undermine women’s experiences. A rape culture is a complex system of values and practices based on the acceptability of sexual violence and how women’s individual and collective experiences are shaped in such a way as to trivialize the effects of trauma. And this refusal to acknowledge violence and blame the victim is too often supported by our medical and legal systems, which can leave women feeling isolated, helpless, and with few options for support.
Women consistently describe high levels of emotional distress when entering hospitals and mental health services; they may feel overwhelmed, sometimes suicidal. Reports such as these have sparked conversations about the level of understanding of gender-based violence in medical settings, and poorly coordinated emergency response models that incorporate safety and mental health support. There are also concerns within mental health services about the recognition of the impacts of gender-based violence, the effectiveness and availability of trauma-focused interventions and treatment. There are ongoing debates around the abuse of diagnoses that pathologize women and focus solely on their vulnerabilities and “victimization”. Some services perpetuate stereotypes of female masochism and reflexively use labels such as “personality disorder” to explain how and why some women feel trapped.
The current policy response to the “sexual abuse crisis” and the “women’s issue” is an attempt to deal with these issues with as little significant change as possible. Therefore, we are surrounded by multiple commissions of inquiry, legal argument and obfuscation, with flippant references to the principles. Meanwhile, little is said about eliminating misogyny and oppression.
It is difficult to understand the underlying motivations for male violence and sexual assault without understanding the historical framework and the nature of coercive control and the exercise of power. In women, it induces silence, blocks dissent, and creates doubt, shame and disgust. There are many ways to think about paralysis in the face of trauma and abuse, but it is always gendered. Not only are women seen as weak and hysterical, but they are also to blame for inviting their own abuse and therefore should feel ashamed and remain silent.
Theory is one thing, but we need to examine the reality of male violence and the need for men to control femininity, as well as the ways in which this translates into acts of hatred, revenge and murder. What is remarkable about this is the fact that the regular killings of women and children, as well as widespread sexual assault and violence, do not result in continued mass protests and calls for change.
Much of the recent response to the sexual abuse crisis has focused on attempts to tighten the operations of institutions to address issues such as workplace discrimination, complaint processes, and legal systems. These efforts are necessary and necessary, but it remains unclear whether they contribute to significant changes in assumptions about misogyny.
As a political response to disclosures of abuse, the current Australian government has worked to strengthen systemic responses, investigate approaches to security and how complaints are made, and promote ‘l ’empathy’ as a therapeutic approach. And yet, ironically, there is a clear simultaneous process of blocking any independent external review of incidents, and a retreat into “rule of law” arguments to limit liability and invalidate victims.
The protest movement we witnessed in 2021 challenged pervasive political ‘contain and control’ tactics that help silence the testimonies of survivors of patriarchy and rape culture. These protests have long been part of the feminist agenda. However, calls for social justice and accountability have not been followed up with effective action.
The priority should now be to provide services to women with limited access to specialized care and support. The need for expertise in working with abuse and trauma is acute, especially at a time when rates of disclosure and attempts to access support are increasing. This has been demonstrated by the significant increase in calls to domestic violence support numbers during pandemic lockdowns in Australia, when relationship stress and conflict escalated.
Those of us who work directly with victim-survivors and their children see far too well the potentially devastating and long-term consequences of rape culture. Ironically, as we see the need for understanding and appropriate therapeutic interventions, we also see a clear need to contextualize the suffering of women and investigate the systemic foundations of violence. Abuse does not happen by chance or in a vacuum. We need gender-specific models of care and treatment for the huge array of mental disorders and psychological issues stemming from rape culture. We need to put women’s voices and stories at the center of treatment systems.
Sigmund Freud once said: “The big question that has never been answered, and to which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research on the female soul, is’ What does a woman ?’ To hear, to be respected and to live in safety would be a good starting point.
This is an edited excerpt from Rape culture by Professor Louise Newman, published on October 1 as part of the new In the national interest Monash University Publishing series.
National Sexual Assault, Family and Domestic Violence Counseling Line: 1800 737 732.