As with COVID-19, NZ has a pandemic of sexual violence

Why in 2020 are New Zealanders still reacting as if this is the first time they have heard the high statistics for sexual violence in the country, asks Adjunct Professor Jan Jordan.

A newsflash on Wednesday morning alerted us to a new report from the Ministry of Justice revealing “shocking” findings, labelled “extraordinary” by seasoned broadcaster John Campbell. It tells us approximately one-quarter of all women in New Zealand have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime, only 6 per cent of whom have reported it to police.

To anyone who has followed sexual violence reporting in recent decades, the alarm reflected in such accounts comes from there being nothing new about these figures. Our shameful history reveals that, from the first studies done here on sexual violence in the 1980s, we have known that at least a quarter of all women have been sexually victimised. We have been aware for decades that fewer than 10 per cent will report it to police, and we have known many women struggle to identify and name themselves as victims.

The alarm here is: why has nothing changed? Why in 2020 are we still reacting as if this is the first time we have heard such statistics?

The Ministry of Justice spokesman on RNZ said what this latest Crime and Victims Survey did was add numbers to the stories we have anecdotally heard for years. He is right—the stories since the 1970s have been many, and he is correct that these stories of pain and trauma are compelling. But we have had these same numbers for the past 40 years without finding them compelling. They are not new news.

Also on Wednesday, The Dominion Post announced that Wellington Help, a specialist service supporting victims of rape and sexual assault, was in danger of closing due to lack of funding. The financial fragility of our sexual violence support agencies is also not a new story.

Three services are charged to respond when a rape victim reports—police, doctors and support agencies. Only one of these three lurches from funding crisis to funding crisis. Again, we must ask: why are such services always struggling to survive?

These questions must surely, one day, prompt the substantive changes needed to make a difference. Our track history, shared in many jurisdictions internationally, is one of tinkering sufficiently with laws and policies to give an appearance that the state takes this seriously without tackling the contributory issues.

Currently, for example, we are again making changes to evidential requirements to reduce the traumatic experience all rape victims said they experienced in the 2018 Gravitas/Ministry of Justice report. This is a positive move, but it is peanut-sized when we recall that, of the mere 6 per cent of reported sexual assaults, fewer than 10 per cent will ever reach a courtroom.

The Ministry of Justice advises that a new courtroom is being built, designed to be more user-friendly for victims. This is welcome news, given that currently victims and offenders are often required to share the same physical spaces during the trial.

The Gravitas report included examples of a woman who ended up in a lift with the offender and his lawyer, another too scared to go to the bathroom in case the offender’s supporters followed her. If we cannot guarantee a victim’s safety within court spaces, how can we ever reassure them of their safety outside the court?

The Crime and Victims Survey revealed 85 per cent of the victims of sexual violence do not recognise that what happened to them is a crime. It is so “normal” that they struggle to identify it, and so do we.

What will it take for us to acknowledge that, as with COVID-19, we have a pandemic of sexual violence rippling throughout our nation? The difference between this and the coronavirus is that, once the horrors behind the numbers and stories of the latter became widely known, every major resource was deployed to tackle it.

Sexual violence is so common that, for many women, it has become a normative experience occurring repeatedly throughout their lives. The fact that most decide never to report it is no surprise when every rape trial we hear about includes descriptions of defence lawyers denigrating and degrading the victims. A justice system that permits the repeated humiliation and revictimisation of rape victims cannot expect to attract many takers.

Tackling our appalling rates of sexual violence requires much more complex attention and solutions than an imperfect justice system can offer. We need to begin by recognising how sexual violence is one manifestation of the gender inequalities that continue to structure our society, and concede that the ways we privilege men while objectifying and sexualising women make sexual violence an inevitable outcome.

As long as boys are raised with most of their sex education informed by pornography, women will continue to be viewed as available objects to conquer. The longer we refuse to recognise the factors giving rise to rape, the longer we will continue to read and hear the same “new” and “shocking” headlines.

Jan Jordan is an Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Stuff.