Australia may be finally having a long overdue reckoning with sexual violence. Two weeks ago, a former Liberal Party staffer came forward alleging that she was raped by a colleague in the office of Defense Minister Linda Reynolds. This revelation has led to a number of further claims about sexual assaults in Australian political circles. This is proving incredibly uncomfortable for the government, but it should be uncomfortable. A drastic cultural shift is required not only within the parliament, but throughout the entire country, and this won’t come without a blunt confrontation with the issue.
Sexual assault is overwhelmingly a gender-based crime. A report by the government-run Australian Institute of Health and Welfare from August last year highlighted that 97 percent of sexual assaults were committed by men, with one in six Australian women having experienced a sexual assault since the age of 15. There is no obscuring or avoiding this reality.
Yet there is also another component that compounds the problem: Only one in 10 reported cases of sexual assault results in a conviction. Although laws may exist against sexual violence, they are rarely enforced. Within both the police and the courts there is an entrenched culture of denial and disbelief toward sexual assault and other forms of violence against women. Victims are habitually treated with suspicion, and blamed for the actions of perpetrators. This makes the process of seeking justice one that often aggravates the trauma that women have experienced, rather than alleviating it.
Unsurprisingly, sexual assault remains a vastly underreported crime. Women simply do not trust that the justice system will take their experiences seriously. They also feel that the community will not sympathize with their situations. As a result, sexual violence has effectively been decriminalized. Most men know that it is very unlikely that they will face any consequences for their behavior. A justice system that fails to enforce the country’s laws is protected and reinforced by a broader culture that doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem.
Unfortunately, this culture seems to be quite pronounced in the very place where the country’s standards should be set. This is not just about a sexual assault inside Parliament House; it’s about the understanding of the scourge of sexual violence by Australia’s political leadership. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison was first informed about the rape allegation he said that his wife had asked him to consider the issue as if it was something that had happened to his own daughters. He had to be coaxed into empathy. He couldn’t find compassion and respect for women outside of those whom he directly cares for.
This is a blind spot the prime minister has previously displayed on broader issues that concern women. In 2019, during an International Women’s Day event, Morrison reflected an all too common perspective when he stated: “We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.” This zero-sum perspective on human relations dominates the worldview of male supremacist groups, but it also clearly seeps into the thinking of those who wouldn’t usually be deemed so extreme.
Therein lies the problem. Morrison’s schtick is that he’s an “average suburban dad,” the median Australian male — just a bloke like all the other blokes, a man who works hard, loves sports, and enjoys a beer. If men who are not only political leaders, but who also see themselves as embodying Australian masculinity, are unable to grasp that there are serious deficiencies with regard to the treatment of women in the country, that there is an entrenched institutional and cultural inequality, then it makes change incredibly difficult.
This change — the basic protection from violence for women that should be a fundamental right — cannot come without a shift in the thinking of men. Men who may not be sexually violent themselves, but who have a responsibility to not be passive in the face of continued violence against women. Unfortunately, there is a persistent perspective about masculinity that believes setting behavioral standards for men is unfair. The expectation of love, care, kindness, and responsibility is seen as too much to ask of them, and we instead have to compensate for these natural male deficiencies.
Women should not be expected to have to carry male violence for their societies, and it is up to each individual man to understand this is currently what we ask of them. However, in order to confront this issue there clearly also needs to be serious political leadership. The reality of this constant insecurity for women has now landed inside the house of those whose job it is to provide basic human security for the country. This presents the parliament with the opportunity to not just finally grasp the magnitude of issue, but also demonstrate a commitment to changing the culture that both creates and protects sexual violence. Will they take it?