Stopping sexual assault means addressing violence in relationships
Sexual assault and domestic violence frequently co-occur – so it makes no sense to try and tackle one without the other
CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses multiple forms of trauma, including sexual violence and assault, abuse and harassment, as well as the effects of this trauma on mental health.
The findings of the latest National Student Safety Survey show a troubling lack of progress in combatting sexual assault on Australian university campuses.
Since the previous report was released in 2017, universities have taken many actions to try and reduce sexual assault. These have included improved lighting on campuses, dedicated sexual assault policies and improved reporting procedures, consent education for students and whole-of-university gender-based violence training.
But, despite these efforts, the results are disheartening at best.
The glaring oversight in much of the sexual assault prevention is that it’s focused on sexual assault by strangers or casual acquaintances. It assumes that the typical sexual assault victim is a woman walking by herself at night through a darkened campus or a drunk college student taken advantage of at a party.
These things of course can and do happen far too often, and must not be tolerated. But the stereotype ignores an important fact – the majority of sexual assaults happen within an intimate relationship.
This sort of sexual violence is far more complex and insidious. It’s also far less likely to be reported.
My research with women who had experienced intimate partner sexual violence showed that it can take many forms.
Often, there was a psychological component to the violence where the perpetrator tried to shame and degrade the woman into sexual compliance or used sex to assert dominance. Subtle or overt threats to leave the relationship, “freezing out” or sulking were all reported, as well as actual or threatened physical violence.
Many women were assaulted while asleep, only to have their partner deny that it ever happened when they woke up. Perpetrators told women things like “Sex is my love language” and “You’d do this if you really loved me”.
There was constant pressure to try anal sex, watch pornography and to be sexually available at all times. Some women had to lie there in silence, while others were forced to fake pleasure.
My study showed that it took women a long time to realise that their partner’s behaviour was abusive. They blamed themselves for having “sexual hangups” or past trauma that interfered with their sexual enjoyment.
Even when they did realise that they were experiencing sexual assault, they were often too fearful of the repercussions to take action.
While we don’t have qualitative data from men or non-binary people, we know from survey studies that they can also have these experiences in relationships.
Better campus lighting and consent education aren’t likely to do anything about sexual violence that happens in the context of an intimate relationship where there are patterns of fear and control.
Even self-defence programs – despite displaying promise in some contexts – are probably ineffective in an intimate relationship. Women in my study didn’t even want to hurt their partner’s feelings, let alone deliver an uppercut to the jaw.
Universities must seriously consider providing education and training about relationship violence alongside sexual assault prevention.
The Educating For Equality program run by OurWatch is a good start, as it aims to address the gender inequality that partly underlies this issue. However, this is a more long-term prevention effort and there is more that universities can be doing right now to respond to victim-survivors.
For example, greater consideration needs to be given to how to keep students safe if they choose to report a sexual assault by an intimate partner. There needs to be policies around stalking, support for students who need crisis accommodation or financial support, or provisions for students who feel unsafe on campus because of a partner or ex-partner.
It’s important that students are educated not just about consent, but about what a healthy relationship looks like. Universities also need policies and reporting mechanisms for domestic violence. Studies show that victim-survivors will often report physical or emotional abuse before they disclose sexual violence in a relationship.
Given how frequently sexual assault and domestic violence co-occur, it makes no sense to try and tackle one without the other.
If you need support or more information, please contact 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732 or Lifeline: 131 114.
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