Prevention and justice for sexual violence
Professor Bianca Fileborn is researching the different factors surrounding sexual violence – including place – and how we can better prevent it while providing new forms of justice for survivors
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I’m Dr Bianca Fileborn. I’m a Senior Lecturer in Criminology in the School of Social & Political Sciences here at the University of Melbourne.
Dr Fileborn is also an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award Fellow, and her project examines victim-centred justice responses to street harassment in Australia. She’s involved in collaborative projects examining sexual violence at Australian music festivals, and young LGBTIQ+ people's involvement in family violence.
Bianca is the author of “Reclaiming the Night-Time Economy - Unwanted Sexual Attention in Pubs and Clubs”, and co-editor of “#MeToo and the Politics of Social Change”.
Dr Bianca Fileborn sat down for a Zoom chat with Dr Andi Horvath.
Bianca, what exactly is your area or field of research?
My research is broadly in the field of sexual violence. Most of my research is concerned with looking at how a range of different factors will shape what people understand sexual violence to be and people's experiences and the impacts of sexual violence. So, I'm particularly interested in looking at how things like someone's identity, so particularly around diverse gender and sexual orientation and age and also social and cultural locations and physical environments all come together to shape how sexual violence occurs. So, in some of my current and recent projects for example, that's included looking at street-based harassment, so sexual and other forms of harassment in public and semi-public spaces. I've also done some work recently looking at sexual violence in music festival spaces in Australia and sexual violence in licenced venues. So, a big part of my research is really asking what is it about these different spaces that might be facilitating sexual violence in particular ways.
Wow, there's a lot to unpack there. Who does this actually happen to?
So, that's a really good question. So, I think women are predominantly the victim survivors of sexual violence, but it's really also important to note that members of LGBT communities also face disproportionate levels of sexual violence. But, yeah, certainly we know that cisgender, heterosexual women are probably the vast majority of victim survivors in the country. Research from the Personal Safety Survey that the Australian Bureau of Statistics runs every four years or so suggests that around one in five Australian women have experienced some form of sexual violence. But it also depends how we define sexual violence, right. So, once we start looking at things like sexual harassment and harassment in public spaces, some of the estimates are closer to 90 per cent of women having experienced those behaviours at some point in their lifetime.
For trans and gender-diverse people, we know that they also really disproportionately experience sexual violence. There was some research that came out about two years ago now that was done by a team at UNSW. I wasn't involved in this project unfortunately, but they found that over 50 per cent of trans and gender diverse people had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. We see similar kinds of rates for LGBT populations, particularly bi-sexual women encounter particularly high rates of sexual violence and harassment. I guess the other really key factor is age. So, although sexual violence can happen across the life course, research would suggest that it's younger people who face the highest risk of experiencing sexual violence.
Without triggering any of our listenership, what exactly is involved? Is it also verbal? Is that what you mean by harassment and violence is physical?
I think of sexual violence as occurring along a continuum of behaviours. So, the continuum of sexual violence was a model that was developed by a UK-based scholar called Professor Liz Kelly. This model essentially suggests that sexual violence really ranges from those things that we might dismiss as being very mundane or trivial, so things like verbal comments, or someone staring and leering at you, all the way through to those physical forms of sexual assault and rape. So, the idea of understanding sexual violence along a continuum is based on the fact that all of these behaviours are underpinned by the same power structures and attitudes and that they all function to remove the victim survivor's sexual autonomy and control over their bodies.
So, even though these are vastly different behaviours and it's not suggesting that a verbal comment is the same or equivalent to someone sexually assaulting or raping you, it is helpful to understand how all of these behaviours and experiences are underpinned by the same structures and systems of power. The continuum model, it does also resist hierarchical understandings of harm, so again, although I wouldn't say that a verbal comment is the same as being sexually assaulted, it does say that we can't make simplistic assumptions about which experiences are more or less harmful than others. It also recognises that for many, particularly for women and gender diverse people, that they'll often have multiple experiences of sexual violence across their lifetime and that those different encounters or experiences inform one another and are lived alongside one another. That's also going to shape the harm that's associated with a particular incident.
You mentioned power and I'm keen to know more about why it happens, drilling into the why. What does the perpetrator seek to achieve?
Yeah, so I mean, on an individual level, the perpetrator's motivations can really vary. I think, in some cases, sexual violence probably is an outcome of some fairly misguided understandings about sex, particularly in heterosexual or heteronormative contexts. I think we do have a lot of norms, or scripts around how we negotiate our sexual encounters that tend to promote, I guess, the use of coercion and pressure, so the idea that women will say no or offer token resistance and you just have to keep pushing them until they say yes. So, those kinds of dominant ideas are basically normalising sexual violence. I think some predominantly men who are perpetrating this behaviour, so some men have probably internalised some of those norms, in some cases it's a sense of entitlement towards women and women's bodies. It can also be a way of dominating and expressing power and control over somebody else.
So, I think on an individual level, any one of those factors could come into play. In a lot of cases, it's probably a complex interplay of those different factors. If we zoom out and ask that question on a society-wide level of what's causing sexual violence, the answer really comes back to power inequality, or power differentials. So, we know that gender inequality is a driving factor in sexual violence occurring. But I think it's also important to recognise other power structures that come into play. So, heteronormativity, which is the idea that heterosexual relationships are kind of normal and should be privileged in society and that's accompanied by homophobia, transphobia and queer phobia. We know that racism and ableism also come into play. So, those power differentials are all really key. We see that manifest in a wide range of ways. So, if we think about gender inequality, that can manifest in the dismissal or the lack of regard that we give to women. We dismiss things as being women's work or as having less value than the things that men tend to do.
We see it manifest in the lack of women in leadership positions. There are things like the gender pay gap, those are all examples of gendered inequality. We know that there are higher rates of sexual violence in societies where there are higher levels of gender inequality.
The other really key factor is gender norms and our understanding of what it means to be a man or a woman. So, people who adhere to really rigid or narrow gender norms, so who have very strict ideas around what men and women are and what they should do, that those people are more likely to hold violence-supportive attitudes. So, they're more likely to, for example, believe in rape myths and misconceptions. They're more likely to hold attitudes that will minimise and excuse perpetrators' behaviour.
There's also some evidence that those individuals are more likely to perpetrate different forms of gender-based violence and particularly men who adhere to what we call hostile masculinity. So, this is, I guess, a version of masculinity that sees men and women as being firstly quite opposite to one another. That men are there to be these strong protectors and that women are passive and weak. They tend to view sex as being a competition or something that you get from women, rather than a mutual, pleasurable, wanted exchange between two people. So, yeah, those gendered norms can really come into play in both facilitating sexual violence, but also creating a broader culture that is supportive of sexual violence occurring.
What are some of the misconceptions that you often encounter about this area of research?
There's so many. Unfortunately, we know that quite a large minority and in some cases a majority of the community hold some really inaccurate beliefs about sexual violence and gender-based violence in general. Unfortunately, we've seen some of those playing out in the media over the last couple of months. So, certainly the idea that victim survivors, and women in particular, lie about sexual violence or that they make accusations to get revenge on someone, is a really common misperception that comes up a lot. In relation to my research more specifically, one thing that I often hear, particularly around my work looking at street-based harassment and some of those forms of sexual violence that are perhaps perceived as being more trivial, I'll often have people say that that's not real sexual violence or that this type of work is harmful or offensive to people who have experienced more severe or stereotypically serious forms of sexual violence. Again, I think that comes back to a lack of understanding about the full continuum of sexual violence and that need to understand how these seemingly quite disparate behaviours are actually interconnected.
I think another myth that comes up in doing research on sexual violence is the idea that it's somehow inherently harmful or re-traumatising for survivors to talk about their experiences. Certainly, it can obviously be upsetting or distressing to relive past experiences. But actually in my own experience in doing this research and also based on some of the literature that's out there, actually, for a lot of survivors, taking part in research and having the opportunity to share their experience in a way that's meaningful and they feel like their experience is being heard and they're potentially able to make a difference in preventing sexual violence or in driving policy and practice changes, that can actually be incredibly beneficial and a really rewarding experience for survivors. So, of course, it's an incredibly sensitive area to be doing research in, but I think we also need to take care to not take a really paternalistic attitude, or just automatically assume that survivors are going to be inherently damaged by speaking to researchers.
I'm keen to hear your reflections on hashtag Me Too and the politics of social change that's starting to move in interesting directions.
I think Me Too has been a really interesting movement and quite a complex and a contradictory movement in a lot of ways. So, on the one hand, I think it's been a phenomenally important moment in sexual violence activism. We've seen this sustained conversation on sexual violence, certainly in Australia and I would say also on a global level to some extent. We've seen a really sustained conversation for almost three and a half years now. I think that's an incredible impact. It's really difficult to think of another movement that's led to such a sustained conversation. I think, for a lot of survivors, the Me Too movement really created an opportunity to share their experiences, sometimes for the first time, in a context where they were perhaps more likely to be believed and supported than they previously might have been.
On the other hand, I think there were a lot of limitations to the Me Too movement. We know that the Me Too movement was sparked by the actress Alyssa Milano tweeting, if you've experienced sexual harassment or assault, tweet, say me too. However, the phrase, me too, was coined by African-American activist Tarana Burke over a decade earlier. Of course, that did not receive the same level of recognition as having a wealthy white woman with a large platform saying me too. So, there were certainly concerns around whose voices are being heard and privileged as part of this movement. Arguably, it was predominantly white, middle-class western women. Was there space for people of colour or women of colour, for LGBTQ+ communities, for women from outside the global north? I think that's more questionable.
I think the other question that we have to ask is, is survivors speaking out enough to generate the social, cultural and structural change that we need? Because we have had survivors speaking out for decades now. We've had the statistics of how pervasive sexual violence is for decades. It's not like we didn't know that this was a problem So, I think there is a question of, well, why has it taken millions of survivors speaking out to generate attention? But more importantly, what are we going to do about it? I'm not sure that we've actually seen the implementation of responses and efforts to start to generate that social and structural change that we need. So, whether or not the Me Too movement actually generates that kind of lasting, sustained change that we need, I think is still open to question.
I've seen a change in the way we speak about it in the media, or even how we speak about it socially. Like we instead of saying, take care going home, we actually say to predominately young males, be respectful. So, the narrative has started to shift a little bit. Is that a good thing?
It is. I would agree that it has started to shift in some respects, but at the same time, we do still see those kinds of victim-blaming attitudes. It was last month we saw the Head of the Australian Defence Force telling young women to basically not walk home by themselves if they were attractive or had been consuming alcohol. I think everything that's unfolded in our Federal Parliament over the last few months has also illustrated how we often continue to protect men who are in positions of power. I think clearly our Prime Minister has been very reticent to actually implement real change or to take a stand on the issue of sexual violence. So, yes, I do think we have seen some positive shifts. At the same time, we're not seeing the extent of change that we need. I don't think we're seeing the commitment to generating change from people who are in a position of power.
What would it take for major law reform? Is the solution law reform?
So, I'm quite sceptical at this point about the potential for law reform. So, we actually have had, particularly in Victoria, some quite progressive and several rounds of very major law reform. We're actually undergoing an inquiry right now in Victoria, so the Victorian Law Reform Commission is currently doing a review of sexual offences and basically how they're dealt with across all aspects of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, from the decades of reform that we've seen, it hasn't made a difference to whether survivors report. So, it's still 90 per cent of survivors who are not reporting to the police. We haven't seen any change in terms of how cases that are reported progress through the system. The vast majority of cases that are reported are dropped out of the system along the way and the vast majority do not result in a successful conviction in court. We also see survivors continuing to say that the trial process is incredibly re-traumatising.
So, honestly, for me, I'm at the point where I'm not sure how much more we could do. I think, sure, there's still some small things that could be tweaked, like we've seen discussions around the need for jury education, or whether judges could be more interventionist. But if the reforms aren't implemented in the spirit that they're intended to, if we continue to see a criminal justice system that operates in a way that's informed by rape myths and misconceptions, if we continue to see defence counsel who are willing to imply that a survivor is lying or that they were promiscuous or drawing on rape myths and stereotypes as a defence, I just don't have a lot of faith that's the path that we should continue going down. I often ask, why do we keep going back to a system that has fundamentally failed victim survivors repeatedly and yet expecting a different outcome?
So, I think, rather than law reform, I'm much more interested in, firstly, what can we do around preventing sexual violence and in changing those norms, attitudes and structural factors that drive sexual violence in the first place. Secondly, how might we develop alternative avenues for achieving a sense of justice, because it's pretty clear that the mainstream justice system just isn't up to task in achieving a sense of justice for survivors, or the overwhelming majority of survivors who've experienced sexual violence.
So, what would be a plausible future that you'd like to see?
Firstly I'd like to see a range of different justice responses implemented. So, we know from research with victim survivors that they actually have quite diverse justice needs. So, justice needs basically refers to what do survivors need to happen to feel like justice has been achieved. For some people, absolutely, going to court, seeing a perpetrator convicted, can be really important, but actually for a lot of survivors they value things like being able to give voice to their experience in a way that's meaningful, in a way they feel like they've been heard. Having a sense of control over the process once they've reported, having an offender acknowledge what they've done and issue an apology, a sincere apology for their behaviour. Having the perpetrator held to account can be really important, but that's not the same thing necessarily as seeing the perpetrator punished.
So, I think there are some potential avenues that we could look at. So, restorative justice is one option, and that really involves the victim perpetrator and other parties that were involved in an offence, or who have some role to play in supporting the victim and the perpetrator coming together to talk about what happened. It's an opportunity for the survivor to express what happened and how they were impacted in their own words. It's an opportunity for the perpetrator to acknowledge the harm that they've caused and, most importantly, to talk through what the perpetrator will do to make amends for their actions.
Another option is a transformative justice approach. So, we're seeing this implemented much more in the United States at the moment. So, this is a really grass-roots, community-led approach that operates outside of the formal system. So, this essentially involves people in the community working really intensively with perpetrators and with survivors, but importantly it's aimed at actually challenging and undoing those structural factors that underpin sexual violence. So, for example, it could involve working with a perpetrator to challenge and change their understandings of masculinity that led to them perpetrating in the first place. It can also involve supporting perpetrators who might be marginalised in other ways, for example in relation to mental health or, say, a lack of employment. Finally, it's also focused on working with survivors to help them to heal and recover and to ensure that they're safe in the community at all times.
Criminology is such a fascinating area. It's a mixture of law, ethics, morals, sociology, psychology. Bianca, what got you into this area?
It's a good question. So, in terms of why I chose criminology as an undergraduate student, so actually, when I started university, I was going to be a scientist. I did a science degree and an arts degree. I did majors in genetics and biochemistry. I chose criminology because I think, at one point, I wanted to do law and didn't get the marks to get into law, but thought, oh, criminology sounds interesting, it's kind of related to law, so I'll give it a crack and actually really loved it, found it really fascinating. I think I got about halfway through my degree and realised I really did not want to be a scientist. As much as I loved learning about science, I hated doing lab work and couldn't really see what area would I research in, for example, if I went down that path.
So, yeah, I think I realised that I had a much stronger interest and more of a calling to criminology. So, in terms of how I got into my specific area of research, it was actually, in large part, based on some of my own experiences of sexual harassment. So, my honours and PhD research looked at unwanted sexual attention and sexual violence in licensed venues. I was really inspired to do that project, basically as a young woman who was going out in Melbourne and experiencing some form of sexual harassment almost every time I went out. I started speaking to my friends about their experiences and realised I didn't know any young women or gender and sexuality-diverse young people who hadn't had similar experiences.
Around the same time that I was thinking about this was when the lockout laws were introduced in Melbourne. So, this was around, I think, 2007. There’d been some really high-profile incidents of young men going out, getting really drunk and having fights in the street, or king-hitting each other. Obviously, that's a concern and an issue that needs to be addressed. But we saw this huge government response, massive change in policy, police operations in the city on the weekend that were all about targeting violence between young men. I thought, well, no one's actually talking about the thing that's making me feel unsafe when I go out to a bar on the weekend. So, I thought I had an opportunity to do something about that and to put the issue on the agenda, so to speak. Yeah, so that's what I did.
Bianca, you spoke about spaces and places where this occurs. What insights do we get from knowing where this type of violence occurs?
Yeah. So, one of the really key things that's come up across my different projects is that the location that sexual violence is happening in can really shape, firstly, how survivors understand their experiences, but also what's able to take place. So, for example, in my work on sexual violence in licenced venues, one thing I found was that the young people I spoke to often really normalised different forms of sexual harassment and violence occurring in those spaces, because people often go out to a night club or a bar to hook up or pick up or flirt with someone for the night. Perhaps you want to wear something that looks a bit sexy, as you should be able to. But I think there was this real perception that because of that, that you somehow just had to be accepting of the fact that you would receive sexual attention and that that might include sexual attention that's unwanted, if not quite violating.
So, the environment could really normalise and excuse sexual violence. I think in both licensed venue spaces, but also music festivals that drugs and alcohol played a really huge role as well. So, people were often drinking quite heavily in these spaces. Participants were often really quite - I don't want to say willing, but they would quite readily excuse perpetrators' behaviours, as like, oh, they were just a bit - had a bit too much to drink, they didn't know what they were doing. On the flip-side of that, for survivors who had perhaps had a lot to drink or had taken some other substances, they were much more likely to be blamed for their experiences. So, we can see how the normative practices of the different spaces can work to excuse and minimise sexual violence.
Then the actual physical environment itself could create different possibilities for sexual violence. So, I think a really good example of this in our work on music festivals was in the mosh pit area, so towards the front of the stage, where it's really crowded and people are dancing around and all squished in together, that really created an opportunity for things like groping and unwanted touching to occur. It meant that perpetrators could plausibly deny their behaviour and just say, oh, didn't mean that, it was just crowded and I got pushed into you. It meant that perpetrators could disappear quite quickly into the crowd. So, it was difficult to even identify who they were, let alone hold them to account. Or we spoke to some women who said, yeah, someone grabbed me on the bum and I turned around and there's 20 people around me and I have no idea who did it. So, that kind of environmental and spatial context, again, could really facilitate and create opportunities for perpetration.
Bianca, next time we hear something in the news about street harassment or violence, what would you like us to think about?
I think, in relation to street harassment, I would like people to think about how it impacts on the people who are receiving it and to understand that it's not trivial or minor, that being harassed in public spaces actually has a really profound negative impact on the people who are on the receiving end of it. So, we know that young women and LGBT people will often significantly limit how they use public spaces. I've spoken to people who've said they don't use public transport anymore because of being harassed. People change how they dress, when they go out, who they go out with. It really limits people's freedom and capacity to just exist in public space in a way that I think a lot of particularly cisgender men would just take for granted. So, I would really like people to understand how serious that behaviour can be.
But I'd also like people to understand that there's nothing inevitable about any form of sexual violence. Sexual violence is made possible because of the social, cultural and structural conditions that we live in and we do have the power and the ability to stop sexual violence from happening.
Dr Bianca Fileborn, thank you.
My pleasure, thanks.
Thank you to Dr Bianca Fileborn, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the School of Social & Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. And thanks to Dr Andi Horvath.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on March 30, 2021. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2021, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“There’s nothing inevitable about any form of sexual violence,” says University of Melbourne criminologist Professor Bianca Fileborn.
Professor Fileborn researches the range of factors surrounding how sexual violence occurs – from gender, sexual orientation and identity, to societal attitudes, and the locations where it happens. But Professor Fileborn has a particular focus on the sexual violence occurring on the street and at music festivals.
For her, a critical question is what can be done to counter the sexual violence we see in society, which is perpetrated predominately against women and the LGBTIQA+ communities. She says we can’t just rely on law reform, which has for decades failed to deliver substantive change.
“I’m much more interested in, firstly, what can we do around preventing sexual violence and in changing those norms, attitudes and structural factors that drive sexual violence in the first place.
“Secondly, how might we develop alternative avenues for achieving a sense of justice, because it’s pretty clear that the mainstream justice system just isn’t up to task.”
One alternative is “transformative” justice, which she says is “aimed at actually challenging and undoing those structural factors that underpin sexual violence.”
“It could involve working with a perpetrator to challenge and change their understandings of masculinity that led to them perpetrating in the first place. It can also involve supporting perpetrators who might be marginalised in other ways, for example in relation to mental health or, say, a lack of employment.
“Finally, it’s also focused on working with survivors to help them to heal and recover and to ensure that they’re safe in the community at all times.”
If you need support or more information on this issue, please contact 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732 or Lifeline: 131 114.
Professor Fileborn is the author of Reclaiming the Night-Time Economy - Unwanted Sexual Attention in Pubs and Clubs, and Co-editor of #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change.
Episode recorded: March 30, 2021.
Interviewer: Dr Andi Horvath.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner image: Getty Images
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