*I sent this letter to Councillor Kevin Mack earlier today. He has subsequently apologised. “The girl in question has not done anything wrong,” he said. “She was doing what she would do every day and she’s been the victim of a heinous crime and her callous attackers are responsible for that. I apologise without reservation. It was a poor choice of words and if I had my time back again I wouldn’t have said it.”
Dear Councillor Kevin Mack,
Today you are at the centre of a media storm. It is probably tempting to write it off as just that – a media storm. It isn’t. Please let me explain.
On Tuesday night a 17 year old girl was allegedly taken by three men and raped at knifepoint in Albury, the town for which you are Mayor. This happened as she walked home from work between 6 and 6.30pm.
I can only imagine, that like most Australians, you were horrified. No person should be subject to this violent, criminal behaviour.
As a leader in the community it is your responsibility to frame a response, which you did yesterday. Naturally, your mind turned to how others can avoid this abhorrent fate.
“I always have encouraged women not to walk alone, to have someone with them at all times, because that in itself is an invitation for someone to take advantage of you.
“It’s a salient reminder to us all not to take what we have for granted, and to make sure we have appropriate safety in place.”
I might be wrong but my guess is that, even now, re-reading those words you might not comprehend the reaction your words have triggered. Your intentions were undoubtedly good.
Like Victorian Homicide Squad Detective Inspector Michael Hughes in the days after the murder of Melbourne teenager, Masa Vukotic, you were simply trying to give sensible advice to the community you care about. What on earth is the fuss about?
The fuss is because of the assumptions that your advice is loaded with. The assumption that if women are together, they won’t be targeted. The assumption that if women avoid parks or being out after dark, they won’t be subject to violence. The assumption that women themselves are wholly responsible for avoiding the criminal behaviour of others.
Those assumptions are false. The reality is that most women who are sexually or physically assaulted are subject to that behaviour by someone they know. Of all Australian women, 15% had been sexually assaulted by a person they knew, since the age of 15. 3.8% had been sexually assaulted by a stranger. For 62% of the women who had experienced physical assault by a male perpetrator, the most recent incident was in their home.
That is the ugly and uncomfortable truth about violence that many of us are unwilling to confront. And this is precisely why your comments – well intentioned though they might have been – are problematic.
To every person in Australia who knows those ugly facts – either through their own brutal experience or studied exposure – it is offensive to hear a person who doesn’t know those facts – get them wrong. It is worse when it comes from a person in a position of power.
Each and every time a person in a position of power reinforces those false assumptions, is another day we are further from confronting the truth.
And here is the tragic rub. Every day we fail to confront the truth that men are responsible for their own violence, not women – is a day where a woman pays the price. Women are being beaten, raped and even killed at an alarming rate and yet, inexplicably, the focus is on women avoiding these fates. The focus needs to sit unequivocally on stopping and condemning men inflicting these fates.
This year 34 Australian women have been killed; at least 25 were killed by someone they knew.
In the wake of Masa Vukotic being killed women were told to stay out of parks.
In the wake of a young woman being raped by three men at knifepoint, you have warned women not to walk alone.
In the wake of a young woman being anally raped outside a Sydney nightclub, we were told by a string of high profile individuals that it is the man’s promising future that has been compromised.
And that is in the past few weeks alone. What is the common element? In each of these cases men have conducted themselves with complete depravity. And yet in each case, the subsequent discussion has focused – not even disproportionately – but wholly with the victims.
Kevin, I have no doubt that you condemn the physical and sexual assault of women. (The alternative – that you find that palatable – is completely unpalatable.) Assuming that’s the case I would like to ask you this: why was your first statement not to condemn the behaviour of the men?
Perhaps, it was because in your view the behaviour is so abhorrent that it goes without saying? If it’s that, it needs saying. Because as it stands, it isn’t being said enough or loudly enough.
The message that is being delivered – even inadvertently – is that women need to protect themselves. The bitter irony is that whilst women are being told to protect themselves, they aren’t getting the protection they actually need.
We aren’t adequately funding support services for victims of domestic violence. We aren’t adequately funding prevention programs that we know are critical to stemming this. And we aren’t seeing unequivocal and universal leadership condemning this behaviour which is necessary to change attitudes.
Effectively victims are losing out twice: they are being blamed or held responsible for the behaviour they are subject to in the first place, and then they’re being neglected.
Kevin, this is the context in which your remarks were received. This is why they have generated white rage. For a number of men and women in Australia right now this is an urgent and incomprehensible crisis that needs to be resolved – not perpetuated.
Being in the centre of a controversy isn’t easy, you have my sympathy in that regard. I have one simple request. Instead of retreating from this, please consider confronting it.
The only way we will ever stem the scourge of violence against women is if people are willing to recognise the way in which, even inadvertently, they contribute to the problem. No matter how difficult it is to accept our own shortcomings – which it is – I believe the impetus in this regard is worth it. Being part of a solution that results in fewer women having to endure being physically or sexually assaulted is surely persuasive.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.