Waverley Mayor Sally Betts is fighting for her political survival after requesting a non-custodial sentence for her family friend and convicted rapist Luke Lazarus, and then subsequently proposing to reduce the incidence of sexual assault by teaching girls how to avoid it.
In May 2013, Luke Lazarus, son of Kings Cross nightclub owner Paul Lazarus, raped an 18-year-old girl in an alleyway. Immediately after he raped her, Lazarus allegedly asked the teenager to write her name on a list of “conquests” he kept. Later that night, he allegedly bragged about the rape in a text to a friend.
Late last month, Lazarus was tried in Sydney’s Downing Centre. The victim’s impact statement read, “I’ll never be who I was … A part of me died that day, the part that trusted others, thepart that saw the good in everyone.”
Lazarus was sentenced to a minimum of three and a maximum of five years’ gaol. As Leo D’Angelo Fisher wrote on Women’s Agenda earlier this month, this sentence does not appear to reflect the “depravity and life-long impact of the crime”.
One major consideration in sentencing decisions is the character references provided in defence of the perpetrator. In Lazarus’s case, one of those character references came from Waverley Mayor and long time friend of the family, Sally Betts.
“The conviction is inconsistent with the gentle, well mannered and respectful young man that I know,” she submitted.
Her submission included a plea for Lazarus to be spared goal time for his crime.
Immediately after the Mayor’s evidence came to light, her colleagues on Waverley Council called for her immediate resignation or dismissal. An internal investigation is currently underway regarding whether or not Betts’ actions were in breach of the Councillor’s code of conduct.
Betts compounded the negative reaction to her decision to defend Lazarus when she announced a new education program she would pioneer with the Waverley Action for Youth Services. The program, she said, would focus on educating girls about how to avoid the risky behaviours that lead to sexual assault.
“I am working with WAYS and the police on a new risky behaviour education program to try and help young women understand and better deal with being in vulnerable situations,” she said.
Betts drew a direct connection between the program and Lazarus’s crime.
“By the sheer fact of (the assault) happening at a nightclub and alcohol is involved, (means people are) open to the possibility of risky behaviour, so I’m saying let’s try and close that loophole.”
The response to these comments has been overwhelmingly that Betts is advancing victim-blaming attitudes by suggesting that we way to prevent sexual assault is to police young women’s behaviour.
The board of the Waverley Action for Youth Services immediately distanced itself from Betts, saying her comments betrayed victim blaming attitudes.
“I want to absolutely clarify that we fundamentally don’t believe in victim blaming in the slightest,” said board member David Faktor.
“That kind of concept is really foreign to us and that’s certainly not the way in which we tackle educatingyoung people.”
Betts was clearly making an attempt to address the issue of sexual assault, some have argued, so what’s the problem?
Dr Bianca Klettke, a researcher at Deakin University and author of several studies on victim blaming attitudes, said while it is not necessarily a problem to educate young women about the behaviours that increase the likelihood of sexual assault, it is dangerous to do so in isolation.
“It is not victim blaming in itself to want to educate girls about risk factors and about staying safe, because we do not live in a perfect world and the reality is that there are some things that will put women at risk.”
However, Klettke said, the danger lies in exclusively addressing sexual assault through this lens. She said that if we want to educate girls about the “risky behaviours” that can lead to sexual assault, it should only be done in conjunction with dedicated efforts to educate young boys about the need to refrain from committing violence.
“If Sally Betts wants to rectify the situation it requires a holistic approach – yes it is important to inform young women of risks but we can’t stop there. We need to go to the source and make sure that girls aren’t getting assaulted to begin with.”
Therefore, Klettke said, while she wouldn’t characterise Betts’ comments alone as victim blaming, they are problematic in the context of her defence of Lazarus and her lack of acknowledgement of the need to send a clear message to perpetrators.
This argument about the importance of acknowledging the need to educate girls about staying safe is a familiar one. Many argue that we live in a world where sexual assault is a reality, and therefore we need to educate girls about avoiding it.
Of course, in many ways this is true. But context is crucial. To me, the more pertinent reality is that we live in a world where both the responsibility and the cost of sexual assault are placed squarely with victims. The reality is that our conversations about sexual assault still revolve around the behaviour of the women who experience it. While that is still the case, we cannot be suggesting that the only way to end sexual assault is by changing women’s behaviour, because by doing so we are just reinforcing that same narrative. And that narrative needs to change.
Betts’ comments infer that the primary reason for this rape was either nightclubs or alcohol. The reality? It was neither. It was Lazarus’s conscious, personal decision to commit a heinous, violent crime. Both Betts’ decision to defend Lazarus’s character and her subsequent call to change girls’ behaviour betrays that she has failed to understand that reality. And that, to me, goes to the heart of the problem.
We must first and foremost be attempting to end the narrative that enables men to both commit sexual violence and then abdicate the responsibility for having done so. Betts’ actions fail on both counts.