Why 'good intentions' are not enough to address sexual assault

Why good intentions are not enough to address sexual assault

good intentions
In 2017, the #MeToo movement 2.0  took the world by storm. Half a million people tweeted #MeToo in the first 24 hours after Alyssa Milano’s now infamous tweet calling for women who had experienced sexual assault to say “me too.”

The episode that followed does not require a recap, as it is well known that #MeToo has been one of the few hashtags that has stuck, and one of the few movements that might be one day deemed definitional to fourth wave feminism globally.

In the United States, the #MeToo hashtag was bolstered by the reactive Times Up campaign, a call to arms founded by Hollywood celebrities to fight against  sexual assault in the workplace.

Here in Australia, Tracey Spicer, a household name for her media career and as the author of The Good Girl Stripped Bare, sent out a tweet asking women to come forward to share their stories (directly, via email or messenger, in many cases) offering to investigate the stories – and then later led the launch of Australia’s own answer to Times Up, by starting NOW Australia.

It soon became evident, however, that due to the defamation laws in Australia, we would have no Times Up moment here. The well-known Geoffrey Rush case sealed this fate, and it seemed that the individualistic method of drawing attention to sexual assault via the lives of Hollywood celebrities, or in Australia, household names from Australian television, would not materialise.

And while this might seem like a shame, there is a certain opportunism that came with #MeToo, and it was one that might be seen to be privileging the stories of the richest and most famous women, and taking an individualistic approach to following up on these cases rather than a systemic one. Such is the feminism of the post-Weinstein era.

But this is a feminism we must resist, and the recent scandal involving disregard for victim-survivors and their stories by the ABC is testament to this. The ABC recently released a preview for their upcoming documentary, Silent No More.

The documentary, funded by Screen NSW and Screen Australia, sought to cover the Australian side of the #MeToo movement and worked closely with Spicer to do this.

Spicer’s tweet regarding her investigations resulted in over 2000 people (mainly women) sharing their story via email and messenger. But it soon became clear that Australia’s defamation laws would heavily restrict any public investigation or public shaming of the perpetrators of sexual assault.

At the time, there were already robust reporting services and triage services across this country for victim-survivors of sexual assault. And in addition to traditional services such as Infoxchange, 1800 Respect, CASA centres and Lifeline, much newer startups such as (my own) She’s A Crowd and Hello Cass were already available for people in Australia who wanted to disclose their story or seek support.

With no clear plan for what to do with the stories, and no training in counselling or disclosure, receiving thousands of disclosures would have understandably been extremely overwhelming for Spicer and a team of volunteers.

A pledge for a triage service seemed tenuous to anyone already working in gender-based violence prevention and disclosure.

NOW Australia acknowledged this and from mid 2018 stopped taking disclosures but has apologised for not communicating this more clearly:

It quickly became clear that we did not have adequate resources nor enough legal or counselling expertise to support survivors in a trauma-informed way. Post-launch feedback pointed out that existing services were already stretched and, rather than start a new service, we needed to focus on supporting base-line funding for those already doing the work.

In these early days, we came to the view that we couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t be taking disclosures as an organisation given we did not have the necessary scale, expertise or resources. 

The solution seemed reactive and rushed, which is the last thing victim-survivors need. These people are vulnerable. Some of them are still working in the industries they are reporting in, some of them are living in domestic violence situations. Most of them shared their stories with the trust that their story would not be passed on.

Neither NOW Australia nor Spicer had bad intentions, but their approach was ill informed. This is an example of what can happen when the media co-opts a feminist movement without a rigorous understanding of the way sexual assault and gender-based violence effects victim-survivors and their lives.

It’s the result of a response that did not consider a long term, systemic approach to addressing gender-based violence. It’s the result of a response that tried to replicate the US-based system of individualistic naming and blaming. Addressing sexual assault is so much more complex that that.

#MeToo has shown us just how prolific, widespread and deep-rooted the culture of sexual assault runs in our society. In light of this, it is tempting to jump to quick-fix solutions. But before we do this, we must take time to understand that the problem is cultural, and that individualistic or paternalistic solutions only service to continue to remove the power from the hands of the victim-survivor.

In doing this, we can do great damage. The ABC debacle is a worst-case scenario.  The media should exist to serve and democratise our stories, not use them for gain and disempower us in the process.

Too many solutions aim to help or protect women but end up mirroring existing patriarchal power structures that further victimise and control women. We need to focus on solutions that work to challenge deeply entrenched sexual assault cultures and empower the victim-survivors to share their stories in a way that is healing and allows them to move forward with their lives.

Recent events are a tragic outcome not only for the victim-survivors who were brave enough to share their stories, but also for any other victim-survivors out there who might be wanting to, but now feel concerned about where that story might end up. Solutions that involve story-sharing must first and foremost take anonymity into account, and include a detailed and transparent plan as to where this data will be stored, how it will be used, and seek to partner with the solid ecosystem of expert counselling and support services that already exists in Australia.

To share your story anonymously to address the gender data gap: www.shesacrowd.com

Are you experiencing an emergency?
If so, please dial 000 now.

Do you need support or advice?
If so, please contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

This hotline is staffed by trauma-informed counsellors who can provide 24-hour support for people impacted by sexual assault and abuse.

Do you need legal information or advice?
If so, please contact Justice Connect.

The Australian Human Right’s Commission’s National Information Service also provides information on sexual harassment. Please call 1300-656-419 or (02) 9284 988. However, the AHRC is unable to give you legal advice because it handles complaints.

Do you want to make a complaint?

If so, please contact the Australian Human Right’s Commission (AHRC).

However, the AHRC advises you to seek legal advice before making a complaint. If you are considering making a complaint, we suggest you to contact Justice Connect to see if you are eligible for free legal assistance.

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