7 Dec 2014

Feature: Tackling rape culture in NZ

1:59 pm on 7 December 2014

What is rape culture? It's a question that has come into stark focus recently with the Auckland teenage sex ring case, the Malaysian diplomat case, which is currently before the courts, and the TV film Consent, about Rotorua woman Louise Nicholas' experiences.

About 200 people protested outside the Auckland High Court on 22 November 2014 over the failure of police to prosecute anyone in connection with a group of teens who boasted online of sex with underage girls.

About 200 people protest outside the High Court in Auckland on 22 November 2014 over the failure of police to prosecute anyone in connection with a group of teens who boasted online of sex with underage girls. Photo: RNZ / Carla Penman

In New Zealand, one in five women will be sexually assaulted, according to official figures, while one in three girls will have an unwanted sexual experience by the time they are 16.

Maori, immigrant and Pacific Island women have a higher risk of being sexually assaulted.

The perception that rape only happens in a back alley, or by a stranger breaking into your house, is false. Ninety percent of rape is committed by someone known to the survivor.

The 2011 UN report on the Status of Women, meanwhile, found New Zealand was the worst of all OECD countries when it came to sexual assault.

Reporting and prosecutions of sexual assaults are also very low. About 10 to 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported and only one in 100 cases results in a prosecution.

Feminist commentator and Massey University lecturer Deborah Russell defines rape culture as an environment which tolerates and at times supports rape.

It's a culture "where it's okay to make jokes about rape, to suggest if a woman is raped then it's her fault, to condone, or even tacitly admire men who won't take no for an answer", she says.

And that "it's important to recognise that rape is not just a crime committed by a few aberrant individuals. It's a systemic problem, promoted by a culture that enables male sexual violence."

'Man code' and consent

Terry Crews

Former NFL player and actor Terry Crews Photo: AFP / Getty Images North America

Where does this culture come from? Former NFL player and actor Terry Crews, in his new book Manhood: How To Be A Better Man Or Live With One, openly discusses the mindset behind the "man code" which leads to rape.

Last week, he told The Agenda's Steve Paikin that it came from a sense of entitlement.

"'You know that girl, she's my trophy. I deserve that girl. In fact she doesn't wanna be with me, but I don't care, I'm gonna take it.' What kind of mindset is that? That should never ever ever be accepted ... they need a man like me to say something".

The legal definition of consent adds to rape culture in New Zealand.

While it is clearly defined as an affirmative, voluntary and conscious agreement in places such as Australia and California, in New Zealand there is no such definition.

Wellington East Girls College head girl Jess Dellabarca co-created the video "Consent is not a child's game", available on YouTube.

While researching it, she was unable to find a satisfactory legal definition of the word. "For me, consent means both parties mutually agreeing to a sexual act in a safe environment," she says.

Consent was described as "true consent freely given by a person who is in a position to make a conscious decision" by Justice Collins, who presided over the trial of two New Plymouth teenage boys this week.

The pair faced rape charges after engaging in a sexual act with a teenage girl, which was filmed and put on social media. The boys were found not guilty of six rape, unlawful sexual connection and indecent assault charges. One was found guilty of making an intimate recording.

Changing the court process

Victoria University associate professor of law Elisabeth McDonald says the court process is one of the reasons why women don't report sexual assaults.

She says the trials can drag on for years and end with no convictions. Not wanting to send the offender to jail is another reason these crimes often go unreported, she adds.

Because of that, Professor McDonald argues there is a clear need for alternatives to court for sexual offenders, including pre-court restorative justice programmes or specialised treatment courts such as the Alcohol and Other Drugs Treatment Court being trialed in Auckland.

Sonya Clark.

Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association president Sonya Clark takes part in an advocacy march in 2014. Photo: Marot Mills / VUWSA

Professor McDonald says there needs to be a robust discussion about the legal definition of consent. She says that currently, consent is being defined by what it's not, rather than by what it is. For example, is the absence of a "no" considered consent?

AUT senior psychology lecturer Pani Farvid says online technology offers a new forum for dangerous situations to occur.

It also offers easy access to pornography, which she believes is shaping the way young people interact with one another.

There's also a rise of harassment online, she says, including revenge porn and the so-called gamergate incident.

Ms Farvid says while a lot of things that reinforce rape culture are easy to find on the web, so too are those advocating for change.

Recently, there has been a rise in videos filmed by women bringing to light the harassment they face. The most prominent is Hollaback's New York street harassment video, which went viral last month.

Education 'key' to creating change

What can be done to change rape culture and mindsets towards consent? Education is one area that can help create a change.

Dave Atkinson is a presenter for Attitude, an education provider established 16 years ago. The group goes into 93 percent of New Zealand high schools to teach teenagers about sexual education.

There is a discussion around "don't rape" versus "don't get raped" online but the message from Attitude is loud and clear.

The organisation's Sex with Attitude relationship handbook targets both boys and girls with information around consent and rape culture, saying: "Don't push people into sex and don't tolerate others who do."

Sexual education guidelines are currently being redrafted by the Ministry of Education, with consent to be added to the curriculum.

Radio New Zealand's Nine to Noon presenter Kathryn Ryan interviewed Dr Graham Stoop in October about the new guidelines, which should be available to schools early next year and encourage a joint parent/community/school approach to sexual education.

Massey University lecturer Deborah Russell believes it's the simple things that will make a big difference.

"If someone cracks a rape joke say, 'I don't understand why that's funny'; parents should start a conversation with their children so they can make a confident choice; and we need to stop victim blaming. We need to stop asking what she was wearing and what she was doing."

For help and support for issues raised in this story, and in today's panel discussion, or for more information about these issues, visit:

  • Rape culture and consent in New Zealand
  • Education Ministry discusses consent education
  • Review for sex case court processes
  • Rape culture studies get $1m grant