Faculty of Law

Sex Crimes and Social Change: in Conversation with Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Kate Warner AC.

From the ‘Stories of our Law School’ Pod-Cast Series. By Grace Williams.

The law is our everlasting guardian. Within its confines we can seek safety and assurance that no matter the problem the law can intervene. When things go wrong in our society we rely on the law to ‘fix it’. For many legal idealists, myself included, the law isn’t just a set of rules, it’s a tool for social change. This idealism leads us to believe that law is the ultimate problem solver. The truth is that every human-made system is fraught with limitations. For the victims of sex crimes, the limitations of our systems are more acutely felt. When a person is the victim of rape or sexual assault the experience is often deeply traumatic. This trauma can be intensified in a court room setting when the individual must give evidence of the rape. In this latest podcast, Her Excellency Kate Warner and I talk through some of the challenges that sex crimes pose in our society by exploring community attitude towards rape.

Exploring community attitudes towards rape is an important part of creating the social change needed to prevent the harm from occurring. When a person is violently raped by a stranger and the law intervenes, our community whole-heartedly condemns the perpetrator. The sad truth is, a higher percentage of rape occurs in close relationships. In 2014, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that: ‘Both men and women who had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 were more likely to have been sexually assaulted by someone they knew than by a stranger’. Our close relationships are where we are most at risk. Our community will condemn stranger rape, but it has yet to articulate a stronger response against relational rape. We all desire to feel safe in our close relationships, the challenge is how we achieve this safety for the people in our community.

Social change will always be a challenge as it involves dismantling old habits which are hard to extinguish. One common yet harmful attitude which persists in society is a lack of respect for women. This disrespect can take on many forms. One form is labelling women in derogatory ways. Her Excellency put it succinctly when she said a man can be called a ‘stallion or a stud’ and a woman will be called a ‘slag or a slut’ when they both exercise their sexual autonomy.  Women are also given the obligation to ‘protect’ themselves from men by wearing ‘appropriate’ clothing and not drinking too much. Which is another way society blames women for the actions of their rapists.

Respecting the bodily autonomy of women and encouraging them to live their lives with the same vigor that men are encouraged to live by, would be steps towards reducing the attitudes that cultivate sex crimes. For this to happen we need to start having important conversations about disrespect and active consent within our families and our friendship groups – where these crimes are mostly likely to be committed.

Having conversations about sex crimes can be difficult. But this is a responsibility we must all take on. To enact the radical social change that our communities are in desperate need of, we cannot shy away from these difficult conversations. We cannot be afraid to challenge people when they objectify and label women. We all need to be involved in a collective social rejection of the norms which perpetuate inequality between the sexes.

We require too much from the law and not enough from ourselves. The law has a role to play, however it is our responsibility as individuals to challenge society’s harmful norms. The law can never take your role in your community, it our responsibility as community members to challenge a mate who thinks that a tipsy girl at a party is ‘asking for it’. We must have these conversations within our homes, with our family and friends. The law is not capable of such powerful grassroots work, only we are.

Published on: 06 Oct 2017 4:44pm