Sexual Violence is (or should be) an Election Issue

trigger warning

Last week, I was honoured to represent Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP at the launch of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa’s report, In Our Own Words.  Thursdays in Black is an international student-led movement focused on building a world without rape and violence.

In September and October 2016, Thursdays in Black Aotearoa undertook a nationwide online survey of 1400 tertiary students, asking about their experiences of sexual violence both prior to and during tertiary study; their experiences of sexuality education during secondary study, their access to sexual violence support services at tertiary level, and so much more.

In Our Own Words is a stunning piece of work. While the authors take care to note it is not a prevalence survey, the sample size is large enough to draw some very telling conclusions.

The survey found that prior to starting tertiary study, almost one in four students had not been educated about consent as part of their sexuality education.  Almost 70% stated that minority gender education was not covered at all, and 45% said minority sexualities were not covered. It seems most schools are still stuck in the 1980s, focusing solely on safe sex and contraception. Clearly this is not enough, since In Our Own Words found that students with poor quality sexuality education went on to be far more likely to experience sexual assault.

Once in tertiary study, 83% of all respondents reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. 53% reported experiencing some form of sexual assault. Yet more than half of survey respondents – 761 – did not report their experiences to their tertiary institution – for the most part because they did not think there was any point. Two in five did not realise until later that what had happened was assault – again, a telling indictment on the quality of sexuality education in New Zealand.

Across the general student population, the results are stark enough. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this report, however, is the depth of focus it gives to considering the impacts of sexual violence on intersecting race, sexual and gender minorities.

A whopping 92% of participants that identified with a minority gender and 88% of people who identified with a minority sexuality (i.e., were not heterosexual) said they experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time in tertiary education.  This increases up to 94% for Māori who identified with a minority gender, 97% of genderqueer/ gender fluid participants and 100% of takatāpui participants. Levels of sexual assault were similarly terrible: 61% of people of a minority sexuality and 67% of participants of a minority gender experienced some form of sexual assault during their time in tertiary.

These findings are explosive. They are completely unacceptable and they reinforce the findings from the ground-breaking research undertaken in 2015/16 by the Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura – Outing Violence project into gender- and sexually- diverse people’s experiences of sexual and intimate partner violence. This report found that while trans and gender diverse people are a heavily under-researched population group in terms of violence in Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere, all indications point to experiences of violence being higher than for cis people – those comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth.

In Our Own Words also asked about the experiences of students with disabilities. 90% of students who considered themselves to have a disability experienced some forms of sexual harassment during their time in tertiary study. 65% said they had experienced some forms of sexual assault. Again, completely and utterly unacceptable.

In Our Own Words reinforces what we already knew: that levels of sexual violence in Aotearoa are unacceptably high; that huge numbers of people don’t even feel it’s worth reporting. But it is even more explosive because, like the Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura report before it, it shows how much more dramatic the impact is once you take race, gender and sexual diversity into account: the higher the intersectionality, the greater the impact.

So, what is to be done?

There have been a range of reports and taskforces over the last decade into the massive problem of sexual violence in Aotearoa. Some, like the Law Commission’s 2015 report into criminal trials and alternative processes, contain a very detailed set of recommendations.

But essentially it comes down to this.

Who you are should not determine your access to high quality consent education and sexual violence support services.  Everyone, regardless of age, ability, ethnicity or gender, should be able to get the prevention education and specialist support they need.

When you unpack this it means a lot of things.

It means:

  • We need more independent academic research into sexual violence – research that is properly resourced and includes the voices of survivors. Currently we lack so little comprehensive, continuous information on sexual violence in Aotearoa.
  • We need a genuine commitment from institutions – starting, I would argue, at primary level – to high quality sexuality and consent education. I want my 12 year old twin boys to get the best education and support they can – and to role model for others how to be good humans.
  • We need universal access to culturally appropriate support services for everyone that needs it – culturally in the broadest sense of the word.
  • That in turns means resourcing both the specialist support organisations themselves to be better equipped and trained to support diverse communities – and the communities themselves to respond and build the resources they need to educate specialist agencies and their own people.

The issues that In Our Own Words and Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura before it raised are the same issues we should be raising and asking political parties about this election.

In many ways it all comes down to resources and political will. Despite a good bump in funding from MSD this year, we still only get about half of what we need from government to run our crisis services. Our social work and counselling funding has been static for four years and will remain so for another three. We still face an annual $200,000 shortfall to deliver our services for survivors – and there are other organisations in the family and sexual violence sector which are far worse off – especially kaupapa Māori.

And let’s not forget the long called-for inquiry into abuse of children in state care. Ask your favourite political party what they intend to do about that. Should that inquiry ever finally get off the ground, the demand for our services will inevitably skyrocket.

In Our Own Words was a difficult read, because as GM of a specialist sexual violence support agency I am personally committed to supporting anyone who needs it to access our services. But for me it was also inspiring. It shows us the changing face of Aotearoa. Almost half – 43% – of survey respondents identified as non-heterosexual; 8% (that’s 1 in 12, not one in 100!) identified as a gender minority.

While gender is still a huge issue and will continue to be for a long time to come (think Handmaid’s Tale, Trump and the recent random comments about Jacinda Ardern’s fertility this election campaign), I truly believe the gender binary is dissolving here and elsewhere – before our very eyes.

As a nation we have to step up. We have to support our young people to be whoever they want to be; to be good humans.

As a young activist in the last 1990s, not long home from a life growing up in Australia, Thursdays in Black had been part of my political world; I am so delighted to see it back and thriving again here in Aotearoa, and to see this report emerge.

Ask your favourite politicians if they have been thinking about any of these issues, and what they think needs to be done. Their answers, my friends, truly will be the measure of them.

Conor Twyford is General Manager, Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP.

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