IWD sets stage for perennial debate over feminism

March 6, 2010

sandradickson– Sandra Dickson is a feminist working to prevent sexual violence in Aotearoa, New Zealand.  She helped establish the counter-trafficking Poppy Project and wrote “Sex in the City, Mapping Commercial Sex across London,” the first attempt to map the commercial sex industry.  Sandra has also been involved in the Women’s Refuge movement in both the UK and New Zealand, and has written a number of research papers about women’s experiences of intimate partner violence. She blogs as Luddite Journo. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in.–

International Women’s Day number 99, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Stage set for the perennial argument – is feminism still necessary?  Or merely an academic subject for historians, with IWD covered in a lecture?

New Zealand men’s rights activists and groups describing themselves as pro-family advance further and argue feminism has gone too far, particularly in the realm of interpersonal intimate relationships.  Women are increasingly violent and reports of domestic violence and rape are exaggerated. Women’s rights advocates, they tell us, have much to answer for.

So what about relationships in New Zealand?

Sexual violation is a gender neutral offence, to criminalize a range of sexually abusive behaviour.  One in three women and one in ten men will experience unwanted and distressing sexual contact during their lifetime.

New Zealand Police estimate just 10 percent of sexual violence is reported, the lowest reporting rate in the crime categories monitored by the Ministry of Justice.

In 2009, following excellent feminist scholarship elsewhere, researchers analyzed sexual violence cases reported to New Zealand Police.

They examined national Police files for every sexual violence incident against an adult over a recent two and a half year period: 99 percent of sexual violence was perpetrated by men, 95 percent on women.  Just 11 cases perpetrated by women were reported to the Police over this period.

The perpetrator was, more than 80 percent of the time, known to the victim, most often an ex- or current partner.

Yet only 13 percent of reports to the Police resulted in successful conviction. Attrition occurred at every stage – investigation, prosecution and court decision.

How are we to understand this spectacularly gendered crime, least likely to be reported to the Police, and when it is, least likely to result in conviction?

Contrary to popular opinion, women were not lying about rape.  The Police coded just 8 percent of allegations as false, a lower rate than for many other crimes.

Yet New Zealand’s student journalists are instructed in their required reading introductory textbook:

Sex crimes It is particularly important to be cautious about taking sides in the reporting: with emotions running high, false complaints are often made regarding sexual offences. Both sides can be very believable in their differing accounts.

This warning – that complainants lie – is unique to sexual violence reporting.

And herein lies the problem – the gulf between rape myths and rape reality.  Sexual violence is still depicted as unusual, extreme and violent – despite it being all too common-place, typically perpetrated by men we know, and usually not accompanied by other physical violence.

The gulf makes sense when we remember husbands were denied unlimited sexual access to their wives in New Zealand just 25 years ago.  This signaled a cosmic shift – to the idea that women should be able to choose when we have sex, should only have sex we desire – and that forced or unwanted activity perhaps previously labeled “just sex” was no longer acceptable.

Which undoubtedly challenges gender inequality at home, where it hurts.

Sexual violence remains a blot on gender equality, a place where oppression is acted out and resisted on the most basic level every day, perhaps the most compelling reason why we still need feminism.

That said, I look forward to the day International Women’s Day is of historical interest, rather than being a time to renew activism against sexist oppression.

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