Australia is at a critical juncture in terms of increasing awareness and understanding of men’s violence against women. But one important type of sexual violence is often overlooked: acquaintance rape. It’s the most common form of sexual violence and is primarily gender-based.
What is acquaintance rape?
Acquaintance rape (or “sexual assault”) refers to coercive sexual intercourse perpetrated by someone known to the victim, such as a neighbour, co-worker, employer, friend, friend-of-friend, partner or ex-partner.
The coercion might involve physical force, but more common are situations where a person does not freely agree to sex and has not given active or verbal consent. This includes:
- where a person is asleep, unconscious or incapacitated by drugs and alcohol;
- where a person is mistaken as to the identity of the perpetrator or the nature of the act; or
- where a person is pressured into sex due to threats, emotional abuse or manipulation.
In Australia, one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, compared to one in 22 men. The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a man known to the victim and women aged 16 to 24 are at greatest risk. But 80-90% of victims will never report the crime to the police.
Studies show that women who are raped by an acquaintance often blame themselves, have low self-esteem, high levels of psychological stress, and are at risk of increased drug and alcohol use and sexual risk taking.
The majority of perpetrators of acquaintance rape never come to the attention of the criminal justice system. So although perpetrators are known to the victim, we actually know little about them as a group of offenders.
Community attitude surveys provide some insight into the deeply embedded nature of the problem. The 2013 National Community Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women survey reported that a significant minority of the Australian community have poor understandings of rape.
One in three Australians agreed with the statement that “women say they were raped when they led the man on and later had regrets”, and 17% agreed that “women say no when they actually mean yes”.
It’s important to remember that violence, regardless of context, is not caused by culture or attitudes alone. Acquaintance rape is no different, and is a result of a combination of individual, cultural and societal-level factors.
Studies indicate that perpetrators of sexual violence typically hold hostile attitudes about women and sex. Wider societal attitudes that minimise sexual violence can discourage victims from reporting, and in effect, allow perpetrators to escape accountability.
In Australia, and internationally, reforms to rape law have attempted to address the “justice gap” for victim-survivors. Such reforms include:
- changes to the definition of rape and the meaning of consent
- abolition of witness corroboration requirements
- restrictions on the admission of sexual history evidence
- protective measures for vulnerable witnesses
- specialist courts.
The legal meaning of consent continues to be a highly vexed issue for reform. In Victoria, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the complainant was not consenting and that the accused intended to sexually penetrate the complainant without their consent.
Currently in Victoria, an accused can be acquitted if they had an honest belief that the victim was consenting, regardless of how unreasonable that belief was.
As of July 1, 2015, a new definition of rape will be introduced which brings Victoria into line with the United Kingdom, New Zealand and other Australian jurisdictions.
This means that a person can be convicted of rape if they sexually penetrate another person without their consent, and they do not reasonably believe that the other person is consenting.
Decades of rape law reform, however, have largely been ineffective in increasing reporting, prosecution and conviction rates, and tackling the problem at its heart.
In addition to criminal justice approaches, other measures are also required, such as civil law remedies, restorative justice approaches, and civil society platforms. Online anti-rape websites such as Project Unbreakable allow victim-survivors to document their experiences and connect with other victims and supporters.
Beyond the law
Acquaintance rape is a deeply entrenched social problem that has enormous long-term impacts. Providing support on the ground, such as sexual assault counselling and effective legal responses, is important – but only addresses part of the problem.
We need strategies to prevent acquaintance rape before it occurs. A National policy framework for primary prevention is required to address the range of individual, cultural and societal factors that underlie this form of violence.
Problematic and outdated attitudes that minimise acquaintance rape can be addressed through programs in schools and communities such as Respectful Relationships, the AFL Respect and Responsibility policy and the Sex & Ethics program.
Bystander intervention programs, such as the Who Are You campaign in New Zealand, also hold promise. These programs operate in schools, universities, workplaces and in the community. Their aim is to motivate people to challenge problematic attitudes, interrupt situations where a sexual assault is likely, and provide support to victim-survivors.
Other social marketing campaigns that shift responsibility to men are also imperative, such as the Don’t Be that Guy campaign in Canada.
Bipartisan commitment from political leaders is crucial to ensure funding, support and momentum under this framework.
A decade of research has shown that the causes of sexual violence, like other forms of men’s violence against women, are fundamentally linked to continued gender inequality. Above all then, we need to critically question our own beliefs and values about gender, violence and sex, if we are to create a society free of rape.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.