The most dangerous thing our society does is pretend that sex offenders are monsters. It stops us from recognising the survivors in all of us. The girl who isn’t that keen on having sex but doesn’t pluck up the voice to say no. The guy who gets his genitals groped at a concert, which is horribly violating, but he doesn’t want to make a big deal about it. And the child who is abused by a loved one, knows of nowhere to go for treatment, and goes on to abuse his or her loved ones.
In the same way that we generalise and pretend that all sex offenders are monsters, we’re also inclined to treat identified victims as lost, forsaken causes, whose lives will be ruined forever, and who we can no longer be close to or relate to normally. All abuse can leave internal scars and emotional trauma. It can involve anger, hurt, confusion, fear and isolation, and require intensive love and support. However treating a victim of abuse as someone whose life is over means that they have not only survived something horrible, they also have to live with the stigma of being ‘damaged’.
New Zealand’s intensive stigma around mental unwellness is at the core of this problem. It’s clear that if you or I or one of our children or friends began to be concerned about our sexual behaviour, we would know of nowhere to go and no one to talk to in 99% of cases. The incredibly limited facilities available are secretive and shameful. We would hide and live in fear, and have few tools at our disposal to manage our responses to unsafe situations. In other words, we would be set up to fail.
We can’t go on pretending that sex offenders are inhuman, repulsive monsters hiding down dark alleys. While a fraction may begin to fit that profile, we know that an estimated 90% of sex offenses are committed by someone known to the survivor. When it’s estimated that one in four New Zealand women and one in eight New Zealand men will be sexually abused in their lifetimes, we need to acknowledge that sexual offense is among all of us. It is in our families, it is in our friendship groups, it is among our peers. It is in our politicians and parties and private functions. In New Zealand people sleep with other people without explicit consent all the time. We’re an often intoxicated, generally lonely and commonly unsure people.
And the same culture that says “boys will be boys”, “how much has she had to drink” – the same culture that believes women make up sexual violence, and regards “she led him on” as acceptable language – is the same culture that turns around and treats ‘rape’ as unimaginably heinous, limited only to deformed inhuman animals, who leave tattered, destroyed victims in their wake.
Sex offenses are heinous. They also occur at many of the thousands of drunken parties sweeping across our country every Thursday, Friday, Saturday night.
We need to realise that sexual abuse is perpetrated by our friends, family and associates, and that our denial is the real monster.
Once we acknowledge that this is a nationwide, endemic problem, we can start to work on addressing it. What if survivors could talk openly about their thoughts and feeling surrounding their abuse, without everyone feeling weird? Wouldn’t that help us heal? What if we fostered a culture of ‘yes means yes’, where explicit consent was the norm in all sexual engagement? Wouldn’t that make the need for consent clear? And what if people were celebrated for seeking help if they had questions about their sexual behaviour? What if people were celebrated for seeking help over any kind of mental unwellness? What if we held ‘Getting Help’ parties with our families and friends to show support? Wouldn’t that help more people ask questions and find strategies for coping?
Pretending that all sex offenders are monsters removes our responsibility as a society for causing a situation in which so much sexual abuse occurs. It deflects our responsibility to drill into our teenage sons and daughters the absolute importance of explicit consent. It avoids addressing the fact that while pubescent secondary students learn the mechanics of sexual intercourse at school, very few classes will engage in an in-depth discussion about consent, and most won’t continue this conversation into the senior years of schooling. It keeps us blind to the reality that there are very few places to turn for people who are unsure about their sexual behaviour. Unless we have a radical shift toward empowering all men and women to understand and address sexual offence, we are failing the next generation of young people condemned to perpetuate New Zealand’s great shame. Education, communication and management strategies break cycles, and we as a society can do much, much better than actively avoiding all three.▼