The incidence of sexual violence is disturbingly high in New Zealand. Earlier this year the British medical journal revealed that in New Zealand and Australia 16.4 percent of women aged 15 or older reported being sexually assaulted by a non-partner at least once in their lives. The average for the rest of the planet is 7.2 percent.
This dismal statistic is compounded by the estimate that only 9 percent of NZ sex crimes are actually reported to police. From that figure, a lowly 13 percent result in an actual conviction. Victims who are resolute enough to come forward face a prolonged process of repeatedly recounting their traumatic attack, often having their own actions thoroughly scrutinised. It's understandable that many victims emerge saying the process was just as bad as the violation itself. When sections of society start to believe that reporting sexual assault is not worthwhile, it's a sure sign the system is in bad shape.
The New Zealand public became painfully aware of the system's flaws when the highly publicised Roast Busters investigation (AKA Operation Clover) resulted in zero charges laid. This may have lead to three academics from Victoria University in Wellington being granted more than $1 million for rape law research. For her part, associate professor Elisabeth McDonald will be exploring the extent to which rape mythology is reinforced in the trial process, and how to instil positive change. VICE spoke to Elisabeth to learn more about the research being conducted.
VICE: Commentators on one news post about your grant questioned the existence of rape culture. Are you surprised there are people that don't believe it exists?
Elisabeth McDonald: Yes, I think it is a bit of a contentious issue and people have different views about whether it's really rape mythology or just human nature. I guess if there can be a positive thing in relation to the Roast Busters scenario, it's that people are becoming more aware of the impact rape culture has in very real terms.
How do you define rape culture?
Well, it's the sort of things that related to how people think about sexual interaction. For example, they might say if a woman goes to the house of a young man she has just met for a coffee, "she shouldn't do that if she didn't want to have sex". Sometimes they call it the coffee myth; if you do that you're somehow consenting to some kind of intercourse. Or it could be aimed at what you wear, "if you don't want to be raped you shouldn't wear a short skirt" or, "you shouldn't walk through a dark alley". It's the ways women are supposed to behave or not behave that make them more or less likely to be raped. This matters in courtrooms when jurors bring those ideas with them.
Does it affect others besides jurors?
The argument is that nobody in the criminal justice system is immune from that same script. For the police, it might be something that's going on for them when they decide not to press charges. It'll definitely be something that the defence council will be honing in on when they question the complainant to say: "why did you do that? why did you go there? why did you not run away?"
Have you sat in on a sexual assault trial before?
Yes, I have. Normally you can't. Especially if the complainant is testifying because the court is closed. And one of the things that is impossible to know about is what is going on when the jury deliberate in these cases—how much of that rape mythology do they bring with them to that decision making process?
When do you believe these myths are seeded?
That's one of the things we want to investigate. The argument is that we grow up with this mythology around sexual interaction so we take those with us, whether we're a juror or a lawyer or a complainant. The criminal justice system kind of reinforces and plays on those in a way, to either assist conviction or assist acquittal. We think education is a key, just as much as challenging the system is. Really early on there needs to be communication about how intimate communication about sex should happen. The recent Operation Clover was an example of that; there were lots of young girls who didn't know what amounted to consent and what didn't.
Only a small number of sexual assault cases actually get reported. Is the lack of education a barrier to victims coming forward?
Partially. If you look at the young complainants in the Project Clover investigation, they named the reasons they didn't want to report it: fear of what the process would be like to go through, and fear of the consequences—both in terms of their wider circle of friends, as well as potential retaliation. One of the other things that might not be obvious in that report is that if you go to trial as a complainant or witness, you have to go to give evidence and be clear, coherent, concise, and talk about a really horrific thing that happened to you. And it might have happened to you two years ago. So instead of being able to deal with that, and in a way kind of forget it, you have to make it raw all the time so you can remember it and talk about it at trial. It's a very difficult thing.
What do you think of the decision not to charge in the Roast Buster case?
It seemed to me, from the way the police wrote up their investigation, that they did it in a really thoughtful, compassionate way. I get a sense that a bit of their own disappointment came through in the report. It seems like they believed the girls when they said things, but it's one of those things—it's not a good use of court time to proceed when there is not enough evidence. We have to trust our system to a certain extent that they made the right decision about that. And that's weighing up court time, but also what it means for the complainant to get that far in the process to use up all that emotional energy.
It was such a highly-publicised and unusual case, there was a lot of disappointment about the decision.It would be nice to think it was an unusual case but I'm not so sure. I think the public nature of their boasting was a bit unusual and not very smart, but having sex with girls that are very intoxicated, that is not unusual.
Follow Danielle on Twitter: @danielle_street
Editors note: The image that originally ran with this article was not of the original Roast Buster participants. This have now been amended.