On 9 September, the posters adorning the walls of the Royal Women’s Hospital supper room read, “Just which part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?” Hundreds of women and a small number of men packed the hall for the first public meeting organised by the Real Rape Law Coalition. Meeting participants sent a strong message to the state government that they wanted real rape law reform, not window dressing and a bit of gloss to the totally appalling status quo. The law on rape and sexual offences in Victoria urgently needs rewriting.
In the Radical Women Manifesto, the international platform of RW, we say:
“Rape is an extension of that male prerogative, a form of terrorism to keep us in our ‘place.’ Any woman is fair game to any man. When we are raped and protest to the authorities, we are accused of having ‘asked for it.’ The insensitive treatment of victims of rape by the police, the medical profession and the courts stems from the same rapist mentality, only this time it is hidden behind a smokescreen of officialdom and sanctioned by the state.”
Rape is a largely unreported crime. And, given the myriad of questions, plus the medical, legal and administrative procedures which a rape victim must endure, it is hardly surprising that many women decide not to notify the police. As a starting point, the law needs to be changed to mitigate the rape victim’s trauma from simply reporting the crime.
In 1986 the Victorian Law Reform Commission examined existing legislation and concluded that the current law is “outdated.” A draft bill was the result. However this bill doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, keeping the legal focus on the question of consent. For this reason, the Real Rape Law Coalition is demanding that the bill not be put before Parliament until thorough community consultation has taken place.
To understand why this focus is unacceptable, it is necessary to realise that there are currently three components to the legal definition of rape: the fact of sexual penetration; the lack of consent by the victim; and belief by the accused that the victim consented. What this boils down to is that a man who sexually penetrates a women without her consent will not be guilty of rape if he believed she was consenting. The rapist’s belief does not even have to be a reasonable belief, merely “honest”!
It is this aspect of the current law and the proposed bill which leads to rape victims being treated as if they are on trial. A woman who has been raped is put in the position where she not only has to prove she did not consent but, in many cases, that the rapist could not “honestly have believed” she was consenting. This is virtually impossible to do. Belief of consent has been upheld as a defence in cases where women have had their arms and legs broken, they’ve received severe bruising and cuts and their screams were clearly heard by witnesses. What is the difference between this and fundamentalist Islamic law, which holds that there must be three eyewitnesses to rape for it to be proven? As the poster says” “Just which part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”
At the public meeting, the Real Rape Law Coalition proposed an alternative model, based on rape legislation in Michigan, USA. There the law concentrates on the criminal intent and behaviour of the accused rather than on the issue of the victim’s “consent.”
A diverse range of speakers addressed the public meeting. Kate Gilmore, who works for the Community Council Against Violence, was riveting as she described the current situation from a rape victim’s perspective. She stressed that, for the victim, the only difference between being raped and giving a testimony at her rapist’s trial is that there’s an audience in the courtroom.
Kate also highlighted the hypocrisy of bourgeois law in a short drama, where a person who had been robbed is treated in exactly the same fashion as a rape victim:
“Mr. Pyramid was robbed on Farrow Street and was grilled about the exhibitionism of his expensively cut suit, the provocative nature of his red leather wallet and the suggestion that the thief may have thought he was consenting, as he had given money away to others before! How was the robber to know that he was not consenting to give away money this time?”
Sally Brown, who will soon take over as Victorian Chief Magistrate, made some crucial observations. She said that rape legislation was initially introduced to protect male sexual property rights. She told of how a tiny minority of women, deemed unquestionably “virtuous,” may be treated decently in the courts. “Virtuousness” comes from selling one’s body and soul to a male protector, usually a father or husband. For the vast majority of women who don’t meet this standard, it is always open season in the courts. She emphasised the fact that a rape victim has no legal representation herself: she is only a witness, because the prosecutor is actually acting for the “community.” Her final point was refreshing, coming from a member of the legal profession. She emphasised strongly that “Legislation does not change culture. It can, however, be a powerful tool.”
Radical Women concurs. In our Manifesto, we say:
“We can free ourselves from this violence only by joining together, seizing the power and building a society free of psychological brutality and physical violence.”
No piece of legislative reform will achieve this goal. Yet we cannot abstain on the question of rape law reform. Real improvements can be made to the procedures a victim goes through when she reports a rape, and these are certainly worth fighting for. The struggle to achieve this can also be a powerful tool to educate and change community attitudes towards women. However our ultimate goal is not to have jails full of rapists being “punished,” it is to create a society where we have stamped out the brutal crime of rape.