Last week, I was honoured to represent Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP at the launch of Thursdays in Black Aotearoa’s report, In Our Own Words. Thursdays in Black is an international student-led movement focused on building a world without rape and violence.
In September and October 2016, Thursdays in Black Aotearoa undertook a nationwide online survey of 1400 tertiary students, asking about their experiences of sexual violence both prior to and during tertiary study; their experiences of sexuality education during secondary study, their access to sexual violence support services at tertiary level, and so much more. You can read it here.
In Our Own Words is a stunning piece of work. While the authors take care to note it is not a prevalence survey, the sample size is large enough to draw some very telling conclusions.
The survey found that prior to starting tertiary study, almost one in four students had not been educated about consent as part of their sexuality education. Almost 70% stated that minority gender education was not covered at all, and 45% said minority sexualities were not covered. It seems most schools are still stuck in the 1980s, focusing solely on safe sex and contraception. Clearly this is not enough, since In Our Own Words found that students with poor quality sexuality education went on to be far more likely to experience sexual assault.
Once in tertiary study, 83% of all respondents reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. 53% reported experiencing some form of sexual assault. Yet more than half of survey respondents - 761 - did not report their experiences to their tertiary institution - for the most part because they did not think there was any point. 2 in 5 did not realise till late that what had happened was assault – again, a telling indictment on the quality of sexuality education in New Zealand.
Across the general student population, the results are stark enough. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this report, however, is the depth of focus it gives to considering the impacts of sexual violence on intersecting race, sexual and gender minorities.
A whopping 92% of participants that identified with a minority gender and 88% of people who identified with a minority sexuality (i.e., were not heterosexual) said they experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time in tertiary education. This increases up to 94% for Māori who identified with a minority gender, 97% of genderqueer/ gender fluid participants and 100% of takatāpui participants. Levels of sexual assault were similarly terrible: 61% of people of a minority sexuality and 67% of participants of a minority gender experienced some form of sexual assault during their time in tertiary.
These findings are explosive. They are completely unacceptable and they reinforce the findings from the ground-breaking research undertaken in 2015/16 by the Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura – Outing Violence project into gender- and sexually- diverse people’s experiences of sexual and intimate partner violence. This report found that while trans and gender diverse people are a heavily under-researched population group in terms of violence in Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere, all indications point to experiences of violence being higher than for cis people - those comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. You can read about that project here.
In Our Own Words also asked about the experiences of students with disabilities. 90% of students who considered themselves to have a disability experienced some forms of sexual harassment during their time in tertiary study. 65% said they had experienced some forms of sexual assault. Again, completely and utterly unacceptable.
In Our Own Words reinforces what we already knew; that levels of sexual violence in Aotearoa are unacceptably high; that huge numbers of people don’t even feel it’s worth reporting. But it is even more explosive because, like the Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura report before it, it shows how much more dramatic the impact is once you take race, gender and sexual diversity into account: the higher the intersectionality, the greater the impact.
So, what is to be done?
There have been a range of reports and taskforces over the last decade into the massive problem of sexual violence in Aotearoa. Some, like the Law Commission’s 2015 report into criminal trials and alternative processes, contain a very detailed set of recommendations.
But essentially it comes down to this.
Who you are should not determine your access to high quality consent education and sexual violence support services. Everyone, regardless of age, ability, ethnicity or gender, should be able to get the prevention education and specialist support they need.
When you unpack this it means a lot of things.
In many ways it all comes down to resources and political will. Despite a good bump in funding from MSD this year, we still only get about half of what we need from government to run our crisis services. Our social work and counselling funding has been static for four years and will remain so for another 3. We still face an annual $200,000 shortfall to deliver our services for survivors – and there are other organisations in the family and sexual violence sector which are far worse off – especially kaupapa Māori.
And let’s not forget the long called-for inquiry into abuse of children in state care. Ask your favourite political party what they intend to do about that. Should that inquiry ever finally get off the ground, the demand for our services will inevitably skyrocket.
In Our Own Words was a difficult read, because as GM of a specialist sexual violence support agency I am personally committed to supporting anyone who needs it to access our services. But for me it was also inspiring. It shows us the changing face of Aotearoa. Almost half – 43% - of survey respondents identified as non-heterosexual; 8% (that’s 1 in 12, not one in 100!) identified as a gender minority.
While gender is still a huge issue and will continue to be for a long time to come (think Handmaid’s Tale, Trump and the recent random comments about Jacinda Ardern’s fertility this election campaign), I truly believe the gender binary is dissolving here and elsewhere – before our very eyes.
As a nation we have to step up. We have to support our young people to be whoever they want to be; to be good humans.
As a young activist in the last 1990s, not long home from a life growing up in Australia, Thursdays in Black had been part of my political world; I am so delighted to see it back and thriving again here in Aotearoa, and to see this report emerge.
Ask your favourite politicians if they have been thinking about any of these issues, and what they think needs to be done. Their answers, my friends, truly will be the measure of them.
Some Reflections on Working in The Sector
When I came into Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP as the new General Manager in October last year, I came with some existing reference points. I have a community sector background and so I am used to, and love, the special spirit that is so much part of working in this sector. That sense of clear purpose and connectedness, of going the extra mile. (Sometimes it’s called the Love Factor, but it still can’t excuse the pay).
Working in the sexual violence sector takes that spirit to a whole new level. The work is, by definition, hard. That much is self-evident.
It attracts, however, the most amazing people. People who are grounded in their experience of walking alongside survivors. Whose work is often grounded in their own experience. People who are rigorously professional. People who have learnt that good practice is essential for our healing. That holistic, wrap-around services work. That prevention and education are key. And who know, above all, that we must truly honour Te Tiriti and deal with the causes of colonial violence as well as rape culture if we are ever to genuinely deal to sexual violence here in Aotearoa New Zealand.
They also have ridiculous senses of humour. I didn’t expect to laugh so much.
Still, there are so many challenges. We are dealing in our daily work with the after effects of rape culture – a culture that is so insidious that we don’t even notice it much of the time. We are having to walk alongside survivors through institutions like Police and Courts. Institutions that are nowhere near perfect – as we know only too well from the many stories in the news.
The sector is deeply under-resourced – kaupapa Māori services, and services for male survivors are two that spring to mind immediately. But even the ‘mainstream’ survivor organisations like us at HELP and Rape Crisis – because of the way the sector is funded – are in constant crisis. The more people we see, the faster we have to run the fill the funding gap in our budgets.
When the whole sector is so under-resourced, it has real and genuine impacts. Research shows that people in the Rainbow community, and especially people of minority genders such as trans* and intersex, experience extremely high levels of sexual abuse. Even worse, they are often not seeking specialist help, because even when they do seek help they are not always getting it, or experiencing it as supportive. While it is great that $46 million extra over 4 years is being invested in a national helpline, into supporting male survivors and working with people who engage in harmful sexual behaviour – all excellent initiatives – there is still a desperate need to better resource our core, day-to-day work so that we have capacity to serve all survivors, including our minority communities. That saying from the union movement – an injury to one is an injury to all – has never been more true.
Things need to change.
And things are changing. The gender binary is dissolving as we speak, with more and more people identifying neither as straight or with a particular gender. With that, inevitably there will come a groundswell of demand for better, more responsive services. Outing rape culture is becoming part of the national discourse. We have seen the roar of outrage in particular from young people, especially young women, who are still overwhelmingly the targets of sexual violence, over what happened at Wellington College. Despite the headlines, within the Police are many excellent people working with the very best intent to bring about change. And surely all those repeated calls from so many corners for an inquiry into historic abuse in children’s homes – remember, 80% of those kids were Māori – must some day soon trigger an inquiry. We must learn from history if we are to stop making the same mistakes.
I started this blog post talking about how special this sector is, and that’s actually where I wanted to end. Because, alongside the harrowing stories, the daily struggle to meet demand, to pay the bills, are some wonderful, wonderful things. Here at Wellington HELP, we get almost daily offers of support. This has come in so many forms. Volunteers help us daily with basic admin. The NOPE sisters have emerged with their wonderful NOPE shirts – you can buy yours here. The wonderful Justin Meade found us a volunteer film crew, a graphic designer, and has almost single-handedly built us a new website. And of course we had that amazing flash mob last month, led by the wonderful Carol Shortis. Fresh from the Women’s Marches, MILCK, the American singer/survivor, let us use her song, I Can’t Keep Quiet, as the basis for the flash mob - and her publicist Laura Goldfarb supplied the studio audio for free, because she knew it mattered.
On Thursday 18 May, at the Southern Cross, all this wonderful effort will culminate. At 6pm, we are launching Friends of HELP. We invite you to come and watch the video we have made using all this wonderful volunteer energy. We invite you to be part of HELP. Part of changing the future. Because it’s too important not to be. Because change happens when people push for it. Because NOPE really does mean NO. Hope to see you there.
Arohanui ki a tātou katoa.
 www.kahukura.co.nz – See, for example, Sandra Dickson’s excellent research on partner and sexual violence in rainbow communities.
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