All jokes aside, it's a disgrace

Sydney Morning Herald
4 November, 2008
By Nina Funnell

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? None. Feminists can't change a thing. In the past year my email inbox has been inundated with jokes of this kind. As a young feminist coming up through the ranks I seem to have become something of a novelty for my friends and family who, eager to get a rise out of me, relish sending me anti-feminist jokes and articles. Unfortunately for them, it usually doesn't work. Despite the stereotype that feminists are stern and humourless, I generally enjoy having a laugh at my own expense. But while I can take a joke, I have to be honest and admit that there are days when I feel like throwing up my arms and asking, "Why do we even bother?" What difference are feminists actually making?

Friday marked the 30-year anniversary of Reclaim The Night, an initiative designed to raise awareness about a woman's right to move about, free from the fear of violence.

But after 30 years of campaigning, little seems to have changed. Recent Bureau of Statistics figures show that in 30 years there has been a minuscule 1.5 per cent decrease in violence against women in Australia. The study also nominated a 2 per cent error margin, implying the possibility of no drop, or even of an increase. Even allowing for the fact that women today may be more likely to report violence, the statistics are abysmally depressing.

In Australia one in two women will be physically assaulted at some point in their lives and one in three women will be sexually assaulted. We also know that by the time a girl turns 18 there is a one in four chance she will have experienced rape or another form of sexual assault. To put that figure in context we also know that men in prison have a one in four chance of being sexually assaulted, suggesting that when it comes to rape, what young women endure in their everyday lives would for men be considered prison conditions.

With these statistics at hand, the claim that women have achieved equality and that feminism is now redundant seems implausible.

It is also worth noting that although feminists have been unable to curb violence against women, they have had significant successes in setting up after-care support networks and counselling services for those who have been assaulted. More recently, feminists have also had notable success in changing attitudes towards sexual assault survivors. Karen Willis, manager of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, says there has been a significant shift in the culture, because 30 years ago women who were raped were routinely shamed and humiliated, whereas nowadays rape survivors are beginning to be applauded and labelled as heroic for speaking out about their ordeals.

Willis says that feminists have made crucial inroads into changing attitudes and belief systems around the causes of rape, but behaviour has yet to change, largely because most rape prevention programs target women, not men, and in general they often focus on "stranger danger", whereas in reality women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know. Indeed for adult women, the most common form of rape is intimate partner rape, and in Australia one in 10 adult women will be raped by her current or former partner.

Professor Moira Carmody, the author of Sex And Ethics: Young People And Ethical Sex, also says that one of the biggest problems is that many of the anti-rape education programs are based around risk-minimisation and so place the onus of responsibility on women to modify their behaviour instead of placing the onus of responsibility on men to behave in a more appropriate manner. Telling a woman not to walk home alone or not to drink too much stems from the same logic that tells women to cover up so as not to attract rapists.

Such advice does not empower women; it merely reminds them that they are thought of as potential victims, while simultaneously providing a defence for men who rape women who may have been drunk or been travelling alone.

Willis says that what is needed is a comprehensive education program that targets young men (not just women), and which gives more than just the biological "plumbing" guide to sexual intercourse. Willis's greatest hope is that one day she will find herself out of a job, because there is no longer any demand for a service that supports survivors of rape. That day is not in sight, but for young feminists in my position, picking up the baton seems more crucial than ever.

Nina Funnell is teaching media and communications at the University of Sydney.

Media articles are posted for the purpose of criticism, comment, scholarship and research under "fair use" provisions and may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owners, except for "fair use."