Saturday, 13 July 2013

Young women, alcohol and sexual assault

In one of my recent blog entries I talked about a conversation that I had had with a group of 15 year old girls who had not reported that two of their friends had been sexually assaulted because they believed "that's just what happens when you drink". When I told them that rape was a crime and that it didn't matter whether you were drunk or not they appeared shocked.

The first time I meet a group of school students and deliver my Year 10 presentation I always raise the issue of sexual assault. It's discussed in the context of 'alcohol makes you vulnerable' - for young women it's sexual assault and for young men, robbery and violence. It is without doubt the most confronting part of the talk and it is not unusual to have a member of the audience (typically a young female) have to leave the session as they become more and more distressed with some of the stories I tell. In most cases this is due to the fact that they either know someone that has experienced what I am talking about or they have found themselves in such a situation at some time or another.

I watch the audience carefully and try to spot anyone who may be distressed but not want to identify themselves to the rest of the room. If I do, I make sure that a teacher is told that he or she needs to be followed up. I have to admit sometimes I battle with whether or not putting young people who may have had such experiences into this potentially uncomfortable situation is appropriate but recently I received an email from a young woman that reinforced that the message I deliver is a positive one.

I have edited the message down and removed any identifying information but have not altered anything else ...

"I just wanted to thank you for your talk that you did for us ... I want to tell you what happened to me, I hadn't told anyone and I had tried to forget it myself until that story you told us about the 14 year old girl who got drunk and couldn't remember anything brought back memories that I had never dealt or come to terms with. I hated your talk at the time because it was bringing back so many painful things but now i'm starting to deal with them which i had never done. 

When I was 14 i started drinking and getting drunk .. I don't remember most of the night, I had probably 12 standard drinks. I just remember trying to walk somewhere and not knowing where I was, being pushed around and to the ground and trying to push him off me. I can't remember anything else until the next morning when I woke up in a tent at a friends house, not the one I was originally staying at, with bruises and scratches. one of the guys that I was friends with who was staying there said he had found me at 4 in the morning a few blocks away stumbling around, he said he had to carry me because i couldn't support myself. People at the place where I got drunk said I left at around 12, so no one knows where I was for 4 hours. In a sad way i feel fortunate that I can't remember it. I never told anyone and I hadn't thought about it in a long time until you told us that story that was similar to mine. I've now told my sister the whole story and i'm starting to see someone to help me deal with that and some other things I haven't dealt with. 

So I just wanted to say thank you, because I wouldn't have told anyone this if it hadn't have been for your talk ... If my friends had known more about how to look after someone as drunk as I was and not let me out of their sight (although its pretty obvious, they just didn't think about it) what happened to me probably wouldn't have. Your talk was one of the most beneficial things that has happened to me in a long time so thanks."

I believe that the rate of alcohol-related sexual assaults amongst school-based young women is almost reaching epidemic proportions and no-one is talking about it. Unfortunately, girls are not coming forward to report the crime because they either believe it 'just comes with the territory' (i.e., it's just part of the alcohol experience') or due to the associated shame and stigma (e.g., once I was told by a 15 year old girl that she 'deserved' it because she had got drunk).

But as with the whole 'drink spiking' debate, why should the onus just be on women taking responsibility for this crime - how about the young men who are actually committing these unlawful acts? Unfortunately young men's attitudes towards alcohol are a reflection of what we see in the general community and even though they truly care about themselves and their friends, when alcohol is added to the equation, their value system can change and their attitudes, particularly towards young women that like to drink, can be frightening.

One of my greatest concerns is how a 15 year old drunk young man perceives a young drunk girl. She is now no longer seen as the same as your sister, your best friend or someone else you may care about – she is now seen as a 'slut' or a 'bitch' and becomes fair game. In fact, there is a growing perception by some young men and boys that the very reason she chose to get drunk is to have sex – with absolutely anyone!

When I tell a group of young men that it is a crime to have sex with a drunk girl because she cannot consent, that even if she says 'yes' at the time she could wake up the next morning and change her mind, the first response is always the same – "if I wake up after having sex and she is ugly can I change my mind? Am I able to say I was sexually assaulted?" There is no consideration given to the drunk girl that has been sexually assaulted – she doesn't seem to matter. I find this deeply disturbing.

In my Year 10 presentation that I discussed above the response around the sexual assault issue from both young men and women is phenomenal. In fact, I would have to say that boys respond even more strongly than girls, often outraged that someone would even consider sexually assaulting an innocent girl, but I do have to choose my stories carefully – if the female went out and made a 'mistake' and drank too much (i.e., it was out of character) that is okay, however, if she was a party girl and this was just a normal night that went wrong, well that's her own fault!

How do we change these attitudes? How do we encourage young women who have been sexually assaulted to step forward and report these crimes? And perhaps, most importantly, how do we get young men to improve the way they regard young women, all young women, whether they have been drinking or not? As already said, adolescents' attitudes towards alcohol are a reflection of what we see in the wider community and what they see is not good ...

We need to keep talking about alcohol-related sexual assault, whenever possible, across the whole community, making sure that everyone understands that it is a crime, just because she is drunk doesn't make it okay. These crimes need to be reported and it must be made clear that just because a young woman gets drunk (or even simply drinks alcohol) it does not mean that she is providing an open invitation to absolutely anyone for sex!

1 comment:

  1. Of course rape is seen as ok by teens, just look at the absolutely minimal sentencing given by courts to serious &/or repeat offenders. As a society we cant seriously expect teenagers to be more responsible than the adults and society around them. It is like growing up in Australia and being told that binge drinking is wrong... just look around: it isn't teenagers who have the problem it is the adult society.

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