Finding Sunlight31 October 2012
Partner Rape and Intimate Partner Sexual Assault (IPSA) are forms of assault in which a person is sexually abused by their partner, spouse or someone else they are intimately involved with. Despite the fact that they make up a majority of sexual assault cases, these forms of sexual violence don’t get a lot of press. In order to help address this situation, Melbourne University student Natalia Smith—herself a victim of sexual abuse within a relationship—has created Finding Sunlight, a website to raise awareness about IPSA and reach out to other victims.
Smith is very open about her own experience, both in person and on her website. She talks about starting up Finding Sunlight “to make it [IPSA] public, and say to people it’s okay to be public about this stuff. It doesn’t have to be the big taboo”. Her own personal experience as well as the lack of information regarding IPSA inspired her to try to make a change. “I just had this huge anger inside me and such a huge sense of injustice at what happened to me and the fact that I’d never heard about IPSA. Nobody had warned me against it.”
Raising awareness about partner rape is important, in part because it’s not a concept that is widely discussed. “Relationships are not something we imagine rape to be happening within.”
According to the International Violence Against Women Survey, 12 per cent of Australian women will experience sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime; only 14 per cent of these cases will ever be reported to police. Smith believes raising awareness about relationship rape is crucial to effecting change. “Breaking down those stereotypes and those myths surrounding rape and what rape is and what a rapist looks like and how rape occurs – I think that’s probably the most important thing. Once we can get that awareness raised, then it can hopefully start to filter into the justice system.”
In Smith’s personal experience, prosecuting IPSA cases is virtually impossible. “It is legally recognised, in Australia anyway, that rape can occur within marriage, or within a relationship. Australia’s jurisdiction actually has a really good definition of rape; it’s not gender-centric or biased towards age or anything like that. But when it comes to its actual practical applications, it fails at every single point,” she says. In her case she was warned that irrespective of the evidence she could provide, a jury would be unlikely to acknowledge that she was raped—solely because the abuse occurred within a relationship.
While Smith was not subjected to victim blaming within the justice system, she recognises that this does occur. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the reporting rate for rape is so low, although there are many other factors, including cultural stigma, fears about retaliation and the knowledge that so few rape cases are ever prosecuted. Although Smith talks mostly about rape against women, she acknowledges that men also suffer from sexual abuse. Reporting sexual violence is extremely rare among men, even more than amongst women.
Some people respond defensively when confronted with the issue of IPSA. “When you say you‘re trying to raise awareness about rape in relationships, people hear [that] I’m trying to stop relationships happening. That I hate all men and sex is wrong. They get very defensive and assume it’s attacking them when it’s not.”
Smith is eager to make the distinction between rape and sex: “One of the biggest rape myths and stereotypes that is out there is that rape is sex. I’m always very keen to make the distinction and say rape is not sex—it has nothing to do with sexual attraction, sexual needs or sexual desire. It is a crime which focuses around violence and control and power.”
In addition to running Finding Sunlight, Smith has plans to start up a training program aimed at educating school and university students aboutIPSA. She hopes to break down the myth that rape only ever occurs at the hands of a stranger. “Stranger rape is terrible, but we also need to educate people on how to be safe in all other aspects of sexual violence.” She is also keen to establish an internship program for survivors of IPSA, who might need to take time off from work or their studies. She hopes the internship would make it easier for the person to transition back into the workplace.
Smith has received mostly positive feedback since starting up Finding Sunlight, and is very moved that she has been able to help other survivors of relationship violence. While she is clearly aware of the trauma and distress that victims of sexual abuse face, her message is a positive one: “I really want people to know that there is life after experiencing sexual violence. Just because you’ve been raped or you’ve been in a violent relationship doesn’t make you broken forever. You can still be a normal, happy, positive person.”
You can visit Natalia‘s website at www.findingsunlight.com.