Sexual assault, too often, begins in the home

Louise McOrmond-Plummer was a young woman when she first met a man she described as charming. He was so attentive, very keen to know where she was going and who she was going with. ''I interpreted it as romantic,'' she says now. She ignored what she now sees as red flags, the possessiveness, the disrespectful way he talked about other women. Then the violence - the beatings and the sexual assaults - began.

Louise, a former counsellor and now author, managed to get away. Six months later, the man who raped her murdered a woman. She saw the report on television and it devastated her. Neither Louise nor the man who raped her was drunk. The rapes took place in her own home.

That, I am utterly horrified to say, is the snapshot of sexual assault in Australia today. We have - all of us - somehow built a culture in which we do not talk about the negotiation of consent. I have two daughters and a son. To be able to talk about consent requires groundwork; it requires responsible adults to be able to navigate the confrontational issues of what it means to say yes and what it means to say no.

Because I am neurotic and wanted the news to come from me first, I started sex education when my children were in preschool. We had fabulous books with pop-up penises and 3D vaginas made out of cardboard, with a flattened baby making its way through the birth canal. While my friends agonised over sex education, we all knew that the real challenge would be how to discuss what actually happens when you have sex.

I was reminded last week when all hell broke loose because Mia Freedman, the extraordinarily successful magazine editor who has turned her main brand, Mamamia, into a must-read, wrote about rape. She began her column asking readers this: ''Let's say there was something you could tell [your daughter or sister] that would dramatically reduce the likelihood of her being sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Would you tell her?'' And she went on to say there were opportunistic men out there who would take advantage of drunk girls. ''I'll tell her that there is a crystal clear connection between alcohol and sexual assault, both for the victim and the perpetrator.''

But when I went looking, the correlation between alcohol and sexual violence was not quite as clear to me. I spoke to three women who are experts in this area: Karen Willis, executive officer of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre; Patricia Easteal, AM, a professor of law at the University of Canberra; and Louse McOrmond-Plummer, a sexual assault survivor and author. She was the one whose rapist turned into a murderer.


Not one of these women said alcohol played a significant part in sexual violence. In fact, they agreed it was not a significant risk.

What was the most likely risk factor in the sexual assaults of women? Having partners. That was the key finding in all the research these three women had conducted over 20 years. Nothing else came close.

Easteal, who has co-authored with McOrmond-Plummer a new book, Intimate Partner Sexual Violence, says they examined statistics from both the US and Britain. The US figures from 2011 show that over 50 per cent of victims are raped by either their past or present partners. The British research shows more or less the same.

''The link between alcohol and rape is not the problem because the primary rapist is not some drunken stranger or some person at the bar who is 'provoked' by a woman's drunken rowdy behaviour,'' Easteal says. ''That's a red herring.''

Willis, of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre, agrees. She says there is little danger in hanging out on the main streets. ''It's our homes, our schools, our workplaces; they are the most dangerous places for women.''

If you want to give advice to women on how to avoid being raped, Willis can summarise it easily. ''Don't go to work. Don't go to school. Don't go out to barbecues. Don't go out on dates. Don't go out to Christmas parties. Don't go home.'' It's more useful, she says laconically, than advising young women not to drink.

There are three elements that rapists say they look for when identifying victims, Willis says from research. The rapist perceives a woman as vulnerable, as easy to access and as able to be manipulated into a location where they can commit the act without interruption or witnesses.

That is what leads to rape. And that is why we need to alter the culture and teach our kids - our daughters and our sons - about consent.

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