Four years ago I was "stealthed"; a man I was dating secretly removed his condom during sex, ignoring my explicit request we use one. He put me at risk of pregnancy, STIs and lasting trauma, not to mention betrayed my trust. I never reported it, but to this day I feel wronged and violated. Surely, then, I should be cheering Canberra Liberals leader Elizabeth Lee for leading the ACT to become the first Australian jurisdiction to recognise stealthing as a crime?
The legislation, which unanimously passed the ACT Legislative Assembly last week, adds the "intentional misrepresentation" about the use of a condom to a list of things that negate a person's consent to sex. This reinforces our evolving understanding that it is consent, not force, that separates sex from rape.
This is undoubtedly progress. Criminalising something sends society a clear signal that it's wrong. It can also be validating for survivors like me to know what happened was "bad enough" to be criminal. What's more, just getting the topic in the news can cause a spike in reports of sexual assault, as was seen in the aftermath of Brittany Higgins' allegations earlier this year.
But adding a new offence to the statute book is mere crumbs in comparison to the work needed to tackle sex crime and the rape culture that pervades Australian life. It is hard not to feel cynical about a vote-winning, headline-grabbing gesture such as criminalisation when there is still a yawning lack of commitment from the federal Liberal Party to deal with sexual harassment within its own ranks, let alone wider society. The progress is not just glacial, but non-existent.
Ms Lee is a smart, effective politician who has bravely shared her own story of sexual harassment and sits on the ACT's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Working Group, established this year.
Survivors won't come forward just because the police ask them to. Trust must be built.
As she has acknowledged, criminalisation is only the first step. For it to be translated into action, more perpetrators must be charged and prosecuted. And for this to happen, more survivors need to feel confident and comfortable reporting to police. Despite a Monash University study in 2018 showing stealthing to be widespread - one in three women and one in five men who have had sex with men have had condoms removed without their consent - only a miniscule fraction of these cases end up on police desks. So few, in fact, that in April of this year the Deputy Chief Police Officer of ACT Policing issued a public plea to victims of sexual assault to make contact.
But survivors won't come forward just because the police ask them to. Trust must be built. Survivors, and particularly women, need reassurance they will be heard, believed and respected in a world that too often questions them, blames them and holds them to a higher standard than perpetrators.
The policies needed to increase reporting of sex crime aren't particularly progressive or imaginative. Additional training for workers in the criminal justice system, tailored support for survivors throughout the reporting process, and police outreach to demonstrate their commitment to internal change would all work. And they are what many women and campaigners have been asking for for a long time.
But they are not easy wins. They require honest conversations that admit something is seriously wrong with a society that accepts sex crime by men as a part of life. They are less likely to capture column inches or win public applause. Much of the work will be behind the scenes, and their progress measured by timelines much longer than election cycles. But, gradually, they will make a difference.
- ACT stealthing law, outlawing non-consensual condom removal during sex, passes in Australian first
- Frances Crimmins: Law reform is needed to prevent sexual violence, but consent education is the starting point
- Brittany Higgins appointed visiting fellow at Julia Gillard's Global Institute for Women's Leadership at ANU
Even better than policies focused on supporting survivors to come forward would be a concerted effort to stop men stealthing in the first place; an ambitious and well-funded commitment to dismantle the systems that allow widespread misogyny and sex crime to flourish. This, however, will require leadership from Lee's federal counterparts - and an appetite for change so far lacking.
The Morrison government's response to Brittany Higgins' allegations was to offer optional one-hour training for MPs on sexual harassment and workplace safety. The grossly misjudged Respect Matters government campaign, which used pizza, milkshakes and everything but the words "sex", "rape" and "assault" to educate schoolchildren about consent, was widely criticised and pulled within days. These were opportunities to send clear messages that sex crime and the intimidation of women would not be tolerated. They were also opportunities for self-reflection and bold new policy agendas. Sadly, these opportunities were missed.
If - and statistically, it's pretty likely - I am sexually assaulted again, I can't say enough has changed in the past four years for me to feel confident going to the police.
Elizabeth Lee's criminalisation of stealthing is progress, but alone it changes very little. The hard work starts now. It will not fit election cycles or produce instant results. And since change will come slowly, without fanfare, it's hard to imagine her federal colleagues showing much interest. But rest assured, Scotty, we're watching.
- Frankie Bennett is a political and legal campaigner based in Sydney. Twitter: @primafrankie