Rape is not a ‘women’s issue’. It’s a men’s issue

I taught both my children about consent when they were still at daycare. I explained that sometimes they would be playing in the sandpit and see another child with a toy they wanted to play with. I explained that they had to ask first.

I also explained that just because someone says you can play with their toy it doesn’t mean you can play with it indefinitely, break it or take it home. If they want it back you have to give it back.

Given all the debates about consent going on in this country you’d be forgiven for thinking consent is a bafflingly complex issue. In fact, it’s something we deal with every day. We ask permission. We pay attention to other people’s words and body language. We negotiate.

Asking permission to have sexual contact is not something we need an app for. It’s something grown-ups do in verbal and non-verbal ways all the time. Even in long-term relationships. Saying yes to being kissed does not mean giving someone a free pass to do anything they want to us.

The problem is not that men are confused about what consent looks like. It’s that some of them just don’t care.

The conviction of high-profile footballer Jarryd Hayne for sexual assault surprised me. Why? Because here are the statistics. Less than 10 per cent of reported cases of sexual assault result in a conviction. And recent estimates suggest that about 87 per cent of survivors don’t report.

Wonder why? Because we are still living with persistent rape myths. The notion that women persistently make up rape. That they are somehow responsible for being raped by putting themselves in harm’s way by drinking, being sexually attractive, walking down a dark lane or perhaps just by working in Parliament House.

Women do not ask to be raped. Men make the decision to rape them.

I worked in the press gallery for this newspaper in the early ’90s. I remember the culture all too well. Most of the men I worked with or dealt with were fabulous. But there were definitely guys – and all the women knew who they were – who you’d avoid being alone with in an office.

Yet another scandal has emerged from our national Parliament this week. It’s absolutely no accident that “lewd” acts (whatever that means) occurred in a female MP’s office. Actually, here’s what it means: a male staffer was sacked on Monday night after Ten News showed heavily pixelated images of him masturbating over the MP’s desk.

Which begs the question: what do women have to do to be treated with basic respect in the workplace? Apparently getting elected to Parliament and working a 70-hour week doesn’t cut it.

Feminists may be famed for lacking a sense of humour but, as will be apparent from this column, we have developed an extremely healthy capacity for sarcasm born out of banging our collective heads against the same wall for decades.

To be a feminist you have to be an optimist. And the optimist in me tells me we have reached a tipping point on the issue of sexual assault. That the vast majority of Australians are outraged by what they see going on in the building that allegedly houses their leaders.

After some tin-eared remarks in the face of last week’s March 4 Justice rallies, it seems even our Prime Minister really gets it. Scott Morrison gave a sincerely emotional press conference on Tuesday in reaction to the latest outrages involving his government’s parliamentary staff. Morrison expressed the kind of anger and despair that women projected on Parliament House last week. Which is terrific.

Now let’s see some action. Let’s start properly funding trauma counselling and research-focused services such as Rape and Domestic Services Australia. Let’s start sex education young on why consent matters, and that can be done in age-appropriate ways, from late primary school. Let’s implement sex education that focuses on communication, not merely plumbing and diseases. And let’s take seriously women’s safety in the workplace, and in all our institutions.

Rape is not a “women’s issue”. It’s a men’s issue.

Women need all good men to join them in this fight to prevent sexual assault and to share some of the emotional labour that women have been doing on this issue for decades now.

We have had it. We are angry. And we are not going away.