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July 13, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Sex and Ethics

Should unwanted sex as part of a good sexual relationship be considered a criminal offence in NZ?

The Wellington Sexual Abuse Network (WSAN), a.k.a. the joined forces of Wellington Rape Crisis, Wellington Sexual Abuse HELP and WellStop vote ‘Yes’ have a plan to prevent sexual violence among young people.

WSAN, with support from the Ministry of Justice, will pilot a revolutionary six-week Sex & Ethics programme at Victoria University over the next 18 months. Project co‑ordinator Sandra Dickson talked to Salient about sex, pleasure and why the traditional approach to rape prevention doesn’t work.

Before we get into the rest of the interview, how does the Wellington Sexual Abuse Network define rape?

In terms of the law, rape means penis, vagina, unwanted. But most people don’t use the word rape like that. Most of the time when we talk about rape in our lives, we talk about sex that one person doesn’t want to be happening. That could be anal rape, it could be unwanted sex between two men, it could be feeling forced to do things you don’t want to do. In our usual lives, that’s the way we define rape.

And what’s the background to the programme?

We wanted to find prevention approaches that worked. We know that sexual violence has not decreased in our twenty or thirty years of looking at the problem. So the first thing the WSAN did was take a look at what was happening around the world. Basically, there’s a bit of a revolution going on. We’ve got sexual violence prevention starting to change, starting to look at what sexual pleasure is. The idea is, if you’re having great sex with your partner or partners, you won’t get sexual violence in that relationship.

Just to move back to the more traditional approach to rape prevention, why do you think that doesn’t work? Specifically, why does ‘just ask women to say no’ not work?

There’s a whole range of reasons. We’re assuming that rape is something women should be stopping men doing, rather than all of us stopping anyone doing. Also, the thing about the new approach is that it can be applied to any relationship—straight or queer.

How did the original programme in Australia get developed?

In Australia, Moira [Carmody, Associate Professor at the University of Western Sydney] and Karen [Willis, head of NSW Rape Crisis] interviewed loads of young people and asked them what they’d been taught about sex. Basically, young people said ‘we know loads about plumbing, how to put on a condom’, some young people said ‘we know we’re supposed to wait until we get married’… different messages, but nothing like ‘how do you hook up with someone you meet at the club and work out what you’ve both agreed to?’ Most of that is done without talking, non-verbal, so if we’re doing non-verbal [communication] to let each other know we’re attracted, how do we know that what we’ve both agreed to is the same thing? What if one of you wants to go home and cuddle, and the other wants to go home and have intercourse? What if one of you wants to go home and take off all your clothes and kiss, and the other has decided on a bondage scene? How do we check that out?

So, basically the programme was founded in Australia and gradually it gained popularity?

We’re actually in the really early stages. The programme has been developed and piloted in Australia over the last three years. We’re the first other country to offer it, and Wellington is the only place in NZ where the programme is available to young people.

And once Moira has trained the educators, they’ll run the programme from Evolve [youth service on Eva Street], Vibe [youth service in Lower Hutt], Massey and Victoria?
Two courses will be offered at Victoria and both run over six weeks for two hours a week. We run it over six weeks to give people a chance to think about it…

Apply it…

[laughs] Yeah, no doubt apply it! And it gives people enough time to think about what they’re actually learning. Part of the course involves looking at how we’ve behaved in the past, what we wish we’d done differently—and I think most people have sex stories like that, eh!—and how we might want to do it next time.

And what’s the response from the trials that have been done in Australia?

It’s really interesting. We saw three really big shifts. People have talked about having a much better idea of what they want to do sexually. You start the programme, you might have a pretty good idea some of the time. Six months later, you’ve got a really good idea about what you are and aren’t prepared to do, what you think is good sex and bad sex. You’ve developed that whole way of checking with yourself.

The second big finding was that people reported feeling much more confident that they knew what their partner wanted. We’re not just talking about long-term relationships here, we’re also talking about one-night stands… so basically, young people were having better sex, which is pretty cool.

The third piece of research showed that six months down the line, most people felt much more confident about jumping in to prevent sexual abuse from happening. Maybe ringing a cab and getting that young woman home, ‘cos she’s too pissed to do anything that night, or popping over and saying ‘mate, what’s going on here, what’re you doing?’ Even something as simple as, you know, ‘do you want to be an asshole, what’re you doing?’ The students in Australia talked about that really enthusiastically, they said ‘I know how to do that now, I know how to do that with my friends, this is how we did it last week’… What that does is stop sexual violence happening, and stop people knowing about it but not knowing how to stop it. That’s a huge change.

So that’s a prevention of both types of rape then—unwanted sex when you know the person, and unwanted sex when you don’t know them well, or you don’t know them at all.


Something else I wanted to ask, you said right at the start of the interview, you said the legal definition of rape is a penis in a vagina when it’s not meant to be there. Are you pushing for legislative change? Are you hoping programmes like this will help shift stereotypes?

I think we’ve got real problems with our laws in NZ. At the moment when people report rape, they’re really, really, really unlikely to get a conviction. We have all these stereotypes about that being because people who report rape aren’t telling the truth, but actually research suggests that police only get to hear about 12% of the rapes in NZ.


Most people who are raped are women, so we’re talking about most women not reporting when they’re raped. The second thing is that our justice system at the moment has appalling successful prosecution rates. International research shows us that’s not usually because the complaint is false, it’s usually because there are problems with how rape is prosecuted, with the collection of evidence.

One of the things that we have in NZ, in order to prove that someone has raped you, you have to prove that you didn’t consent to what happened. In a lot of other countries, it’s the other way around. In order to prove that you haven’t raped someone, you have to prove that you actually cared what they wanted. You have to prove that you made sure you knew they had consented.

And that’s happening overseas?

It’s true in the UK now, relatively recently, and it’s true in some parts of Australia. So actually, we’re behind Australia when it comes to rape law.

So rape prevention seems to involve both education and legislation… where does the Sex & Ethics programme fit in?

If the course works well, then hopefully we’ll see these ideas being used in schools. Instead of ‘girls, you just say no, and boys, you just listen to the girls’, we’ll actually get some ideas about how you negotiate good sex, because at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to have good sex?

Students interested in the six-week Sex & Ethics pilot programme have four options:
Massey and Victoria University queer students:
Wednesday 5.30–7.30pm, six weeks from July 15 (includes dinner) at Vic Student Union Building
Contact: Sandra Dickson on 04 473 5358 or email
Weir House residents:
Thursday 7.15pm–9.15pm, six weeks from July 16 (includes dinner) at Weir House
Contact: Rachel Rerekura-Tamaiva on 04 463 3989 or 027 563 3989
Evolve Youth Service
(5 Eva Street, off Dixon, Central Wellington)
Six weeks from Tuesday July 28 (includes dinner) at Evolve
Contact: Josh on 04 801 9150 or email
Vibe Youth Service
(Lower Hutt)
Six weeks from Tuesday August 4 (includes dinner) at Vibe
Contact: Fati or Eddie on 04 566 0525


About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

Comments (2)

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  1. Flora says:

    Choice interview Nina.

  2. Lisa Livingstone-kameta says:

    This is a very interesting concept. I currently work with Teenage parents under the age of 17. I am very interested in te outcome of this pilot project happening in Wellington. Please send me more information

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