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August 3, 2014 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Pride and Prejudice – the ‘Blurred Lines’ of media and violence against women in New Zealand

“I’m sorry for being a man right now,” said Labour leader David Cunliffe at the recent Women’s Refuge conference, “because family and sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men against women and children.” The two attacks against women students near the Boyd-Wilson Field call into question who is to blame for our culture of violence, particularly following media reactions which criticise politicians such as Cunliffe, women and even the University.

In the wake of the attacks, the University faces increased pressure to strengthen security around Kelburn Campus. VUWSA Equity Officer Madeleine Ashton-Martyn said: “women should not have had to take preventative measures to ensure their own safety in walking home yet they did, and were still targeted.” Personal safety had already been a priority for the victims, and the attacks immediately provoked critique of the darkened parts of Kelburn and led to demands for higher security on campus.

The desire for increased security surfaced in the ‘Let Me Go Home’ march, encouraging students to identify unsafe areas on Kelburn Campus. Ashton-Martyn said the march was: “to show that we do not accept the current climate in which sexual assault is seen to be a given in any society, by means of providing an opportunity for everyone to become a part of the solution.” The march effectively identified a culture of violence against women, while pressing for increased security as the solution to violence.

Since the Let Me Go Home march, female students in Kelburn have taken extra lengths to secure their rented properties. Living on nearby Wai-te-ata Rd, a student reports she and her female flatmates had experienced “weird incidents”, and “heard someone knocking on the door at midnight just over a week ago, but we didn’t open it.” Prior to the attacks near Boyd-Wilson Field, the girls in the flat had felt completely comfortable leaving their door unlocked.

The students’ safety measures are a response to a culture of violence, wherein, as Cunliffe stated, violence is largely men against women. Third-year Criminology student Hannah says Cunliffe “highlights what we already know from statistics,” and should instead address “the actual underlying causes” and culture of violence in New Zealand. Women’s Aid agrees that violence “originates from a sense of entitlement which is often supported by sexist, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes.” Male entitlement is a typical consequence of New Zealand’s traditional structures of patriarchy, which expects men to be the ‘leader’ of their familial relationships.

Media criticism of Cunliffe’s statement places him on the receiving end of the anger surrounding violence, which naturally seeks someone to blame. However, media also criticise the behaviour of women. A perfect example is Jeremy Meeks, who caused turmoil after his mug shot was posted on Facebook by the Stockton Police Department. Meeks’ photograph inspired headlines such as ‘Handsome felon lands $30,000 modelling contract’ in The Independent, in what The New York Times dubbed ‘Our Affair with the Mug Shot’. Within one week, Meeks’ image had drawn more than 100,000 ‘likes’, close to 13,000 shares and almost 27,000 comments.

Soon to follow was the overwhelming critique of women head-over-heels with the criminal’s model-like cheekbones, accusing any woman in adoration of Meeks of ‘asking’ to be a victim of future assault. The adoration of Meeks infuriated those who oppose the sexualisation of women in popular culture, as demonstrated by reactions to the over-sexualised ‘Blurred Lines’ of Robin Thicke’s top hit. The fact that women are warned against commenting on the media image for fear of ‘being next’ coincides with Cunliffe’s apology, demonstrating that men are still seen as dangerous and a threat to women.

The reactions in recent media navigate who is to blame for the violence: men or women, politician, celebrity or even Campus Security. Agitated responses to Cunliffe’s apology show it is clear that men do not see themselves as perpetrators of violence. In contrast, the criticism of the adoration of Meeks’ mug shot incorrectly blames women. It exposes a culture where women are expected to stay silent, and therefore protect themselves from potential abuse.

Idealistically, women are free to do as they please without fear of provoking violence. Women’s Refuge’s new project ‘Bring Back Kate’ uses 19th-century women’s rights activist Kate Sheppard as an icon to prevent domestic violence in New Zealand. The project claims: “Violence against women in our country has reached epidemic levels. Kate wouldn’t stand for that.” The project draws respect back to women and children in New Zealand, using Sheppard to show women’s rights are unresolved in the current culture of violence against women.

Women’s Refuge says one in three women will be exposed to domestic violence. Ann Abraham, Prison Manager of Arohata Women’s Prison, agrees: “many of the women who are sent to jail have endured significant violence and abuse in their lives. That has a great impact on how they mature.” Household violence is also absorbed by children, perpetuating the culture of violence through generations.

So what can we learn from women who are themselves guilty of violence? Abraham said that in the six years she had been Arohata Prison Manager, she has: “noticed a marked increase in the number of women being sent to Arohata Prison for violent offences.” In analysis of the root causes of violence, Hannah said: “violence among females may be increasing, but it is not caused by them; rather, social, economic, political factors.” Again, violence is the result of complicated and preventable societal factors.

Evidently, feeling sorry for being either man or woman is insufficient in addressing underlying causes of violence. How we perceive crime, even that near the Boyd-Wilson Field, is formed by pre-existing gender stereotypes. It is easy to presume an overwhelming majority of men are violent; and just as simple to criticise women for attracting violence for being reckless, lustful mug-shot lovers. Both presumptions are false, and New Zealand’s current strategies of reducing reoffending reveals the clear necessities needed to prevent violence.

Arohata Prison’s programmes focus on incorporating psychological treatment, the Kowhiritanga programme, rehabilitation, basic living skills, and additionally, the Drug Treatment Unit, which is the only of its kind for women prisoners in New Zealand. Abraham believes these programmes are helpful. “We have many women who pass through the jail that spend their time wisely and become good citizens on release. It is the programmes we provide that allow them to reintegrate and assist in reducing reoffending.” The measures taken in New Zealand’s prisons to prevent future offences are making a marked improvement.

Statistics New Zealand demonstrates lessening violence since 2009, with over 25,000 fewer convictions in a dramatic improvement within five years. However, Police estimate that only 18 per cent of domestic violence incidents are reported. Ashton-Martyn agrees: “It’s so important to continue the discussion of rape culture, to empower survivors to seek help, and to provide widespread access to education and awareness of issues of sexual assault in order to prevent potential future aggressors.” The statistics show cultural environments which stem violence are controllable, and incidents like the Boyd-Wilson Field attacks can be prevented.

Ending the culture of violence against women will entail discussion about notions of male entitlement, fewer Robin Thicke examples of the over-sexualisation of women, and of course, more education for young women on their rights. One of these rights is that women can simply walk home from university or work without fear. By criticising Cunliffe for his apology, the media continues to blame individuals and not face the underlying causes of violent culture, particularly within New Zealand homes. The solution to all violence lies in reforming how we live, and love one another, rather than continuously seeking someone to blame.



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