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Samantha Keene is a PhD student at VUW’s Institute of Criminology. Her PhD research focuses on the meanings and impacts of pornography for emerging adults. Her research interests are in pornography, violence against women, student populations, and sex work.
You have done a lot of work on rape culture and sexual violence in your postgraduate studies. Why did you choose this as an area of study and what gap was there in the literature surrounding sexual violence and young people in NZ?
That’s a hard question! I don’t really know why I chose it as a topic specifically — it’s something that interested me. When completing my honours studies, I got really interested in the issue, and noticed a really significant literature gap about sexual violence and students living in halls. So I embarked on it as an area of research […] and just never looked back.
From an academic perspective, how would you define or explain what ‘rape culture’ is?
Rape culture is an environment where sexual violence is trivialised, and the realities of sexual violence are often misunderstood. Rape culture is living in a society where the myth that the majority of sexual offending occurs in a dark alleyway, late at night, perpetrated by a stranger, is perpetuated. In reality, the majority of sexual offending occurs between people known to each other, such as partners, family members, friends, and acquaintances.
Holding victims responsible for their own victimisation is a key part of a rape culture — it lays the responsibility for preventing victimisation with victims, instead of the people responsible for offending against them. For example, it’s victims being told that they should “wear running shoes” or “carry a rape whistle” — often in the aftermath of a sexual attack in a nearby locality — instead of sending messages to potential perpetrators about not committing rape. It’s the telling of victims they “shouldn’t have got so drunk” or they shouldn’t have “led them on” by wearing particular types of clothing, instead of telling perpetrators that they shouldn’t take advantage of someone who has been drinking and cannot consent, or that someone’s clothing is not a signal to be sexually assaulted.
Rape culture is also ever-present in our language. It’s present when people make jokes about rape, when people try to justify offending by saying someone was “asking for it,” and it’s also present when the presence of sexual violence as a widespread experience is denied, or seen as not an issue. Rape culture is pervasive and normalises these problematic societal attitudes.
Comments made on a private Facebook page by Wellington College students regarding young women and sexual violence recently garnered significant media attention. In this instance, as in the Roastbusters scandal, the involvement of alcohol has been highlighted by the media. How would you respond to the suggestion of a causative link between drinking culture and rape culture?
Alcohol and sexual violence have a complicated relationship. As many as 50% of instances of sexual assault involve intoxication; either by the perpetrator, the victim, or both. So, yes, alcohol is often present in instances of sexual violence. Is there a causative link? No. […] Rape and sexual violence have been present in our society for decades — it would be naive to say that sexual violence is “caused” by a relatively recent phenomena of binge drinking culture.
Family First NZ said that the “example of Wellington College students posting offensive comments on social media highlights the pressing need for experts to formally investigate the public health effects and societal harms of pornography.” In light of your recent PhD work on pornography, what are your views on this?
Again, pornography and sexual violence have a complicated relationship. […] For every study that suggests there is a relationship between people watching porn and committing acts of sexual violence, there’s another that says there isn’t. In the context of a psychological study, certainly, when you show people pornographic images and then get them to reflect on their attitudes towards sexual violence, there isn’t a direct link. […] But some perpetrators of sexual violence do report extensive use of pornography and have said that this did influence their offending. […] Does this mean that it “causes” sexual violence? No, and I think that Family First has latched onto a recent wave of pornography receiving media attention to coin it as a “public health crisis” — children and pornography, “a six year old addicted to pornography!” — to push an agenda for a porn inquiry, which is what they are currently proposing. The petition for the enquiry already has more than 10,000 signatures, but I do wonder how many of those signatures are from people who do watch porn…? I don’t think an inquiry would be a bad thing, but I think those resources would be better directed at supporting consent education. […] The issue I have with Family First’s position is that it ignores the fact that people can, and do, engage with pornography in a positive way; that people can have really good experiences with porn. I think it’s an abdication of responsibility to suggest that this causes that.
You mentioned a need for consent education. Do you think that is an effective tool in terms of preventing sexual violence? What would it practically look like?
I absolutely think consent education is necessary in schools. What that would look like, exactly, I’m not sure — but it would certainly need a centralised focus, an open dialogue about what consent is and the types of situations young people are likely to navigate, and a focus on sex as pleasure. […] Because the fact is that young people are having sex, so why deny that? We need more than “this is how not to get pregnant.” I know, when I was in high school, there was certainly nothing about what good sex looks like, how sex can be, is, for pleasure. There have been some questions about whether teachers are the right people to provide this education — maybe not, in which case having independent people coming into schools, talking about sex in an open and frank discussion, would be important. And it would need to be mandatory.
[…] I think our generation is more open to these types of discussions. The fact that we can sit here and talk about sex and porn is testament to that. So I hope that momentum can keep up and that it will follow through to the younger generations.
Your thesis, “Risky Residences”, explored sexual violence in university halls of residence. Based on your study, and international examples, how prevalent is sexual violence in halls of residence?
My thesis focused on the effects of sexual violence in halls, but I unfortunately didn’t have the resources to undertake extensive research into the numbers. We don’t currently have any recent data on the prevalence of sexual victimisation in tertiary institutions. The latest study was by Nicola Gavey, in 1991, where she surveyed students enrolled in a 100 level psychology lecture about their experiences with sexual violence. […] We know that, according to international statistics, one in four women encounter sexual violence in their university experience. […] And in 1991, over 50% of women in that study reported having experienced some form of sexual aggression or victimisation. That scope is obviously not even as extensive as you would want, […] but it’s the best evidence we currently have. The reality is that to be able to address the issue, to make changes, we actually need to know what we are dealing with. We need region-specific studies, within which localised sites, like universities, are delineated to be able to give a really clear picture of the entire situation.
What conversations and/or policies, if any, have been developed to establish standardised response protocols, improve training, and increase education surrounding sexual violence in VUW halls of residence since your thesis?
My thesis proposed a number of recommendations. VUW has responded, I think, really well to discussions about sexual violence […] and is really a leader in terms of actively doing work to shine light on the issues. We’ve got the sexual violence prevention working group, the Thursdays in Black campaign has received a lot of feedback and attention, and VUW has actively supported that. […] We’ve got the consent posters that you’ve probably seen […] around campus. Residential Advisors in the Halls have done and continue to receive training in relation to instances of sexual violence.
VUW has also developed a sexual violence policy guideline, which it never had before. They have a definition of what sexual violence is, what consent is, and a kind of victim/survivor charter of Victoria’s commitment to the issue. There was also the 2016 Wellbeing symposium, which was more about staff and sexual violence. […]
Is there more work to do? There’s always more work to do. We need to keep at it, keep pushing for research, for conversations, for an open dialogue.
Lastly, what is your favourite colour?
Black, of course!