Three young women wearing black chained themselves outside Auckland Central Police Station in a direct action against the police’s decision not to prosecute in the Roast Busters case. Their spokeswomen Genevieve Wilson explained that they were seeking accountability from the police, and recognition that the actions of the police have supported rape culture.
They called for a formal inquiry into the handling of the case, including the treatment of the female complainants by police. Their message to the female victims of the “Roast Busters” was that “We support you. We think you are really brave”.
The protest, that used the hashtag #silentVigil, was a powerful challenge to the New Zealand Police to be accountable for their inaction, and to be responsive in changing police culture and handling of sexual violence cases.
The protest of these three young women speaks to a much larger sentiment amongst New Zealand women that the New Zealand Police are failing us when it comes to sexual violence cases.
There’s a few complex and linked issues we could unpack about Police handling of the Roast Busters case. We need to ask questions about police actions, their knowledge about sexual violence and non-consent, and their handling of the case in respect to the kinds of messages they gave complainants and suspects.
Institutional sexism occurs through both overt mechanisms (like policies) and more obliquely through commonly held stereotypical beliefs. In this case, we need to think about whether the police culture is susceptible to some of the broader, pervasive sexist thinking that supports ‘rape culture’. Research by Shannon Chan (2013) points out that women are a minority in the New Zealand Police force, particularly at senior ranks. Shannon Chan’s research with female officers suggested that while they enjoyed the positive aspects of the force – like camaraderie – they tended to downplay sexual harassment and unwanted banter in order to ‘fit in’ and ‘be one of the boys’ within police culture. So, with a force where even female police officers need to ‘fit in’ with misogynist attitudes toward women, we have a problem.
Going forward, the key issue for the New Zealand Police is trust. Do the Police handle interviews and interactions with young women sensitively, and in a way that encourages them to make complaints and trust that their testimonies will be taken seriously? Can we trust them with our painful stories? Can we trust them to understand that liking a boy or going to a party or underage drinking is not the same thing as wanting sex?
The issue now is that the inability of the NZ Police to prosecute – when this was such a well publicised case, and when images of the boys and their Facebook messaging has been seen by most of the country – sends a far more damaging message to future victims and future perpetrators of unwanted sexual contact.
For women it reinforces the sense that we will not be taken seriously by the New Zealand Police, and that the experiences of women and girls are not as respected or valued. For boys and men it sends a message that the words of women and girls are not taken seriously. A message that some act of opportunistic, unwanted sexual contact with a girl is a risk that you can probably take.
To understand ‘rape culture’ we need to make sense of what beliefs and ideas allow rape to occur. To my mind, it’s really ways of thinking about girls and women where our lives and bodies are less valuable than the lives and bodies of men. So when the young men involved in the ‘Roast busters’ could put the esteem of their mates ahead of the feelings of the young women in front of them, that’s a rape-supportive culture. When young women don’t make statements because they are afraid of the reactions of their peers and families, that’s a rape-supportive culture. And when the New Zealand Police can lead a year-long investigation into the ‘Roast Busters’ and fail to hold the perpetrators to account, that’s a rape-supportive culture.
Meanwhile, bravo to the courageous young women that protested outside the Auckland Central Police Station today. It was an unsettling visual image to see young women with black gaffer tape across their mouths, an image that brought the silencing of young women to the fore. One woman held a sign that simply read “You failed us”.
A mass protest against rape culture and calling for police accountability is planned for the 22 November outside of the High Court at 1 pm.