Welcome back. Here is the final instalment of my chat with Professor Andrea Durbach, a senior advisor on The Hunting Ground Australia Project (THGAP).  

For Part One of the interview with Andrea click here.

THGAP is using the US film The Hunting Ground,  a documentary about rape and sexual assault on US campuses, as a tool to engage Australian universities, and the broader community, in a collaborative, comprehensive and unified campaign around the incidence of, and responses to, sexual violence on Australian university campuses.

THGAP was initiated and made possible by Good Pitch² Australia.

A note: At the Academy Awards last week, Lady Gaga performed her Oscar-nominated song “‘Til It Happens to You” which was written for The Hunting Ground.  She was joined on stage by 50 other survivors of sexual assault. US Vice President Joe Biden, speaking in support of the White House’s #ItsOnUs campaign, said “We must change the culture”.

And on that note…

Andrea Durbach

Andrea Durbach. Photo by Diane Macdonald

PJB: So there’s a film about the American college campus experience that jump-starts a conversation about sexual assault on Australian campuses; there’s the survey and a pro-active desire to deal with cultural specificity, prevention and best practice for Australian tertiary institutions but there is the bigger cultural question. Educators, researchers and advocates say that two of the key factors in violence against women are: an inequitable distribution of power and resources between men and women and an adherence to society’s rigid gender models of what it means to be masculine or feminine. Some of the primary prevention strategies when it comes to changing the culture are about challenging those models: marriage equality, challenging stereotypes and representation, equal pay, putting women in more leadership positions, on boards etc. Do you think that’s going to bring about the cultural change that’s necessary to prevent violence against women?

AD: My view on most of these factors is that they are superficially important—equal pay is fundamentally important—but what I think we have to tackle is the issue of power head on or we won’t make much progress. It’s wonderful that The Hunting Ground came out at the same time as the Suffragette film because you get a historical perspective and you see that we’ve come so far and we’ve come so NOT far. It’s quite astounding that women in Switzerland, for example, only got the vote in the late 1970s–

PJB: Or that in India, today, the largest democracy in the world, married women are required to secure the permission of their husbands before leaving the country or that in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to leave the house without a chaperone, open a bank account without their husband’s permission or read an uncensored fashion magazine.

AD: Exactly. Unless you go to the core of this problem, which is power and power relationships and what people derive from that relationship which is entitlement to control, deny, devalue or harm—then we’re never going to get real change. That’s why I thought the defence force work was so fascinating. We were much more interested in ensuring that the information the leadership within the defence forces was getting provided them with knowledge about what was occurring (the first step) but then to use that knowledge not to say: ‘we’re going to have more women in submarines’ but to say—’we have to change the way relationships are conducted, we have to change the way we relate to people’.

PB: Is that procedure and protocol?

AD: I think these are tools, facilitators but we need to develop equity and understand the social and economic reasons underlying discrimination and violence against women. It goes to the core of how we are in the world. It’s probably the biggest challenge of humankind.

We can send people to the moon but we still don’t have gender equality. What’s that about?

PB: Anxiety about power and who has it?

AD: Yes. Suffragette (the film) gave such a clear picture of the question: What is at the crux of men somehow feeling honoured by dishonouring other? What is at the crux of that? It’s a fear of losing power or having it undermined in some way. Until men and women, and I include women in this, actually understand power and that real power comes from not asserting power, if you know what I mean—

PB: Not assuming superiority or taking a dominant power position—

AD: In relation to other—that is real power. Until we rid ourselves of that anxiety, nothing is going to really shift. We’re in a very worrying period in our history because feminism has achieved so much but there’s such a backlash against it perhaps because of this fear of loss of power.

PB: The 2013 NCAS (National Community Attitudes Violence Against Women Survey) conducted by VicHealth found that while the survey showed that most Australians have a good knowledge of violence against women and do not endorse most attitudes that support this violence, among the findings were:

2 in 5 Australians believe that a lot of times women who say they were raped led the man on and later had regrets; and 1 in 5 believes that there are circumstances in which women bear some responsibility for violence and that remains unchanged since the last survey in 2009.

Where do these beliefs come from?

AD: I don’t want to paint a picture either of women as incapable of horrendous acts of violence, I think they are, but we all emerge out of our own experiences and if violence has, for example, been a way of parents relating to one another or we’ve lived in violent communities or in countries like South Africa under Apartheid as a black person, particularly; if violence is a form of communication or a way of getting things done, then that’s what you know and how you negotiate life.

Allison Henry, Impact Producer (THGAP) and Amy Ziering, Producer – THE HUNTING GROUND at Good Pitch Australia Event 2015.

PB: We become acculturated in unconscious and pernicious ways—even when educated to be aware of it. This might seem a trivial comparison and it’s certainly a shameful thing to share but here goes. I remember when Julia Gillard was PM—the misogynistic and belittling attacks she was forced to beat off daily in the media, and by her political opponent (Tony Abbott) were deeply disturbing to me and enraging; I thought Australia had really lost the plot. But one night I was watching JG on the news and thinking: Why is she wearing that skirt? Her arse looks big in that skirt. STOP. What the hell was that? I’ve internalized this vile sexism—I have failed to block the abhorrent cultural norm. I am the enemy, I am a bad feminist and not in a good way. Worse, I love a big bottom—I was even betraying my own aesthetic sense but frankly what has that got to do with the Prime Minister? It wouldn’t have occurred to me to consider the size of Tony Abbott’s posterior or the cut of his pants… You have to constantly challenge yourself on these “norms”.

AD: Constantly. That’s what The Hunting Ground allows for. It forces us to challenge our own perceptions of this phenomenon, for want of a better word, it disturbs our way of thinking—the way women and men relate, the way women and women relate, the way external factors like political or financial success, social standing force an institution to behave—like a military institution with a masculinised environment and people are rewarded for replicating it. If I had to look at this cultural problem as a whole it does my head in.

PB: I agree, if I follow the threads in the big picture,  it starts unraveling within the complexity— you have to restrict or rather define the focus to manage the complexity.

AD: And that’s why this defined project (THGAP) is a contribution to that whole; it’s not through this project that we’re going to change the power dynamic but—Ian Darling is always saying this—the first step is to begin talking about it and the film is a conversation starter. I’ve seen it happen at the screening at my university and I’ve seen people who’ve had initially very defensive reactions to the film come back and say, “I’ve thought this through and I really want to do something about it.”

PB: On that, I was struck when I watched, for example, Call Me Dad (the feature version). It’s the flipside in many ways to what The Hunting Ground is about in that it’s about perpetrators of violence. Like The Hunting Ground, it did what good films do: challenge an audience’s own prejudices and preconceptions. In the beginning, I flinched at the men in the behavioural change program who’d been violent to their wives and children. I didn’t want to be in the same room as them—even as they were on screen. But watching the radical transformation in these men when I had doubted they were capable of change was a wake-up. It changed how I thought about that issue—that these men were victims too; they hadn’t understood their own behaviour or how it came about. It helped that they had voluntarily attended this program because they accepted that they were responsible for causing harm to people they loved, and that is very often not the case. By the end of the film, you could see the relief and liberation manifested in their bodies and on their faces—they could choose to change and control their own behaviour but to do that they had to be given a way forward, and develop insight about where their attitudes and ideas about power came from.

AD: My experience working on the THGAP is that initially there was resistance—not to the film because the film is out there regardless—but a resistance to what the film is asking of us. So that’s why we thought initially we’d go with the GO8 universities who were the focus of the original ADFA recommendation coming out of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) study: to look at university institutions in the same way we had looked at military institutions because why would it be any different? We thought the GO8 was manageable, was appropriate, it might have been seen as exclusionary but that wasn’t the intent.

In fact, what’s happened due, in part, to the campaign that Good Pitch² Australia has created around the film is that the majority of universities are saying: We want to be involved in this. They’re volunteering to come on board as opposed to being forced to participate. This is amazingly supportive of us and the work we are doing; and they are in it because there is an authentic belief that this is the right thing to do.

PB: I do want to ask you about your views on victim-blaming. When asked what people can do to change the culture, Amy Ziering says, Believe the victim. Believing victims has always been difficult for people. Why is that?

AD: I think it’s a combination of so many things. Fear—there for the grace of god go I; If you had worn something different, if you hadn’t drunk so much, you were complicit. It can also be a projection. … I think the way to deal with victim blaming is not to fall into the simplistic binary way, which is to put the victim in one box and the perpetrator in the other. … We often only have that discussion between victim and perpetrator in a law court so you reinforce a rigid divide through that process and a power dynamic. What we are trying to do with THGAP is to have that conversation in ways that make people understand that it’s not only people breaking the law but perpetrators are actually harming themselves when they act like that. It’s harming your capacity to be a functional, constructive human being who has healthy relationships with others: that’s the violence to yourself when you hurt and abuse someone else.

PB: The findings from the 2013 NCAS Survey (National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey) identified an ‘area of concern’ as people not understanding that non-physical abuse is controlling access to money, checking phone calls, restricting women’s social lives etc. Once people can identify behaviours that’s a start. And  some people don’t even know they are victims of abuse, and blame themselves. It’s so wrong.

AD: Many people who talk about executing violence have often been victims of violence and so they see that as the norm. So to go to the point you made before that it’s about people becoming aware that this is not acceptable behaviour when for most of their lives they’ve been behaving that way, it’s news to them. The patterns of behaviour inter-generationally are not something we look at but we should. Recognising a propensity to violence, we need to ask where it comes from.

Related stories: The Oscars and Social Change, Favourite Films: Stories We Tell, Andrea Durbach: The Hunting Ground Australia Project. Part One, The Consent Sketch – ‘Luke Warm Sex’.

For The Hunting Ground (US site), click here.

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