Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The Brett Stewart case: not that sort of person

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 29 September 2010

This piece is not about Brett Stewart. It is however a piece about those officers of the law who have come to the defence of a man facing charges of sexual intercourse without consent, and of indecent assault. And it is a piece about the terms in which they have conducted that defence. This is also not a piece about the character of Brett Stewart, a matter about which I have no knowledge whatever. In fact, so that I can make clear what I want to say, I shall call Stewart “the accused” from here on, because this is not really about him.

The accused was reportedly described to the jury by his counsel Tony Bellanto QC as “simply ‘not the sort of person’ who would sexually assault a woman”. [“Sex Attack Defence”, Sydney Morning Herald, p. 2] Mr Bellanto was continuing on in the same vein as the New South Wales deputy senior crown prosecutor, who gave evidence as a private citizen at the trial of the accused. Margaret Cunneen has known the accused since 2003, and her sons know him through football. She reportedly gave evidence that the accused is “refreshingly respectful towards females”, and she asserted, “Any allegation that [the accused] forced himself on any woman or girl is completely inconsistent with the character of the young man I know”.

Ms Cunneen elaborated on her view, in a style of language that made me wince, by saying that the accused is “a ‘gentleman’ who stood up when women entered his company”. And more: “He is the first to offer a lady a chair or a drink,… He remembers their names and uses them, and he looks them in the eye when he speaks to them.” Apparently, many such lucky “ladies” frequently make attempts to “enter his company”, said Ms Cunneen, “including young women who are very, very keen to make his acquaintance”.


The language of Ms Cunneen’s defence of the accused sounded as if it was lifted straight from the script of the Piranha Brothers. The accused could not have forced himself on a woman, just as Dinsdale Piranha could not have committed heinous crimes because he was a gentleman who used to give his mother flowers.

But this was not a comedy. As the prosecutor in the case, Peter Skinner, reportedly reminded Ms Cunneen, she has had “a reputation for being a high profile crown prosecutor in sexual assault cases” since 2003. If anyone needed reminding, Mr Skinner’s suggestion recalled the role of Ms Cunneen as the Crown Prosecutor at the trial of Bilal Skaf and others in 2002, when she remarked that those sexual assaults “have left an indelible stain on the history of the State of New South Wales and upon the psyche of its citizens”.

It is clear, then, that Ms Cunneen understands the gravity of the crime of sexual assault. What she doesn’t seem to understand very well is the “typical” form and perpetrator of that crime. Her view seems to be that nice white boys who act like “gentlemen” towards “ladies” are somehow incapable of having sex with a woman in the absence of the meaningful communication of mutual consent.

Ms Cunneen’s comments, perhaps unwittingly, reflect some of the oldest rape myths around. The typical accused in sexual assault trials is nothing like the mythical accused. The typical accused exhibits no personality or behavioural characteristics that differentiate him from any other man. He doesn’t have the number 666, or words like “I am a pathological sex maniac”, written on his forehead. The typical accused is more likely to live in or near your home, or even be friends with your sons, than to be a stranger.

The typical person who is convicted in sexual assault trials is neither the mythical pervert or a deviant. He is, however, a conformist to destructive norms of male sexual behaviour that discount the importance of mutuality – and of its meaningful communication – in the relations between men and women in particular. In the smaller proportion of sexual assault trials where the convicted person is a woman, this refusal of mutuality is also in evidence.

So to say, as an officer of the law, that a man is “simply ‘not the sort of person’ who would sexually assault a woman” is an extraordinary claim, given everything that is known about the sources and incidence of danger and risk in sexual relations. What Mr Bellanto and Ms Cunneen have noted in the trial of the accused is hogwash, but it is dangerous hogwash. A woman is at just as great a risk of sexual assault from a man who stands up as she enters his company as she is from any other man. To claim otherwise is to mislead women about what makes them vulnerable to sexual assault, and about where the threats to their autonomy come from.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

65 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Helen Pringle

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Helen Pringle
Article Tools
Comment 65 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy