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Newsworthy rape

By Helen Pringle - posted Thursday, 8 February 2007

Outside the County Court in Melbourne recently, Geoff Clark urged the media to consider the importance of the rule of law, and also offered his opinion that “No one’s safe”.

Clark is right. No one is safe.

The 1996 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Women’s Safety Survey, for example, estimated that 18 per cent of women had experienced sexual violence since reaching the age of 15. The results of the 1998 ABS Crime and Justice Survey of women’s experiences of sexual assault indicated that more than 47,300 incidents of sexual assault had been perpetrated on about 30,000 women from across Australia in the previous 12 months. These results are consistent with other surveys taken before and since that time.


Moreover, most cases of sexual assault involve people who are known to each other, often well known, and the great majority of cases happen in the home, in the bedroom or kitchen, or in other places considered “safe” by the victims.

The clearest example of sexual assault, the popular picture of rape, is an attack by a stranger on a dark street involving the use of force to penetrate her, or him. But such cases are exceptions in reported cases of sexual assault. And they are even more exceptions in what we know of unreported rape, that is, unreported to the police. The 1998 ABS Crime and Justice Survey found that 80 per cent of targets of sexual assault knew the alleged perpetrator, and most knew the perpetrator very well or intimately.

The Australian media, however, shows little interest in typical cases of sexual assault, as Clark noted, albeit self-servingly.

Take, for example, the case of Martin Giles. Around the time of the ABS Crime and Justice Survey, in October 1998, Martin Giles invited a friend for a ride in his car. They smoked some marijuana, and it appears there was some dispute about whether the young woman had paid for her share. Giles tried to start the car and when he could not do so, an argument ensued. He then strangled the woman with the tie of her tracksuit. He raped her twice while she was unconscious. We don’t know if he said anything about what he was about to do, or if he called her anything. Giles beat, stabbed and mutilated the woman, and when he had finished he inserted in her body the scissors he had used, and walked home.

In sentencing Giles, the judge refrained (as I have done here) from recounting all the facts of the rapes and murder because of their disturbing nature. Most of those facts can be consulted in case reports. The reports came up in an electronic search for cases containing the words “genital” and “mutilation”.

The rape of the young woman by Giles was not atypical in many respects. Indeed, when Giles appealed against the severity of his sentence, one of the appeal judges drew attention to the similarity of the case with other “appalling crimes of violence” committed by young men who had come before him. Giles and his victim were well acquainted: she was savagely and contemptuously betrayed by a man she knew and trusted.


Typically again, the reporting of the case of Giles was not extensive. The report in the Melbourne Age, for example, took up little more than 5cm on the inside cover, in the section entitled “Briefs”. Giles’ sentence was reported next to an item entitled “Cyclone bypasses Port Hedland”. The report on Giles in The Australian was even briefer, coming in at 50 words. The case does not seem to have been reported in the Herald.

The savagery of Giles’ crime certainly places it high on the scale of what is in all cases a savage crime. But few rapes are reported to the police. And according to a New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research report of 1999 (Predicting Women's Responses to Violence released in 2000) it is young, employed and educated women who are most reluctant to report sexual violence against themselves to the police.

If few rapes are reported, even fewer are prosecuted, and few manage to receive anything other than a cursory note in the press, under “Briefs”. The construction of “typical” rape cases by media focus, or lack of focus, on particular cases contributes a great deal to popular misunderstandings of sexual safety, risk and danger.

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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.

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Related Links
Women's Safety Australia, 1996 - Australian Bureau of Statistics

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