Last month I briefly mentioned a Tasmanian case in which a father, a registered sex offender convicted of possessing child pornography, was given visitation right to his two daughters. I thought the story warranted a more in-depth examination, so I asked Caroline Norma to take a closer look. Caroline is a PhD candidate with the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. She is a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Australia, and works part-time with the Policing Just Outcomes Project.
[Trigger warning for survivors of sexual assault and inter-familial rape]
Justice Robert Benjamin in the Robins v Ruddock case of 22 January this year awarded a registered sex offender access rights to his two daughters. This was despite the fact that, in his judgment, Justice Benjamin said he believed one of the daughters, a ten year old, who told the court she was scared of spending time alone at night with her father. She had reason to be scared. Her father had been convicted for possessing child pornography, and was listed on the state’s sex offender register. Justice Benjamin believed the girl’s mother who told the court she had seen her ex-husband sexually abusing his stepdaughter. He believed a forensic psychologist who told the court the ten-year-old daughter had also been sexually abused at some point. Justice Benjamin believed the ‘mother was truthful in giving evidence’ (p. 22), and that she was unable to intervene in her husband’s abuse of her daughters because of his violent and controlling behaviour. Justice Benjamin described her ex-husband as having poor impulse control, as being ‘manipulative and disingenuous’ (p. 23), as opportunistic, as engaging in inappropriate ‘communication’ with his daughter, and as acting in self-serving ways. However, despite fully understanding and acknowledging the sexual threat the father posed, Justice Benjamin ignored the pleas of the girls’ mother and awarded a sex offender fortnightly access to his daughters.
How did Justice Benjamin arrive at this decision? The reason he was able to believe the girls, while still deciding to grant a sex offender access to them, seems to rest in an implicit belief in a biologically determinist ‘hydraulic model’ of male sexuality. This is a term coined by the head of the International Center for Research on Women, Geeta Rao Gupta. Gupta argues that even in the 21st century, some men still think their penises operate like hydraulic systems. In technical terms, a hydraulic system operates ‘by the pressure created by forcing water, oil, or another liquid through a comparatively narrow pipe or orifice’. So some men justify their raping behaviour on the basis of an unsuppressible and explosive biological need for sexual release. They imagine their penises function in a similar way to a hydraulic system operating with semen under pressure. They worry about their hydraulic systems breaking down if a vagina (or indeed any hole!) is not found to trigger the release valve.
The comedic quality of this bizarre ‘hydraulic model’ idea of male sexuality fades quickly into tragedy when the model is applied by judges in familial sexual assault cases. In Justice Benjamin’s case, an implicit belief in a hydraulic idea of male sexuality appears to have led him to think the father would rape the girls only if certain conditions prevailed. Specifically, three circumstances had to be guarded against if the father’s hydraulically-operated sexuality wasn’t going to explode:
- First, the father must not come across the girls at night-time when they are less alert and wearing fewer clothes;
- Second, he must not come across one of them alone, but only together in a pair (Justice Benjamin explains that he sees ‘the risk of the father acting inappropriately with the children [a]s significantly diminished when they are awake and alert and when the children are together’, at p. 23); and
- Third, the girls must not be in the father’s bed.
Justice Benjamin’s judgment expresses a clear idea about what triggers the operation of the father’s hydraulic penis: provided the father doesn’t see his kids in darkness, sleepiness, or alone, there will be no risk of his sexually assaulting them. So Justice Benjamin made court orders designed to prevent these three conditions arising. First, he orders the two sisters to sleep in the same room, and the father to have another adult stay overnight at his house when the girls sleep over each fortnight. This person must be in the house between the hours of 8pm and 7am. Second, Justice Benjamin ordered that there be a ‘door on the children’s bedroom which is capable of being shut at the request of the children’ (p. 19). Third, he ordered that the father must not ‘invite’ the girls into his bed.
Justice Benjamin’s implicit acceptance of this myth of the male hydraulic penis in his reasoning means that the two girls now face real danger. The reality of men’s sexually abusive behaviour is very different from the view crystallised in the biologically determinist ‘hydraulic penis theory’. In reality, abusers go to great lengths to gain sexual access to girls at all times of the day, and often even look for employment that allows them to work with children. They put a lot of time and effort into grooming girls for sexual abuse, often using pornography and animals to instruct them. They document and share with other men techniques of sexual abuse. They go to great lengths to cover up the abuses they perpetrate, and will threaten and harass girls who attempt to speak out against them. To sexual predators, custody rights can seem like manna from heaven, allowing them to abuse their victims in the privacy and convenience of their own homes. In the Robins v Ruddock case, the father now has enough time and space to properly groom his daughters away from their mother so they will never again speak out against him.
The safety of children is endangered when people who appear to believe in hydraulic penises hear court cases involving children. Hydraulic penises are just a myth, and have no basis in reality. Biological determinist myths about male sexuality are dangerous because it looks like they render influential people like Justice Benjamin incapable of taking proper action to protect children’s safety and wellbeing. There are very few powerful people on whom children can call to protect them, and as long as myths about male sexuality permeate the Australian court system, judges will threaten, rather than armour, the human rights of the weakest members of our society.
It’s not sex it’s rape
I’ve written before about how rape is too often minimised in reporting of sexual crimes, reduced to “had sex with” and other lesser depictions.
Lauredhel from W.A, in a piece titled ‘A forensic semanticist on sex and rape’ published on the Hoyden About Town blog, makes the same point. Here’s an extract:
In Trenton, N.J., a group of up to seven guys—a mix of adults and minors—paid a teenager for her 7-year-old sister. They allegedly gang-raped the girl as the rest of the partygoers looked on.
Yet, the lead in the Web site story began, “Police in New Jersey’s capital say a 15-year-old sold her 7-year-old sister to have sex with as many as seven men and boys.”
Breaking news: The 7-year-old girl from Trenton didn’t “have sex with” up to seven men. If there was sexual contact, she was gang-raped. Read story here.
Why isn’t incest rape?
In an older but still vitally significant piece, Caroline Taylor discusses the courts’ refusal to use the word ‘rape’ in incest trials:
In one case, after complaints from the defence barrister, the survivor was threatened with contempt of court charges if they did not refrain from using the term rape when they described repeated acts of sexual penetration by their father. In a discussion between the trial judge and defence lawyer the judge declared that since ‘incest was consensual’ it could not therefore be rape, and so the survivor was wrong to make such a claim. To add insult to injury the defence barrister added that using the term rape suggested some kind of violence was used! Two other cases from the same sample involved legal discussions involving the inappropriateness of survivors or police using the term rape in ‘incest’ trials.’