The rape and murder of 22 year old Eurydice Dixon on 12 June 2018 sparked national outrage across Australia. Dixon was attacked on the way home from her stand-up comedy gig, as she walked through Princes Park in Melbourne. Her last text to her boyfriend read: “I’m almost home safe.”
In the immediate aftermath, there were two responses – each equally telling. The first was to focus on the victim’s actions. The Victoria police recommended that “people need to be aware of their own personal security and just be mindful of their surroundings”. Its suggestions were to stay alert, and carry a mobile phone. Similarly, newspaper The Herald Sun reported that Dixon strayed “into her killer’s orbit”.
A very different response came from the crowd of 10,000 who attended a vigil for Dixon in Princes Park. Many of those attending felt this was just another example of Australia’s problem with violent misogyny. Support came from Daniel Andrews, the Premier of the state of Victoria in which Melborne sits, who in an emotional Facebook post proclaimed that “Eurydice died because of her attackers decisions – not because of her own”. Distressingly, Dixon’s memorial in Princes Park was vandalised with offensive graffiti a few days after her murder. A man has been charged with the vandalism. Another has also been charged with Dixon’s rape and murder.
Victoria MP Jeff Bournam, responding to the murder, proposed in a Facebook post that women should be allowed to carry tasers and pepper spray. One commenter captured the feelings of many in response to the suggestions, writing that, “I do not want access to weapons. I want appropriate consequences for offenders. Timely and respectful responses by police.”
Most are willing to concede that violence against women is a problem in Australia. They are less willing to acknowledge that this is not a problem that can be solved by arming women with stun guns.
Four days after Dixon’s murder, a woman was sexually assaulted in the same suburb. She had returned home from a club at around 4am when she was forced into a car, attacked and assaulted by two men. On 26 June 2018, the men, who turned themselves in, appeared in court. Allegedly, both cried during the proceedings.
Then there is Qi Yu, a 28 year old Chinese student in Sydney, has been missing since 8 June 2018. On 26 June 2018, her parents made a tearful plea for any information about their daughter’s disappearance. Qi Yu’s body has not been found, but a murder charge has been brought against her male housemate.
As of 7 July 2018, 34 Australian women had been violently killed this year.
It is easy to describe these individual stories as tragedies, which they are. But singling them out ignores the fact they are symptoms of something more systemic – a broader link between aspects of Australian culture and misogyny.
This link has been exploredin a podcast from The Australiannewspaper called The Teacher’s Pet, narrated and investigated by their national chief correspondent Hedley Thomas. The Teacher’s Pet is the story of the 1982 disappearance of Lynette Dawson, wife of ex local rugby league player and high school PE teacher Chris Dawson. Two independent coroners in 2001 and 2003 recommended that murder charges be laid against a “known person”. The 2003 inquest heard from Joanne Curtis, Chris Dawson’s former student and ex-wife. They had been conducting an affair since she was 16, with Dawson eventually moving her into the property with Lyn and their two daughters.
Shortly after Lyn’s disappearance, Curtis and Dawson were married. In court, Curtis claimed that Dawson had told her “I wanted to get a hit man to kill Lyn, but I couldn’t do it because innocent people would be killed”. In her own marriage to Dawson, Curtis described him as “violent”. Despite the coroners’ findings, no case has ever been taken to the DPP. Chris Dawson has never been charged or arrested and he maintains his innocence.
Putting the question of innocence or guilt aside, it is the lack of a proper investigation that is revealing. Investigating the partners of murdered women is generally routine, but local police had accepted Dawson’s assertion that Lyn had simply abandoned him and their daughters. It was not until 1990 that homicide detectives from Sydney started looking at the missing persons case after being given information by Curtis. Relatives of Lyn Dawson have also accused the police of “sitting on” a key statement for many years before taking it to prosecutors.
According to the United Nations in 2015, Australia has one of the highest rates of reported sexual assault in the world, at 92 people per 100,000 of the population. This compares to New Zealand with 32.2 per 100, 000 and the UK with 25.6. The Australia Institute reports that 87 per cent of women surveyed experienced verbal or physical street harassment, in contrast to 65 per cent of US women. The Australian Human Rights Commission found that one in three Australian women has experienced sexual or physical assault since the age of 15, and one in two has experienced sexual harassment.
It would be easy too to use this data to suggest the government is not doing its job when it comes to protecting women, but efforts have been made to tackle the problem through policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been vocally committed to reducing domestic violence and advancing gender equality throughout his premiership. In 2015 he called for a “cultural shift” regarding Australian approaches to women. A Royal Commission has looked into family violence in Victoria, and the government has committed to a national plan to reduce violence against women and children.
This change in attitude is important, particularly given the experience of the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was belittled and harassed both in Parliament and outside of it. At a Liberal Party Fundraiser in Queensland, the menu included a “Julia Gillard quail” with “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.
Some argue that a toxic Australian sports culture is essential to understanding attitudes to women. Deakin University professors Peter Mewett and Kim Toffoletti published a paper in 2006 interviewing four female Australian Football League (AFL) fansabout the alleged misconduct of players. One interviewee felt that “they think that being footballers means that they must derogate women”.
This misogyny is evident in a 2016 incident, when Collingwood Football Club president Eddie McGuire said he would pay money to watch football commentator Caroline Wilson drown. He later said it was a joke, but received the support of the presenter of The Footy Show and former football player Sam Newman, who decided to defend McGuire with the declaration: “if you’re going to want to be treated equally, the point is, don’t complain when it’s too equal. The jig’s up Caro, honestly and truly. You’re becoming an embarrassment. And even if you were underwater, you’d still be talking.”
In Newman’s world, being “treated equally” means having to deal with verbal abuse and harassment. This attitude enables the normalisation of harassment and aggression towards women. Is it any wonder, then, that a common response to a woman being raped and murdered is not “how can we stop this” but “women need to look after themselves better”?
Some progressive Australians are beginning to recognise this. As Today show host Karl Stefanovic demanded, “how many more Australian women need to die?…We just need to fix it”. PM Turnbull called Dixon’s death a “heartbreaking tragedy”, saying Australia needs to “change the hearts of men to respect women”. For this change to be successful, the concerns and criticisms of Australian women must be prioritised.
Australia is far from the only nation where violent misogyny occurs. However, the powerful response to Dixon’s death shows that now is the time to confront why Australian men have been allowed to get away with violence for so long – and how it can be stopped.