Why the acquittal of Luke Lazarus goes to the heart of rape culture in Australia

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 In my experience, a good proportion of people believe that “everybody hates rapists” – but that’s because rape culture has done very well to convince the general population that rapists never look like the men you actually know.

One of the functions of rape culture is that it works especially hard to provide excuses for the rich young white men whose careers and futures are treated with more respect than the bodies of the women they assault. 

I thought of this again this week when I read Richard Ackland’s (excellent) analysis of the judgement from the trial against Luke Lazarus. Lazarus, the son of a wealthy Sydney businessman, was initially convicted of anally raping an 18-year-old woman outside one of his father’s nightclubs in 2013. He served 11 months of a three-year sentence before being acquitted on appeal.

During both trials, his defence was supported by character testimonies from other prominent people in Sydney, including the Mayor of Waverley.

The trial of Lazarus goes to the heart of rape culture in Australia. As is often argued in circumstances like this, Lazarus was described as a “nice guy” who respected women and had “lots of female friends”.

Perhaps it bears repeating, but many abusers are considered to be good people with strong ties in their communities and solid reputations. That doesn’t mean they are incapable of committing heinous acts in private. Many rapists have positive relationships with women.

As Ackland reported, Judge Robyn Tupman’s reasons for acquitting Lazarus on appeal were that she concluded Lazarus believed the complainant was “consenting to penile anal intercourse” even though she accepted the complainant did not believe she was.

But Judge Tupman also characterised the complainant’s state as being “not particularly intoxicated” despite having had more standard drinks than Lazarus, who was described as “moderately drunk … perhaps moreso than that”.

Taken at face value, one could conclude that a lot more leeway was given in this scenario to Lazarus. Alcohol is not treated as a likely factor in the victim’s ability to more forcefully oppose Lazarus’ advances, but Lazarus’ intoxication was considered a factor in his issuing of them.

This is a messy and dangerous distinction to make, and it poses a great deal of risk for future sexual assault trials. How does one prove consent, particularly when the actions of the (mostly female) survivors seem to be viewed through a stricter lens of intent, while men are so frequently given the benefit of the doubt?

As pointed out by Ackland: “It is not necessary for lack of consent to be established by means of the complainant’s resistance.”

On hearing this, some people might react with astonishment and predictably exercise one of the other features of a rape culture – the insistence that most rape isn’t really rape at all but a case of silly girls regretting it the next day and crying wolf.

It seems the biggest fear of some people is not that their son may coerce or manipulate an unwilling or intoxicated woman into sex because he’s been raised in a culture that teaches him that pushing against the “no” until you get the “yes” is okay; it’s that their son may do all of that, and then have to face consequences.

This also goes to the crux of what rape culture in Australia is and how it has the potential to turn people into either victims or perpetrators.

I doubt Lazarus understands that his actions amounted to rape, because our culture is very good at teaching boys that rape is something other people do. But it’s also apparent that he didn’t care whether or not the girl consented at all, and his concern for her wellbeing was entirely absent.

Lazarus ignored all of her clear requests to return to her friends, and then dehumanised her by instructing her to first face the wall while he pulled her underwear down (underwear she had previously pulled up when he tried to remove them moments before) and then get on all fours before he anally penetrated her.

And here we can also suggest that there is a cavalier disregard for the mutual pleasure and engagement of those targeted in this and similarly publicised cases.

Anal sex is pleasurable for many women, but it is not pleasurable as a rule when done without due care. The woman targeted by Lazarus was a virgin, and the world’s average 18-year-old virgin is not likely to choose to have her first penetrative sexual experience be in a dirty alleyway with a stranger who forces her onto the ground before forcing his unlubricated penis into her unprepared anus.

It seems likely that if Lazarus considered the issue of consent and desire at all, it was only in terms of what he was consenting to and desirous of.

If people won’t care about the possibility that their sons could sexually assault someone, why won’t they at least care about the fact they may grossly disrespect a sexual partner and be cavalier about causing them physical pain?

There is the uncomfortable reality that Lazarus and men like him are able to believe their desire and consent is the only desire and consent that counts, and that’s because they keep seeing each other being given the benefit of the doubt to get away with it.

Rape culture works by not only enabling the belief system that says “this isn’t real rape”, but supporting the the other systems of oppression that exist in our society.

If Lazarus hadn’t been the son of the nightclub’s owner with a bevy of well heeled Sydneysiders lined up to back his “good character”, this case might have turned out differently. Had he been Muslim or Aboriginal, or homeless or drug-addicted, racism and classism would have kicked in.

But Luke Lazarus has been characterised as a “good boy” from a good (rich) family, so this changes how his intent is seen from that night. He gets to be the red-blooded young man who let himself get carried away. He gets to have his life back. He gets to have his potential be fulfilled. And when it is, he will stand next to hundreds of well connected, well respected rapists whose futures have been secured despite their pasts.

As Ackland reports, in a Facebook post following Lazarus’ acquittal his victim wrote:

I lost something that night all those years ago and I’ve been searching for it ever since. I’ll let you know how it goes.The reality is this doesn’t get to be over for me. I don’t get to know who I would be today had this not happened to me, and I mourn for that person. She seemed like she was on her way to being great.

I have learned that one of the most important things we can do is to believe survivors. I’d like to say this to the woman who brought the complaint against Lazarus: I believe you. I’m sorry the system let you down. And I’m sorry not enough people seem to care about that.

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