Monday, June 6, 2011

A Crime Unsolved

WHEN Sydney feminist, “media researcher”, prolific public speaker and award recipient Nina Funnell was set upon late one night in a Huntleys Point park by an unknown man with a box cutter, she was done a double injustice. There was, first of all, the attack itself, which must have been a terrifying experience for a 23-year-old, as the still-unknown assailant beat her viciously about the face, attempted to strangle her and promised, just for good measure, to do her in. Ms. Funnell, who had taken self-defence classes, sent her assailant fleeing into the night, neatly demonstrating the soundness of her frequent recommendation that all women equip themselves to fight back.

The second injustice, the more enduring and insidious one, was the attacker’s choice of victim. Had Funnell been a secretary or checkout chick, a nun or even a stripper, her account of the assault would most likely have been accepted with nary a raised eyebrow. Instead, as Christine Jackman writes in this weekend’s Australian magazine,  Funnell “does not know why there are some who, years later, still monitor her words and turn up in online forums to spread rumours that she lied about her experience”.

Funnell is bright – the improvement in her writing from gender studies undergrad (see the Upskirting article or her defence of Paris Hilton, published just days before the 2007 attack) to opinion-page fixture makes that clear as day, so it is a little difficult to grasp why she is baffled that her account has attracted disbelief in some quarters. As a women’s activist and, presumably, a keen student of women’s news and issues from around the globe, she must surely be aware that she matches a very specific profile, that of the feminist hoaxer. As Anne Hendershott, a sociology professor at the University of San Diego, put it, “Hate crime hoaxes are by far the most prevalent type of campus ‘crimes.’ Many of these have a rational basis on the part of perpetrators in attempting to bring attention to their cause.” Also worth reading are Heather Mac Donald’s recent analysis of the “campus rape epidemic” and this New York magazine report on a wave of alleged rapes at Columbia University. For a counter view, see The Slutty Feminist’s thoughts.)

That is not to say Funnel was not attacked “in the park where she walked her dog”, nor to question her veracity to the slightest degree. Advocates for female victims of sexual assault have fought long and hard to overcome stigma, smear and suspicion, so the default position of anyone who supports a fairer and more equitable world must always be to accept such a version of events as offered. To do less would do more than diminish Funnell’s ordeal -- it would make things worse, make justice that much harder to obtain, for all her wronged sisters. As a committed feminist, it is inconceivable Funnell would wish to sow doubt amongst police and officers of the court who process the complaints of other women.

Nevertheless, it is some misguided members of the sisterhood’s enthusiasm for promoting such incidents, even when they occur only in the purported victim’s imagination, that continues to casts its wisp of a shadow over Funnell’s credibility. The rare nature of the park assault, as she understands, is a factor in that disbelief.
… violent, ‘stranger danger’ sexual assaults make up less than 0.1 per cent of sexual assaults meaning that only 1 in every 1000 sexual assaults looks like what happened to me.
Not that suspicion has festered in official circles, where Funnell’s public profile has expanded greatly since that night in a park by the water, which she recounted two months later in a harrowing column for the Silly.  Harrowing in more ways than one:

The questions I get asked most often are "what time did it happen?", "what were you wearing?" and "was he 'Middle Eastern'?"
The first two questions I automatically dismiss. Yet people continue to interrogate me over my attire. If my outfit was to blame for causing this assault, then I should probably be writing to the people who made my jeans, demanding they halt production on their "invitation-to-rape" line of clothing.

But what about the third question? This is a hard one. Having spent a good chunk of my university career campaigning against racial stereotyping, I always cringe when I disclose the fact that "yes", this man was "of Middle Eastern appearance". By that I mean he had a deep olive complexion, dark bushy eyebrows, a five o'clock shadow and a thick accent. But during the assault I yelled at him, calling him "a pathetic cliche", for a reason.
Why do I cringe when I say he was of Middle Eastern appearance? I wouldn't be shy about stating that he was "Caucasian", had that been the case. Am I being too politically correct in not wanting to talk about the issue of ethnicity? Or am I right to not want to perpetuate a racial stereotype that damages a community already under fire?
I don't have answers to these questions yet.
She is still working it out, apparently, a process demonstrated by a piece for The Punch in which she demonstrates her solidarity with Muslim women by decrying as sexist nonsense any attempt to ban the burqa.

After the article’s publication in the Silly, Funnell was installed on the NSW Rape Crisis Centre’s committee, toured the country and spoke to thousands of students, also making the short list to become her state’s official entrant in the Young Australian of the Year. She collected an Australian Human Rights Commission award, took a seat on the board of The National Children’s and Youth Legal Center and the Premier’s Council on Preventing Violence Against Women. Yet, as Jackman notes in her article about the prevalence of anonymous, online venom, those disquieting questions continue to be raised by people demanding “that she provide intimate details or release police photos of the injuries she suffered.”

It must be extraordinarily painful for Funnell to relive the attack so often and in so many varied venues and before so many different audiences, including the Young Australia selection panel, but one cannot help thinking that her doubters have a point. If she were to release those police photos, it would go a long way toward silencing the naysayers, not to mention putting to bed so many other circumstantial factors that, to a suspicious mind, suggest the assault was not as presented.

There is the location of the attack, for starters. A lonely and little visited reserve where a logical attacker might have expected to find very few potential victims. There are few ways in or out of the enclave, so it is a real surprise that an assailant who demonstrated so little tactical sense in selecting his pouncing ground has yet to be arrested – especially as Funnell has said the police hold DNA samples scraped from beneath her fingernails.  Put simply, the guy cannot be too bright, the police must be incompetent or both of the above.

Another factor eroding Funnel’s credibility, at least to some, is the coincidence that many of her complaints about rapes' investigation and aftermath are, to be blunt, verging on the cliché:

On more than one occasion I have had to comfort rape survivors who have been lectured and judged by arrogant, unthinking pharmacists who have scolded them when they came in to purchase the morning after pill, having just been raped.
Funnel is uniquely qualified to bear witness against patriarchal pharmacists, who must be quite common if she alone has absorbed several reports of rape victims being further demeaned at the prescription counter. But that is what she reports and, once again, we must accept it at her word.

It would be easier, though, if she were to release that supporting evidence. Rape is a shocking crime, perhaps the only offence for which a case can be made for the re-introduction of corporal punishment. Funnell bravely bared the details of the assault in Sydney’s serous broadsheet. Why, and here the sympathetic observer must side with the skeptics, can she not release those photos of her injuries? It would silence the critics at a stroke and put, quite literally, a human face on sexual assault. More than that, it would do much to focus attention on the message, rather than the messenger.

FOOTNOTE: While the venom of which Jackman writes has left its mark on Funnell, those harsh words prove very difficult to find. This is about the only critical entry an hour’s concerted googling managed to turn up. It doesn’t make for edifying reading, but dismay at such stupidity is mitigated by the fact that the posters are hip-hop aficionados and, therefore, morons by definition.
If readers who find any other examples of the harassment Funnell lamented to Jackman can provide links via comments, it would be much appreciated.



  1. Jackman writes: "He threw her to the ground, straddled her and punched her repeatedly in the face ...". A cross-examiner would have to ask her "How was it then that you were able to fight him off?" A few punches to the face would disable most people. There is one matter that supports her story. Would she claim that the police had the attacker's DNA if that was not the case? It is a bit risky to lie about a matter so easily verifiable.

    As you probably know Prof, a person can get into awful trouble by casting any sort of doubt on a rape allegation made in a university context. So much so that in my experience requests for exam resits were often based on such claims. In the mid-80s I sat on the Academic Board of a Group 8 university at a time when students who claimed that campus sexual assaults were rife, demanded the installation of emergency line 'phones, lighting along paths, etc. Under pressure from some academics for justification, (given that many thousands of dollars were demanded), the Board chairman said that the University knew of only one possible incident. Nevertheless, the chairman and nearly everyone else voted to spend the money.

  2. Speaking of corporal punishment - I think I'd prefer a flogging than imprisonment. What was that about cruel and unusual punishment?

  3. "That is not to say Funnel was not attacked “in the park where she walked her dog”, nor to question her veracity to the slightest degree."

    And yet you then go on to do precisely that, at length. These words are not the prophylactic you seem to think, or perhaps hope, they are.

  4. "It must be extraordinarily painful for Funnell to relive the attack so often and in so many varied venues and before so many different audiences,".
    Then why continue?
    Apart, of course, from making a very good living and picking up a few profitable awards!

  5. Reflecting on my first post (#1 above), it would be far less an intrusion into her private affairs to ask that Funnell consent to the police confirming that they do hold DNA samples of skin and/or blood from a person said to be connected to this event. If you want to progress the matter, you could ask her to give you her written consent to your approaching the NSW police to obtain information to this effect that they have in documentary form. You would probably have to make an FOI request. This is not hard to do, but contact me by e-mail if you want to take this course.

  6. serous broadsheet?
    not serious?

  7. It must have been horrible being attacked so violently by 'some puerto rican guy'. He obviously wasn't a very smart 'some puerto rican guy' because he told the victim "I’m going to rape you and kill you", twice, leaving no doubt that fighting back was the only sensible option. A more astute 'some puerto rican guy' intent on aggravated rape might say "shut up or I'll kill you" and the victim would often rationalise that bearing the assault and surviving is the best option.