It happens every day in our supposedly enlightened society. The Sydney media recently went into a frenzy when crime statistics were released. Each year, more than 4000 residents of New South Wales, the state of which Sydney is the capital, report sexual assaults, and those are only the reported incidents - a mere 20 per cent of the true figure, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates.
Worst of all are the dozens of gang rapes and hundreds of assaults on children once again, the ones we know about. The statistics certainly are horrifying and are getting worse.
Crime statistics are notoriously rubbery, especially with sexual crimes, when the victims are often too ashamed and traumatized to report them to police. In the United States an estimated 61.5 per cent of rapes and sexual assaults were not reported to police in 2003 according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Many experts estimate the percentage to be much higher.
Figures come and figures go, but I doubt if anyone believes that men anywhere are getting less brutish. In many environments, the last vestiges of respect for women as women are ebbing away. A rape crisis manager quoted in the Sydney media believes that "women's status in our society is quite poor", that they are "demeaned and denigrated in a whole range of ways". This, after a century of women's liberation.
As for children, the growing incidence of sexual exploitation betrays a cool indifference to their innocence and vulnerability that is more frightening and damaging than the rough handling and harsh discipline of a simpler era.
But who is really surprised at all this?
Every day the average man runs the gauntlet of city billboards on which female flesh is plastered in the most sexually provocative poses. In the office or on the streets he is surrounded by women groomed for sexual display in tight, revealing fashions. At home he turns on the television and is assaulted by more of the same. Popular radio stations spew a constant barrage of sexual innuendo into his ears.
And that is not to mention the outright filth and sexual violence passed by the censor for adult consumption at the cinema or though the local video outlet. The pollution is bad enough to warrant a cultural Kyoto Protocol. The build-up of sexual smog can all too easily turn men towards internet pornography — and sometimes towards child molestation. A recent police sting in Australia which netted hundreds of child pornography offenders was notable for revealing how widespread this material was amongst professionals. Teachers, police, pastors, soldiers and public servants were among those implicated.
Now, even if we are too sophisticated to worry about billboards and "Sex in the City", most of us draw the line at child pornography. The images we read about revolt us; the offenders bring out the lynching instinct in us. But how indignant are we about the entrepreneurs who want to dress little girls like tarts, who market porn to children and teenagers in the guise of entertainment, who relentlessly crank up the level of sexual content in prime time TV and movies? More to the point, what are we doing to discourage them?
Earlier this year a United States report, The Impact of the Media on Adolescent Sexual Attitudes and Behaviours, found that among 2,500 studies of media and youth over the past 20 years less than one per cent addressed this question. This lack of curiosity about a dominant feature of teenagers' lives shows social complicity in the priming of young people for sex, not to mention hypocrisy in the concern about date rape and general sexual violence among youths.
Faced with the fall-out from a society that has lost the plot concerning sex we have a choice: we can appoint task-forces, increase penalties for sexual offenders, make the system more sympathetic to the victims and go home to watch the latest smut on TV. Or, having tweaked the penal system, we can turn off the smut and get to work on the tone of society, aiming at a cultural Kyoto Protocol.
It is not an impossible task. There is no need to wait for men to work on themselves, though many need to. This is a project where women can lead the way.
It is as simple as getting up tomorrow morning and dressing in a way that says: my sexuality is a natural but private affair. I respect it and so must you. It is not for leering at or lusting after. It is something I express differently in the office and in the bedroom. It is something I keep for the man I love and have committed myself to.
It is as simple as boycotting the women's magazines, not allowing sexual depravity to enter your home through the media, not dressing your little daughters in porn star fashions, not discussing sexual scandals around the dinner table, keeping your kids out of sex education classes that treat teenage sex as an expectation and a norm.
It's as complicated as persuading your teenager to put self-respect before the trend, as campaigning against the billboards and lobbying for proper censorship laws.
But it can be done. And women can do it. As we know so well, girls can do anything.
Carolyn Moynihan is the editor of Family Edge, an international email newsletter. She is based in Auckland, New Zealand. Email: carolyn(at)familyandsociety.org