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YWCA's lonely campaign against the Clipsal 500

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The YWCA has consistently claimed there is a “spike” in harassment of women in the city during the Clipsal 500 – but it has little hard evidence to back its claims. Is there a conspiracy of silence, or are the YWCA’s fears unfounded?

“The conversation hasn’t changed in five years,” Chelsea Lewis, the YWCA’s communications manager, tells InDaily.

“We still consistently get reports from women who actively choose to avoid the city during that event and who tell us about their experiences of feeling unsafe.

“We are being told that there is a spike in serious crimes like rape and sexual assault at this time of year.”

Lewis’s voice sounds stressed. She doesn’t understand why this isn’t a bigger story, why the women’s advocacy group’s controversial claims about the Clipsal 500 motor race, which starts this week, don’t get more media coverage.

One understandable reason the claims haven’t gotten more coverage is the concerns aren’t backed by published crime statistics, nor by police, nor by the event’s organisers, nor the Government. Sexual assault services in the city aren’t willing to comment.

Later this week a team of YWCA volunteers will take to the city’s streets during the Clipsal 500 festival to survey women on how safe they feel during the event. Results will be combined with feedback from an online survey which is open now.

The same survey was done in 2009. It had a small sample size, and its combination of online and offline survey responses clouds some of the messages. But even with that considered, its results are concerning.

The YWCA’s 09 survey, which took responses from 385 people at the event and online, found:

Behaviours that made women feel unsafe at and around the event included:

“From the responses that we received in our survey from 2009 this is not a perception problem. If people have reported accurately to us, which we believe they have, there are safety issues in the city,” Lewis says.

The YWCA believes the race’s unique cultural environment is the catalyst for the behaviour.

“Big events in our public spaces have a ripple effect. Some have quite positive ripple effects and some have the potential to have quite negative ripple effects.

“What is different about this event is the cultural environment.

“There’s pretty consistent responses we get which are around the numbers of people that are in the city, the levels of intoxication and the behaviour that some people choose to display at that time of year.”

The YWCA didn’t have a problem with grid girls, Lewis said, “except when you’re talking about that cultural mix the role that they play is not an active role.

“They are not participating in the sport. They are there to be objectified – and when you put that in the context of the cultural mix, we do believe that it adds to that ripple effect within the community.”

Police crime statistics don’t show a significant spike in sexual assaults in the Adelaide area in February or March.

Last year 23 sexual assault or related offenses were recorded in February and 24 in March. Those figures are the highest for the year, but are not significantly above the monthly average for 2013 of 17.8.

February and March are also traditionally the busiest periods for the CBD with several other festivals and events taking place at the same time.

“While Clipsal is taking place in Adelaide, South Australia Police has no evidence to suggest that sexual assaults against women in Adelaide are more likely during the dates when the event is held,” a police spokesperson told InDaily.

“The Clipsal 500 is one of a number of events scheduled in the city in February and March and experience shows that more people visiting an area can actually make an area safer as there are people around that will not tolerate anti-social behaviour and will assist others.”

Those statistics, like most of the facts in this story, are violently contested.

“We know from research that only one in five victims of sexual assault reports to Police,” Lewis responds.

“Our own 2009 survey showed that 1 per cent had reported the incident they experienced to Police. If everyone reported, and if they reported immediately, we would expect the figures to be much higher.”

But Lewis’s underreporting argument could contain a statistical flaw.

Let’s assume 20 per cent of all sexual assault incidents are reported to police, and that remains constant month-to-month. If the underlying rate of assaults rises in a particular month the number of reported assaults should rise too, unless the percentage of results unreported also increases.

Minister for the Status of Women Gail Gago rejected any cultural connection between the Clipsal race and harassment of women.

“Events like Clipsal 500 are not what make sexual assaults or harassment occur – perpetrators of assault and harassment do,” she told InDaily through a spokesperson.

“The objectification of women is a broader issue than the activities at any particular event.”

A spokesperson for the Clipsal 500 told InDaily the event was safe, had strong female attendance, and had a range of patron safety measures in place.

“At the Clipsal 500 we work very hard to ensure we create a safe environment for our patrons (of which 42% are females) and the surrounding general public, particularly within peak event closing times, and arguably have the highest safety record of any event.

“Last year we had zero arrests over the four day event weekend.

“The Clipsal 500 takes the safety of all patrons very seriously. We’ve implemented very strict liquor licensing controls and security measures to ensure patrons leaving our event do so in a calm and orderly fashion.”

Organisations that deal with sexual assault and abuse were reticent to respond to InDaily’s enquiries.

Yarrow Place Rape and Sexual Assault Service referred inquiries to police. They weren’t the only ones: a ring-around of women’s help lines and legal services in Adelaide got much the same reaction.

Either the issue doesn’t exist, or nobody – other than the YWCA – is willing to go public.

When I first contacted Lewis about the story she warned me that powerful interests would be allayed against me if I tried to get a story up. I have, simply, not found that to be the case at all – no one, not police nor stakeholders nor my editor, has tried to dissuade me from writing this story.

Armed with a survey showing such dramatic results, Lewis wonders why she hasn’t been able to get more media attention.

Perhaps her problem is her claims are so large. To equate a culture which at its most simple is a love of motorsport with a heinous act is difficult for people to swallow.

For journalists, who are expected to set the bar of proof very high, the claims are difficult to even report on. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be examined.

What’s your experience of public safety during the Clipsal 500, or any of the other “Mad March” events?

Comments welcome below.

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