Submission: OII Australia’s response to NSW Discussion Paper on Domestic & Family Violence

OII Australia has responded to the NSW state government Office for Women’s discussion paper on NSW Domestic and Family Violence Strategic Framework.

16 March, 2009

Violence Prevention Coordinator Unit
Office for Women’s Policy
Department of Premier and Cabinet
GPO Box 5341
Sydney NSW 2001

Dear Manager,

Organisation Intersex International’s response to the NSW discussion paper on domestic and family violence

Intersex individuals are at least as likely as any other person to be subjected to domestic and family violence (DV).

There are, however, no resources that specifically cater for intersex who are attempting to deal with its effects. Social disadvantage and physical difference necessitate specific and appropriate ways to assist intersex.

Intersex individuals are born with physical hormonal or genetic differences that could be seen as having sex characteristics of both male and female or having neither.

Intersex is not about gender though some intersex have gender issues.

Intersex is not about sexual preference, however many intersex have sexual preferences and some have none.

Intersex is not about transitioning or about transgender issues, however some people come to understand their intersex through trans experience and retain that as part of their identity.

Intersex is about physical sex formation.

The incidence of violence perpetrated against intersex individuals in domestic situations is unknown, like nearly every other aspect of intersex; no research has ever been attempted in this area.

Organisation intersex International (OII) is a voice for intersex throughout the world; we have a large international membership and are able to draw from them when addressing questions of this nature. We lack the resources to conduct anything but the most basic research.

OII is aware that intersex is often violently targeted by government bodies, institutions, religious organisations, groups, individuals, and family members because of our differences. It is fair to say that by and large intersex in Australia suffers nowhere near the level of social opprobrium that we do in some other countries nonetheless that there is violence against intersex in Australia cannot be doubted.

Despite prejudice and violence being well known outcomes for disadvantaged minorities, there are no legal rights or resources provided specific to intersex needs in response to DV or any other form of violence or discriminatory practices.

Indeed the failure of governments to provide those protections and resources for intersex is in itself discriminatory.

Violence at Birth & Beyond

Intersex children come into families as an unexpected event. Our births are often treated as a social emergency where consternation, confusion and dismay characterise the announcement of our arrival.

When we have different genitals we are subjected to surgery and assignments without our consent. These discussions are made on our behalf when there are only cosmetic reasons for them and when surgeons and theorists have no idea what the long-term consequences of that surgery might be. (There are no significant long term studies of assignment and surgical outcomes for intersex individuals.)

Our births are, for many intersex, the beginning of a lifetime of violent disempowerment. Surgery conducted at birth is usually inadequate and follow up surgery to “fix” previous surgery is common through to puberty and beyond.

Scarring, adhesions and loss of sexual sensation are common outcomes. Individual intersex children and teens are often not told of their diagnosis and are unaware of the reasons for their surgeries. They are encouraged toward “sex-appropriate” play and behaviour, and punished away from behaviour that may conflict with their assignment.

Parents and family can and do reject intersex children because of their differences. OII has a number of intersex members in Australia who have been subjected to rejection and abuse by parents because of their intersex. This is especially true when individuals reject their birth assignment. Parents can in those instances see the child as having failed them and their expectations.

When there is less than full acceptance for intersex differences within a family, an intersex child can be subjected to psychological abuse. This abuse can take the form of ostracising the child, shame and secrecy about the child’s differences, less favourable treatment than that given to siblings and encouragement for siblings to reject intersex differences. Psychological abuse can include an insistence on sex appropriate behaviour and extreme punishment when that behaviour is not forthcoming.

Any profound difference in a child can provoke strong reactions within family groups, when those differences are sexual and sexual difference underpins fundamental perceptions about a person’s place and role within families. Reactions can be, and sometimes are, violent. Violence is most commonly psychological and often connected to an insistence on sex role behaviour and sex presentation.

A child, teenager, or young adult might have their autonomy violated when surgery, drugs or psychology is insisted on, without the child having the feeling that they can refuse this. Sometimes those things are insisted on despite refusals.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse of intersex is likely to be as prevalent as it is for other children; again no statistics have ever been attempted in this area. OII has some evidence that sexual abuse may be more prevalent with intersex than for other children teenagers and young adults. (Sexual abuse here does not refer to non-consensual genital surgery, though that can be seen as a form of sexual abuse and many intersex people think of it as such.)

OII’s evidence comes from within our membership where many members report histories of childhood sex abuse. The frequency seems to be higher than the one in four statistic usually given for Australian families.

OII understands that intersex are sometimes targeted for sex abuse because they are intersex.

There is no doubt that some people hold fetishes for others they suppose to be “shemale,” “hermaphrodite,” “half man/half woman.” OII has in its Australian membership individuals who were so targeted and used for the purposes of producing pornography. The primary attraction in those cases was the individual’s intersex.

The effects of that abuse are profound.

Besides the trauma, the shame and secrecy, the devastation any child or teenager might feel as a consequence of sexual abuse, intersex have the added burden that this was done because they are different. The kinds of dysfunction and injury that emerge from these experiences are apparently so unimaginable that no one has ever seen fit to put any resources in place that are intersex-specific.

Key Principles

If it is accepted that violence is, amongst humans and especially against the weaker and more disadvantaged, to some extent inevitable, then harm minimisation and reparation must be the guiding principle.

Justice that seeks to heal not punish, programs that seek to educate and root out violence, not tremble in shameful silence, are urgently needed.

Where violence has occurred, resources that protect individuals from further violence and heal them, psychologically and physically, should be put in place.

For the perpetrators of domestic violence, reparative justice not punitive justice is needed.

Areas for Improvement

Specific resources such as safe refuge, counselling, and medical aid need to be put in place for intersex individuals. Refuges that insist on a definite sex presentation or exact gender performance are not suitable for intersex.

People who provide resources such as police, counsellors, rape crisis, and refuges should be aware that from time to time their client might be intersex. They should know what that means and they should be sensitive to intersex needs.

Any resource provided for intersex will be an improvement as resources are non-existent at present.

What elements of the current service response can be improved?

Every area can be improved as there no services provided for intersex at present.

Parents need independent advice and contact with intersex adults when their intersex child is born. Intersex births should be the subject of mandatory notifications so that statistics can be kept.

An advocate for the child should be appointed so that the child’s best interest are observed and decisions are not driven by social expectations and prejudice.

Mandatory follow-ups should be required when surgical intervention occurs. These follow-ups should continue throughout the child’s life so that reliable statistics can be kept that could inform future assignment choices. Anything short of this is at least a denial, and in the worst cases a violent denial, of an individual’s autonomy.

All services should be structured to take into account individuals who do not fit sex binary expectations. Women’s DV services should be structured in ways that do not exclude intersex.

The community at large should be educated about intersex to diffuse the prejudice and vilification that surrounds our lives and reduce the probability of intersex individuals being subjected to violence.

What areas in the current service response can be improved to meet the needs of certain groups, including (but not limited to):

  • Aboriginal women?

Some intersex are also aboriginal. They should be offered the same support that is available to the general Australian population. Intersex aboriginals suffer the double disadvantage of being the subject of prejudice because of their race and sometimes rejection within their own community because of their intersex.

  • CALD women (Culturally and Language Diverse)?

Education about intersex and the provision of culturally sensitive resources so that intersex children are not subjected to prejudice shame and fear. Cultural and language diverse communities can be isolated from the wider community and not have the same access to educational resources. They may rely on outdated and unfounded notions about intersex.  OII offers multilingual multicultural intersex support.

  • Women with a disability?

Disabled intersex can loose autonomy over their sex and be forcibly assigned when they lack sufficient communication to indicate where they stand in the sex spectrum. In those instances it is a necessity that sex assignment and expectations of sex performance are made with the child’s best interest at heart.

Decisions driven by binary sex paradigms may condemn an all ready difficult life to greater suffering. When disabled individuals need medical assistance it is imperative that their intersex is a part of their medical record so that presumptions of male and female are not made. Such presumptions can lead to fatal errors when someone who is, for instance, thought to be a man and has cancer of the ovaries.

All medical documentation should have categories beyond male and female as sex designators. (There are only two areas in any person’s life where this really matters… at the surgery and in bed with your partner.)

  • Older women?

Older intersex will have lived a life of shame and secrecy because of their differences; shame and secrecy have been and still are the prevailing paradigm in respect to intersex.

Services provided to older women should take into account that clients may be intersex.

Service providers should be aware of what intersex is, what those differences mean and how their client might feel about revelations.

Some older intersex women will have been subjected to isolation from their family and violence within it because of their intersex. They might have kept their intersex a deep secret so that children and grandchildren may not know (yes, we are sometimes fertile and mostly are allowed to adopt… unless of course it is thought we are in a same sex relationship).

Revelation or inappropriate comments have the potential to ruin lives.

  • Young women?

Young women should be allowed a life free from violence, shame and secrecy because of their differences; they should be allowed the opportunity to decide their sex and sexuality without family and societal anxieties and insistences of gender binary performances.

Where women are in jeopardy of violence and misery because of their intersex they should be provided with protection and safety.

All intersex should have the protection of the law and the same rights to social resources as any other Australian, especially those who come from a disadvantaged minority.

  • Women from rural and remote communities?

It is likely that intersex in remote communities will be subjected to greater pressure given the general sparseness of resources for sex and gender diverse individuals in rural Australia. Intersex women may find themselves without the support and education resources available to the urban counterparts.

When intersex arrives in a community, by the birth of an intersex child, by a new arrival in town, or the sudden discovery by a community member of intersex (AIS or XXY for instance), prejudice, shame and secrecy often accompany that news.

Education resources for the community at large and for the individuals concerned are essential. The availability of counselling and non-judgemental medical assistance, where that is needed, is likewise indispensable. Like gay and lesbian individuals, intersex can be the target of intolerance and hatred. In small communities gossip and rumour can quickly expose individuals whose differences are perceived negatively.

Legal protection and safe places are as necessary for intersex woman as they are for any other group likely to be the target of bigotry.

  • People in same sex relationships?

Intersex women who live in same sex relationships suffer the opprobrium meted out to lesbian couples with the added difficulties of being seen as something not quite lesbian. Intersex are often ostracized from women’s groups when there is an insistence that one is a “woman born woman” aka “womyn born womyn” to qualify for acceptance or being allowed to participate in activities. Resources should not be allocated to women’s groups who exclude intersex women. Domestic violence resources made available for lesbian individuals should be available for intersex women without qualification.

OII Australia seeks improvements in this area by the removal of any exclusion of intersex from services or support services and the acknowledgement by government that any funding and support must be available for all women including intersex women.

Social support such as counseling, provision of court assistance and legal services, the provision of Intervention orders and the effective enforcement of those orders, education about violence in lesbian relationships and more, are essential. Lesbian women, intersex or not, are entitled to the same access to services as their heterosexual sisters.

Coupled to the provision of services is the education of service providers. Service providers such as police, court attendants, lawyers, DOCS & Centrelink staff, sheriffs, and so on may be somewhat aware of lesbian relationships and may have some awareness that lesbians are entitled to access services. Very few service providers are aware of what intersex is, let alone how to treat intersex lesbians sensitively and with respect. Greater education on lesbian rights and intersex women is necessary if all women are to be treated equally and fairly.

What are the key elements of an effective primary prevention response to domestic and family violence and what is required to implement these elements?

  • Effective support services including access to counseling especially for women survivors of child sexual abuse who are statistically more likely to find themselves in DV relationships.
  • Recognising that no section of Australian society is free from DV against women irrespective of ethnicity, religion, social status, sexual orientation or identity.
  • Reliable and effective access to Intervention orders irrespective of the kind of relationship a woman is in and irrespective of intersex.
  • Reliable and effective access to legal resource when women are subjected to DV.
  • Effective prevention of stalking and similar activities by perpetrators of violence against women and immediate and direct action against perpetrators when this happens.
  • Provision of safe and anonymous housing for women who are subjected to DV.
  • Safe ways for women and children to have contact with perpetrators of DV in family law matters.
  • Counseling and reparative programs for perpetrations of DV.

How can NSW improve its data collection on the incidence and prevalence of domestic and family violence and on the usage of services by women?

  • Compulsory reporting of all DV incidents by police and courts to a central collection agency such as the Office of Women’s Policy or a special DV taskforce within the police force.
  • Annual reporting to parliament on DV statistics and the compilation of a parliamentary report that is easily accessible and widely available.
  • Advertise and promote awareness of DV in all communities including non-mainstream communities such as those that are Lesbian, Indigenous, or ethnically diverse.

What are the priorities for a domestic and family violence research agenda?

  • Discovering of the causes of DV.
  • Discovering which programs will most effectively address those causes.
  • Discovering how best to implement those programs.

What are the most effective ways to raise community awareness on domestic and family violence?

  • Community advertising especially in local, foreign language and special interest papers.
  • School education.
  • Community consultation and forums where women’s privacy can be guaranteed. This is especially necessary in communities that think themselves free of DV and make women’s access to information difficult. Although some foreign language groups, minority religions and cultural traditions have these difficulties, mainstream religious organisations should not be overlooked.

Gina Wilson
Organisation intersex Australia