This is the post my brain keeps on trying to compose at three in the morning these last two weeks, instead of letting me sleep. Let’s see if finally writing the damn thing will help. This post is personal, and it’s angry, and it’s bitter and honestly kind of horrible.
Survivors of sexual assault might also want to give this post a miss, or at least proceed with care. Let’s face it, especially if you are in Australia, you’ve probably already had a rough week. And you probably don’t need to hear any of the things I’m going to write about anyway. Please, go watch something wholesome on YouTube instead. Or listen to some music, or read a book – I can highly recommend T. Kingfisher’s work if you want something light and funny and feminist and deeply kind – or do something else nice for yourself. Alternatively, this article has some good tips on taking care of yourself if the news is triggering you at present, including a list of numbers for support lines. What a rotten fortnight this has been.
As soon as I read the first story about Brittany Higgins, I knew how this was going to go. All the women I knew, knew how this was going to go.
We were all waiting for other victims to come forward, and they did. This didn’t sound like a one-off, and it wasn’t. We wondered about whether there were date rape drugs involved. We wondered a lot of things.
(And I couldn’t help thinking about Jill Meagher, how there was that story about how a man had offered to walk her home that night, and she had refused, and if only she had said yes, she would have been safe. But there is no safe decision here – Ms Higgins accepted a lift from a colleague, after all, and is being judged for that.)
The thing I was shocked at was that nobody checked that she was OK. Nobody called an ambulance. Who finds a young woman, unconscious and dishevelled, and doesn’t call an ambulance?
Someone who has seen it before, that’s who. Or someone who has seen how this sort of thing is handled. It’s not about the woman. It’s never about the woman. It’s about politics, and it’s about the men. Because of course the men are the real victims – the men who might be falsely accused, the men whose political careers might be inconvenienced if it comes out that their political party turns a blind eye to the sexual harrassment and outright rape of women.
And how convenient that they seem to have found a woman to blame for all of this! I’m not saying that Linda Reynolds handled this well – clearly, she did not. And it’s awful that the stress of the situation seems to exacerbated an existing health condition enough to land her in hospital. But really, that the only person they could find to hold accountable for an alleged rape in Parliament house was a woman speaks volumes about how things work.
(It is notable, as a friend pointed out, that literally the only man who seems to have suffered consequences for the alleged rapes is Brittany’s partner. Heaven forbid a man support his partner in calling out the abuse of women.)
And then, of course we had that letter from the AFP about the importance of reporting these things to the police, and not the media, and I turned to my husband and went, oh, here we go. This is going to be spun until it’s all about how women are at fault for taking their stories public when they know there is no point in reporting. We are going to be told that rape is a crime, a terrible, terrible crime, and that the police are the proper people to investigate. And once they have done so, the investigation is closed.
I would give a great deal not to have been able to say ‘I told you so’, but here we all are.
I know a lot of women who are survivors of rape or sexual assault. (At one point in my twenties, I realised I could count on the fingers of one hand the women I knew who were not survivors of sexual assault.)
I know one man who is similarly a survivor. (I may know more. This sort of thing is notoriously more difficult for men to talk about.)
I know a few women who reported, or who tried to. The police made it clear that their cases would never get anywhere. The one person I know who did get further was shamed into withdrawing the charge by her community. He was such a promising young man, you see.
Most of us knew better than to try.
Here’s the thing: our legal system is very, very bad at dealing with rape. Because you have to prove not just a physical fact (that sex happened), but an emotional one (that one party did not consent to it). Essentially, you have to prove that a crime was committed at all – something that doesn’t apply to crimes like burglary or murder.
And the nature of the crime is that there tend to be no witnesses, so it becomes, as everyone’s least favourite potato would put it ‘he says, she says’. So proving anything beyond reasonable doubt is incredibly hard if the rapist is known to you. If he’s a friend, or a partner, or an ex partner, or a colleague, well, are you sure she didn’t just change her mind, or have a grudge against him, or maybe it was all a misunderstanding, he seems so nice…
(I’m not going to try to speculate on how to fix the legal system here. I am not a lawyer. But I do wonder if we could improve the situation somewhat if the survivor got to have a lawyer of their own, too, rather than being considered a witness who doesn’t require representation.)
And then you have to somehow be the perfect witness. Too calm, and you are probably lying, or else it didn’t affect you that much, so it can’t have been that bad and we shouldn’t ruin someone’s life over it. Too emotional, and you are distraught, unreliable, probably mentally ill.
I didn’t report. Of course I didn’t. He was my ex-boyfriend, I was at his house. The first part of what we did, I consented to. Who would have believed that I didn’t consent to the rest? Even I wasn’t entirely sure that it was really his fault. I mean, I said no, several times, but then I stopped saying no. Maybe I just didn’t say no often enough.
(Maybe once should have been enough.)
What was I doing at his house? Well, I was in love with him. I thought we were friends. And… we probably were? I don’t know what was going through his head, to be honest. I don’t think he particularly meant to do it. On some level, I still feel, nearly 25 years later, as though I could have stopped this by being more assertive.
(But I did say no.)
Why didn’t I tell anyone at the time? Well, because I made myself not remember it. I have a very clear memory, now, of going home afterwards and thinking to myself ‘what happened?’ and then this very cold voice in my brain going ‘No. I’m not going to think about it.’ And then I put it in a drawer in my head and locked the drawer. (I know that sounds melodramatic, but that really is what I did. I am not someone who tends to visualise things vividly, but I did on that occasion, and I locked that memory away where I couldn’t see it and couldn’t think about it. And after that, I couldn’t remember it at all.)
I went out with him again a couple of days later, and felt weird about it – and he acted a bit weirdly, too, if I remember rightly – but I had no idea why things were weird, and I don’t think I saw him again after that holiday, so it never really came up.
I only found the memory again nine months later when someone made a joke about something and… it wasn’t funny.
Also, I was a bit of a mess for a while. Not, ostensibly, about that. But probably a bit about that. (To be fair, there was a bunch of other stuff going on too. Sometimes messiness is justified.)
I didn’t report. Of course I didn’t. My story was true, but it wasn’t believable. Well, not by a court. I’d imagine its messiness and inconsistency and ambivalence would ring fairly true to other survivors.
Because so many of our stories look like that. The vast majority of rapes and sexual assaults are not by strangers in dark alleys. They are by friends and acquaintances and partners and ex boyfriends and colleagues, and our actions after them don’t look sensible or logical because we are tied into the same networks as our attackers and we have mutual friends and acquaintances and have to navigate that somehow. And maybe we have ambivalent feelings about our attackers or maybe we blame ourselves, because we all know that it’s risky to walk home at night and it’s risky to accept a lift from a guy or take a taxi, and it’s risky to go to a park alone but it’s also risky to go with company, and staying home isn’t safe either, and no matter what we do, it will somehow be our fault if we get attacked.
So no, Mr Morrison, telling us to report things to the police and not to the press is not helpful advice, no matter how fatherly a tone you use when you give it.
(And no matter how curious I might be about what effect it would have on the system if every survivor in Australia went to the police tomorrow. All those stories, all at the same time. It’s a terrible idea, and it puts a terrible burden on survivors. But I wonder what that would look like.)
It may sound helpful, to men. But women, survivors, hear exactly what you are saying:
Sit down. Be quiet. Let the men talk. Their lives and careers are important, and they are innocent until proven guilty.
(Men are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Women are presumed to be lying until proven innocent.)
You probably just made it up.
You probably just misunderstood.
You probably did something to provoke it.
You can’t prove it anyway.
Dear God, I hope that is not the advice he is giving his daughters.
I’m all out of ideas for things you can do this time around, other than not forgetting this at the next election (yes, yes, I’m sure there are predators in all parties, but the LNP seem to be the ones with the numbers at present, and they are working *very* hard to ensure that nothing is investigated and nobody is held accountable).
You might want to join the March for Justice Facebook Group – it looks like there will be marches on March 15 (beware the Ides of March?) all across Australia.
There’s also a petition you can sign here to end the culture of misogyny in Parliament House
The article I linked to at the top had a big long list of support crisis lines, but here are a couple of local ones that weren’t listed:
The Sexual Assault Crisis Line is a state-wide, after-hours, confidential, telephone crisis counselling service for people who have experienced both past and recent sexual assault. You can reach them on 1800 806 292.
Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia provides free 24/7 telephone and online crisis counselling. If you have experienced sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, or domestic or family violence, they are here to help you. If you are a non-offending family member or friend of someone who has experienced violence, they can support you too. They have several different numbers depending on what you need to talk about, and also have online counselling services if you are phone-shy!
Law Reform Victoria has a page on support and legal advice for survivors of sexual assault. Because if you do have the courage and strength and resources to make a police report, you deserve all the support possible in doing so.