When the political is personal

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.

14 thoughts on “When the political is personal

  1. Hello! I moderate all comments on this blog, and today I am not interested in having conversations about Poor Falsely Accused Men or how those statistics about women being assaulted are Exaggerated And Probably Lies. (I’ve already had that conversation twice this week, trust me, I am as educated as I ever will be on this subject.)
    So please don’t waste your time or mine on a comment that will be deleted before anyone other than me sees it. Life is short and precious, and I’m sure you can find better ways to use yours!

  2. Part of me is fascinated by the idea of every woman reporting at once.

    In sorry that happened. I’m sorry this is still happening. If there is a solution, talking is part of it.

    • It’s quite a visual, isn’t it?

      And thanks. I’m sorry too. I don’t know how we get to talking about this usefully, but the number of very angry women journalists on Twitter is a good sign, I think. The thing that I fear most is that this will just become another scandal and then we will be back to business as usual (which is clearly what ScoMo is hoping for).

  3. You wrote what I started to, and then stopped because it was too hard.
    Some thoughts.
    Whoever it was on the radio that said the AFP shouldn’t have to tell Parliament not to cover up crimes is right.
    Interesting that Porter’s suggested version of ICAC would have been limited in what it could investigate, and historical sex crimes were definitely excluded.
    The parliamentary staffers conditions of employment need to be looked at urgently. The thing that shocked me the most was the security guards non-reaction – even if she was “just” drunk, maybe check that she’s in the recovery position? Call someone? I mean, it’s a breach that she’s in there anyway, maybe that warrants some investigation?
    The only difference between an allegation of theft with no witnesses and little forensic evidence and sexual assault is that the system is set up to believe the accuser.

    Dear God, I hope that is not the advice he is giving his daughters.

    Given he is apparently sending them to private school in part to shield them from the Respectful Relationships program I suspect what he is teaching them is Good Girls Don’t Until Marriage. Because no one ever rapes a Good Girl.

    • I’m both glad and sorry that this resonates. (I honestly don’t know if I should have posted it… but I did sleep last night, so.)

      Agreed, on all counts. At the absolute, barest of bare minimums, there needs to be an HR system in place in Parliament that includes staffers. (And yeah… if she was so drunk as to be unconscious, did they not check that she wasn’t going to choke in her sleep or something?)

      Given he is apparently sending them to private school in part to shield them from the Respectful Relationships program I suspect what he is teaching them is Good Girls Don’t Until Marriage. Because no one ever rapes a Good Girl.

      *laughs hollowly*

      And if they do, that’s probably a sign that she wasn’t really a Good Girl, deep down. (I do worry about those girls. I know women raised with similar religious beliefs, and it’s not so bad if your life turns out well and you marry someone who is a genuinely kind person, but if you are unlucky in your life or marriage the fallout is horrific.)

  4. (Men are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Women are presumed to be lying until proven innocent.)
    Yes, that’s the takeaway.

    As I said elsewhere, it’s weeks like these that remind me that for far too much of the population, my worth is still calculated by my relationship to the nearest Man. I don’t have my own identity; people either refer to my nearest male relative, or overlay my identity with the impression of their equivalent relative. (A Sister. A Daughter. My Wife’s Friend)

    And I think of every story I could tell, of occasions when I was uncomfortable but laughed nervously instead because I didn’t want to ‘ruin the party’, when I did something because I was dared to and I wanted to fit in, when I was groped openly on the street and basically blocked it out because how could someone just walk straight up to me and do that?, when I’ve been the designated sober friend at a party or pub and pulled a friend away from someone who thought she was propositioning them (she was just tipsy and excited), when I impressed on my brother in his teens that I would drop everything and drive to pick him up or any friend of his (many of them girls) that felt uncomfortable up and take them home from a party, if he called, because I was the Big Sister With A Vehicle.

    The story is always messy. And of course the accused frequently doesn’t remember the same details: for the victim it’s one of the worst days of their life. For the perpetrator it’s just business as usual, any concerns brushed away.

      • I suspect if you asked in the right way, pretty much everyone not a cis man could come up with a story about SOMETHING that would fit into a broad definition of sexual assault. Of course, for many of us who aren’t in the official ‘yes I was assaulted’ statistics, “it wasn’t that bad/I wasn’t actually raped/nothing happened I just felt AWFUL and like a piece of meat” is the level it’s at, and who is going to believe you? It’s your word against theirs, didn’t you lead them on (by existing).

        • (And just quietly, on the legal side of things, can I say that I actually really like the reasoning in NSW that has removed ‘rape’ as the specific name of the crime and replaced it with ‘sexual assault’ in the Crimes Act, because I find it much more validating to have a broader definition, because it’s not always easily defined as rape, and the historical requirements narrowing the definition leave some huge gaps for people to fall through)

    • Thank you. Yes, you are welcome to share, if you would like. (And if Facebook permits! I was caught up in the exciting blocking of sites a few weeks ago, but I seem to be back now!)

  5. Thanks Catherine. This is a bit of my story. I hope it contributes in some small way to reinforce the points of your piece, without detracting from your voice, and the voices of other women who are, and must, continue to call out the behaviours you have been subjected to for far too long. I’m addressing a point that I haven’t seen articulated on your post, but which I feel will be in some readers minds. Naturally, this won’t be news to any women reading, but I hope some men reading may appreciate the added perspective.

    As a male, on the extremely rare occasions I do talk about my experience, I generally won’t call it “rape”. Even now, the concept of a male being subjected to unwanted sexual intercourse by a female is going to be a hard thing to convince people of. Back when it happened 20+ years ago, it would be laughed at (I know, I was – literally). I knew her, I had invited her into my house, and during the course of events I “enjoyed myself”, so clearly I must have been a willing participant – except that I wasn’t. In this sense, maybe I have one tiny nit-pick with one small part of your excellent article – men are presumed innocent and women guilty EXCEPT where the man is alleging they were raped by a woman – then the man is either trying to cover up for an “indiscretion” or disgruntled about something (so, still innocent but in a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” kind of way), and the woman was … at least at the time when this happened to me, actually probably not considered at all.

    But the real point I wanted to make here, is that a male’s experience after raped is vastly different from a female rape victims. Yes, men get raped. At the time, you feel powerless, violated, and guilty that you didn’t “do something” to stop it. But it seems to me that is where the similarity between men and women’s experience ends. Sexual harassment of men isn’t an ongoing thing – we are not generally subjected to unsolicited sexual touching or even suggestive comments. I was raped, and by and large it has been something I have been able to shelve and largely forget about in my daily life. Women, on the other hand, carry their rape experience in a context where they are continually being reminded that a portion of our society considers them as appropriate targets for unsolicited sexual harassment, and worse. They don’t get to shelve it and move on. I can’t even begin to imagine what that is like, but I can well imagine it would change my experience from something unpleasant that happened once a long time ago, to something horrific which I was reminded of practically every day. That is the context that makes addressing the way women are treated and viewed by our society crucial. That is why I can say “Yes, it happened to me too, but that is not important – when it happens to women, that is important”.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we need to find some way to robustly but respectfully deal with accusations of these sorts. And ultimately, we need to fix our society so that we all truly respect all people, and such crimes become exceptional rather than normal. Sadly, I have no bright ideas on how to progress either, other than to voice my support.

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and nuanced comments. I am so sorry that this happened to you, and I take your point about presumptions of innocence.

      I think you make an interesting point about the aftermath. Certainly, the hardest thing about the past few weeks for me has been this reinforcement from people (mostly men) in power of the idea that sexual violence against women is unimportant, a distraction from real issues. We really are just things, less important than a man’s career. And it sucks.

      I do want to push back just a little bit on your second last paragraph and say that just because someone else was harmed worse that doesn’t mean you weren’t harmed too. Obviously, you are the only person who gets to define whether it is important or not, and I don’t want to usurp that! But… you should never have to feel bad about feeling bad, if that’s what’s going on here. It’s not a competition (and if it is, who would ever want to win it?!).

      Stay well.

      Catherine

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