Australian attorney general Christian Porter and prime minister Scott Morrison in parliament on February 25 (Photo: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Australian attorney general Christian Porter and prime minister Scott Morrison in parliament on February 25 (Photo: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

SocietyMarch 13, 2021

A nation’s reckoning and the ripples that follow

Australian attorney general Christian Porter and prime minister Scott Morrison in parliament on February 25 (Photo: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Australian attorney general Christian Porter and prime minister Scott Morrison in parliament on February 25 (Photo: Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Four years ago today, young Wellington women held a protest against rape culture. Has anything changed? Our neighbours across the ditch suggest not.

This post was first published by Emily Writes Weekly

Content warning: this post discusses sexual violence and harassment. It may be upsetting to survivors. Please take care.

Australia has been hit with wave after wave of accounts of high-profile sexual assaults over the last month. The result has been a nation of women and gender minorities being re-traumatised by a relentless onslaught of gaslighting and misogyny online.

For background, about three weeks ago, a young woman, Brittany Higgins, said she’d been raped in 2019 in a government minister’s office by her colleague. They both worked for the Liberal Party, the party that is currently in power in Australia.

Higgins, 24, reported her rape to her boss, the then Defence Industry minister Linda Reynolds. She says she didn’t feel supported and she felt if she reported the attack to police she’d lose her job. Reynolds recently called Higgins a “lying cow”, so it certainly seems likely she was not given support.

She shared her story publicly after prime minister Scott Morrison was photographed with a survivor of sexual assault. She said: “He’s standing next to a woman who has campaigned [for survivors’ rights]… and yet in my mind his government was complicit in silencing me. It was a betrayal. It was a lie.”

This act of bravery by Brittany Higgins in turn encouraged others to stand up and share their stories of assault and harassment inside and outside of parliament.

Since Higgins spoke out, four other women have come forward and said the same man sexually assaulted or sexually harassed them.

Another woman’s story has also come out. Last week, Australia’s attorney general Christian Porter identified himself as the minister who had been accused of rape in 1988. The victim was 16 years old, and Porter was 17. She took her own life last year. Porter strenuously denies the claims.

Scott Morrison has stood by all of his ministers and there will be no inquiry.

That same week, thousands of accounts of rape and abuse in Sydney high schools were uncovered and published by a young woman: Chanel Contos.

What impact does the prime minister’s actions, combined with the public vilification of victims, have on survivors of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual harassment? When there is a movement that is so quickly shut down by those in power – combined with gaslighting and re-victimisation in comments sections all over the internet – what is the end result for victims?

It is devastation.

I have spent the last two weeks fielding emails from women telling me they are really, really struggling. They tell me – mine wasn’t that bad. But then they share abhorrent stories of abuse. Society has convinced them to always share carefully, with caveats. To always say it wasn’t as bad…

Abuse as children, as girls, as teenagers, as young women. Rape and violence. Not. That. Bad.

The immense shame felt by a lot of survivors due to a system that protects rapists and abusers rises so quickly to the top. Every story I hear is dripping with shame. Right now, that shame is compounded by thousands of comments on Facebook picking apart a survivor’s story. It is overwhelming.

Did you scream? Was it rape/rape? Or just rape. Were your clothes torn? What were you wearing? Were you drunk? Everyone is a judge, which is ironic since none of these cases will make it to court.

And yet – incessantly, relentlessly – there is a call of: why didn’t you report it then?

Well, would you report it? Look at how these women are treated! Why would you report it?

Yes, we see empathy. But we don’t see a lot of it.

What you do see is men defending and protecting each other around gender-based violence. They say, “He was only 17” or “That’s not rape, that’s just having a bit of fun”. These men are constantly redefining what rape is until it becomes meaningless. Until nobody is a rapist. There’s no such thing as rape.

These men are centring themselves in the narrative of women’s rape as they erase these accounts of rape.

There is a common tactic rapists use to elicit empathy. They say, “What if it was your son being accused? Aren’t you worried? As a mother of sons?”

A man is 230 times more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape. As a fact check on the statistic says: “Imagine for a second that you believe that every single one of the men prosecuted for rape in England and Wales in 2016-17 was falsely accused. Even if that unlikely scenario were true, there would still have been more adult male victims of rape (8,000) than men prosecuted for those rapes they ‘didn’t commit’ (5,190).”

And yet, despite this generally, cis men are not allies to women around rape.

Instead of working together to address sexual violence, they insist on centring the accused in rape cases and feeding them excuses.

Unfortunately, some women do this too. This phenomenon of women protecting rapists and upholding rape culture is a combination of internalised misogyny and fear.

I have written before about The Rules. Some women believe if they follow the rules, and tell all other women to follow the rules, they’ll somehow be protected. Life is a swim in shark-infested waters and if you just don’t look like a seal you’ll probably be safe. They neglect to recognise that if they’re dressed modestly because women “bring it on themselves” for dressing a certain way, they’re condemning their sisters to rape. If he doesn’t rape you, he’ll rape her.

Aside from that, as the mother of two boys I find the assumption that men will rape women based on what they wear, because they can’t control themselves, wildly offensive. Yet nobody is more committed to this narrative than men on the internet who will provide every excuse for rape. It is as if they believe every man is capable of rape, so they must ensure they cover all bases lest their true nature take over.

So what can we do? These cases in the news and the endless commentary around them on social media rubs us raw. It is like picking at a scab. You know there are men out there who rape, yet seeing them all over social media breaks apart a carefully created sense of safety many women have. You see this even as your own experiences cut away at your sense of self.

Diana Scully and Joseph Marolla’s research Convicted Rapists’ Perceptions of Self and Victim: Role Taking and Emotions is from 1988. But it still stands. Rapists are not monsters who lurk in the shadows. They’re people you know. And they don’t think they’re rapists.

Just as it was then, as it is now, rape culture is proven:

It is proposed that the prevailing rape myths that exist in the society at large serve the function of providing excuses and justifications for rapists.

This is true and always has been true.

It is also a terribly uncomfortable truth that rapists are being trained online. Every time men and women online suggest “having sex” with a woman when she’s unconscious isn’t rape. And if you’re 17 and she’s 16 it’s not rape. And if you’re a sports star it’s not rape (because what woman wouldn’t want to have sex with a sports star?). And if she’s gone to a boy’s house and she’s drunk that’s not rape. And if she said no after kissing him that’s not rape. All of that? It’s training. Training future rapists.

On this day in 2017, in response to the Wellington College scandal, young Wellington women held a protest against rape culture and in support of sexual consent education in schools.

I said at the time that it was cause for hope.

I think I was wrong.

The incredible Eva McGauley, just 17 years old, spoke at that march. She died the following year.

We have no choice but to keep fighting this exhausting fight for our children. But how? What can we do? How can we disrupt this training?

Five years after the last revision, four years after those brave young people marched, two years after Eva McGauley passed away, the New Zealand Ministry of Education released new relationship and sexuality guidelines for primary and high school students.

Next month, ministry staff will be available so that Term 2, 2021 begins with consultation with parents about the roll-out of the programme.

It’s our turn to try to make a difference. Again.

No matter how tired we are, no matter how hopeless – it’s time to fight again.

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