Australia’s Latest Rape Culture Reckoning

Content warning: This piece contains mention of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence.

In January 2021, I watched in awe as Grace Tame was named Australian of the Year. We all know her story by now: at fifteen, she was groomed and repeatedly raped by her high school maths teacher, Nicolaas Bester. He was fifty-eight at the time. Bester was eventually convicted in 2011 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison (ABC News 2011). Upon his release, Bester showed no signs of repentance. He bragged about the abuse on social media, to an account with over seven hundred Facebook friends­, describing it as ‘enviable’ and ‘awesome’. This landed him back in jail for another four months (ABC News 2016). All the while, Tame was left unable to publicly respond, gagged by an archaic law. Alongside journalist Nina Funnell, Tame spearheaded the #LetHerSpeak campaign. Together, they successfully overturned section 194K of Tasmania’s Evidence Act 2001, which prohibited sexual abuse survivors from sharing their experiences (Australia Post 2021). Tame clearly refused to be silenced. ‘Hear me now,’ she cried in her blistering acceptance speech (ABC News 2021b). On the back of Tame’s hand is a tattoo. Inked into her skin are three small words, a mantra that captures her indomitable spirit: eat my fear.
Tame’s courage sparked a national conversation. Domestic and sexual violence against women continues to persist on an endemic level. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019), one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of fifteen. This reality has been underscored by the compounding news cycle of the past months. We heard about Brittany Higgins, the former liberal staffer who was allegedly raped by a colleague two years ago inside Parliament House (ABC News 2021d). We saw Chanel Contos launch a viral petition urging sex education reform, borne partly from her own sexual assault as a teenager in Sydney (The Sydney Morning Herald 2021). And our former Attorney General was revealed to be the cabinet minister at the centre of a historic rape allegation (ABC News 2021a). Amidst all of this, I was scrolling through Facebook and came across an article by Triple J Hack (2021). I read its headline: ‘Are we in the middle of a rape culture reckoning?’ The news would certainly suggest that we are. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel deflated by this question.

Are we?

I am outraged for Grace Tame. I am heartbroken for Brittany Higgins. I empathise with Chanel Contos. However, like many women, I know how it feels to walk through life sheltered––until we’re not. Perhaps like many women, as shocking as this news has been, it no longer surprises me. If this is a reckoning against the misogyny that fuels rape, doesn’t it echo the sentiments of a revolution we’ve just had? #TimesUp, we had said, less than four years ago. Back then, far too many of us said #MeToo.

I am mad, and so tired. What has changed?

Statistically speaking, things barely have. Before #MeToo, The Conversation (2015) reported that in Australia, one woman per week is killed by her current or former partner. This is still the case (The Guardian 2021). In this country, women are almost three times more likely than men to experience violence from an intimate partner (Our Watch 2021). During the covid lockdowns, domestic violence skyrocketed (The Age 2020a,b), yet our government response to this crisis remains abysmal. The Safe@Work Report was published in January 2020, following a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. Within it were fifty-five recommendations for fostering safer work environments. They are yet to be implemented (The Guardian 2020). Following the horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children, another national inquiry was launched, this time into domestic violence (ABC News 2020). Finally, I felt as though this issue was being taken seriously. That is, until the inquiry was prematurely closed without seeking any submissions, holding any hearings, or making any recommendations. Its final report stated that doing so ‘would be of limited value’ (ABC News 2020).
The truth is, progress remains infinitesimally slow. According to UN Women (2021), we won’t achieve gender parity for another hundred years. Our Prime Minister’s response to the March 4 Justice protests felt like a flagrant deflection to me: comparing the robustness of those demonstrations to those in other countries that are ‘being met with bullets’ (ABC News 2021c). We are raising our voices in protest against gendered violence and rallying for change here in Australia––comments about our right to protest peacefully do not address this matter. This is the same leader who had to be encouraged by his wife, Jenny, to publicly acknowledge Higgins’ rape allegations (The Australian 2021). Is sexual violence meted out against women a female problem, that only female leaders can comprehend? So far, that appears to be the case. Absurd, when the overwhelming majority of sexual assault offenders are male––97 per cent in the year 2018­­–2019, as recorded by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2020). The impact of top-down solidarity would be profound.
We’re not only being let down by those at the top, however. Tackling rape culture also requires more quotidian reform, in targeting the attitudes that fuel it. The Lexico Oxford Dictionary (2021) defines rape culture as ‘a society or environment whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse’. Unpacking these social attitudes is incredibly difficult. So ingrained is everyday sexism in our collective psyche, it can feel invisible. Getting people to see it, let alone conveying its cumulative and dangerous effects, feels like an uphill battle sometimes. These smaller attitudes we let slide—sly comments, degrading language, antisocial behaviours—all add up to the bigger picture. I like to use the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ analogy here. Sexual assault and abuse are preventable if we can tackle them from their conception. Education holds awesome potential for getting the ball rolling here. Thanks to Chanel Contos’ efforts, the government is launching ‘Respect Matters, a suite of education material’ for high schoolers (SBS 2021). I am hopeful that this is a step in the right direction.
Eventually, shifting social attitudes will bleed into legal reform. If we are all educated on what constitutes rape and have a nuanced understanding of enthusiastic consent, then juries will populate courtrooms free of the prejudices that blame and shame survivors. It is this sense of shame and subsequent humiliation that halts so many survivors from reporting their abuse (Psychology Today 2018). The court process is also widely known to be brutally re-traumatising for complainants (Australian Institute of Family Studies 2010). According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Safety Survey, 180,000 adult respondents experienced sexual violence over the previous year. Between nine to fourteen per cent of them reported to police; ‘even fewer saw their attacker convicted’ (The Age 2019). Quashing the anachronistic myths that uphold rape culture and encourage victim blaming through education and reform, will support survivors to report assaults far more frequently.

So, are we in the middle of a rape culture reckoning?

I hope so.

If anything, it is always heartening to see survivors who have made it through the system and come out the other side: not just surviving but thriving. I credit advocates like Grace Tame, Chanel Contos, and Brittany Higgins for their very public strength. I also hold space for the countless survivors who don’t make front-page news: our marginalised demographics within the LGBT+ community, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, yet rarely garner mainstream attention. There is strength in survival, even when progress feels arduously slow. There is also strength in solidarity. Together, we can all learn from Tame’s call for courage.

Together, we outnumber our fears.

References:

ABC News (2011) Teacher jailed for maintaining sexual relationship with school student, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2016) Former private school teacher Nicolaas Bester jailed after calling sexual relationship with student ‘awesome’, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2020) New inquiry could emerge as domestic violence report commissioned after Hannah Clarke murder labelled a ‘sad failure’.

——— (2021a) Christian Porter identifies himself as unidentified Cabinet minister and strenuously denies historical rape allegation, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2021b) Hear me now’: Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s speech in full, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2021c) Scott Morrison’s ‘bullets’ for protesters comment stuns Australian UN representative, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2021d) The big questions left unanswered about the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins at Parliament House, accessed 13 May 2021.

Australian Institute of Family Studies (2010) ‘What is the justice system willing to offer?’, Australian Government (AIFS), accessed 13 May 2021.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story, accessed 13 May 2021.

Australia Post (2021) Grace Tame: Reclaiming her voice and changing the law, accessed 13 May 2021.

Lexico Oxford Dictionary (2021) rape culture, accessed 13 May 2021.

Our Watch (2021) Quick facts, accessed 13 May 2021.

Psychology Today (2018) Stop shaming victims of sexual assault for not reporting, accessed 13 May 2021.

SBS News (2021) Schools in Australia will soon be provided with sexual consent education materials, accessed 13 May 2021.

The Age (2019) Are we failing victims of domestic violence?, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2020a) Domestic violence inquiry set up after Hannah Clarke murder ends early, without submissions or hearings, accessed 13 May 2021.

——— (2020b) New reports of family violence spike in COVID-19 lockdown, study finds, accessed 13 May 2021.

The Australian (2021) How PM’s wife made him take action on rape, accessed 13 May 2021.

The Conversation (2019) The long history of sexual violence in Australia, and why it matters todayv, accessed 13 May 2021.

The Guardian (2021) A woman is still being killed each week in Australia. We need federal leadership, accessed 13 May 2021.

The Sydney Morning Herald (2021) It started on Instagram. Now Chanel’s petition is leading a sex education revolution, accessed 13 May 2021.

Triple J Hack (2021) Are we in the middle of a rape culture reckoning?, accessed 13 May 2021.

United Nations (2020) Women and girls – closing the gender gap, accessed 13 May 2021.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s