I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Uncle Vernon in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There’s a scene in the book and film where it is a Sunday and Uncle Vernon – who has been trying all week to stop his nephew Harry from receiving a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – is happy and relieved. He believes that letters must be delivered through the British postal service and therefore he will get no letters on a Sunday. But then dozens of owls descend on Privet Drive and a flood of letters pelt down the fireplace and bounce off the walls.
Those, such as Morrison and his MPs, who insist that the criminal justice system is the only and proper place for allegations of sexual assault share Uncle Vernon’s misplaced faith in institutions. When only a tiny fraction of sexual assault perpetrators are charged, when even the police themselves admit these crimes are under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-convicted, it seems no longer enough to just say “go to the police”.
And as long as there is no systemic change, the message, these stories and past hurts, will continue to be delivered through every available channel, proper or not. “Women are fed up with the system’s inadequate response and when survivors see that a person such as [former Liberal political staffer and alleged Parliament House rape victim] Brittany Higgins is believed, it encourages them to stand in solidarity,” says Dr Rachael Burgin, a lecturer in criminology at Swinburne University of Technology and chair of Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy. “That’s why we are seeing these waves of women coming forward. It’s also about strength in numbers.”
Ending the silence – speaking up – is crucial when you consider the long history of rape and sexual assault and how society deals with it. As British classics professor Mary Beard wrote in her 2017 manifesto Women & Power, the silencing of women after rape is embedded in the foundations of Western literature: it is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the rapist of the young princess Philomela silences her by cutting her tongue out and in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, in which the raped Lavinia has her tongue ripped out.
It is only in the past few decades that women have had the confidence to stand up in public and accuse men of rape, sexual assault or harassment. And this has often been done outside of the criminal justice system: think of Anita Hill’s 1991 sexual harassment testimony to US Congress against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The #MeToo movement, which coalesced around allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, turbocharged the issue of sexual assault – leading to a flood of resignations from high-profile men. But critics accused it of having elements of a witch hunt and some men, most notably Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, were successful in court cases arising from #MeToo allegations.
The current movement in Australia started with Brittany Higgins, who went public last month about her 2019 alleged rape by a Liberal staffer colleague. Higgins cited the courage of Tame, who was raped for six months as a 15-year-old by a 58-year-old teacher at her private girls’ school in Hobart.
As women around Australia started to, again, have conversations about their experiences of harassment and assault, Chanel Contos, a 22-year-old former student of Sydney’s Kambala girls’ school, chatted to her friends. “We … basically realised we had unlimited rape stories to share from our friends from these different schools,” she said. Her online plea for similar stories received a deluge of heartbreaking and disturbing testimonies, about 2000 of which are published on her website Teachusconsent.com.
Amid all of this came the anonymous letter to Parliament that accused Porter of a girl’s rape in 1988 when she was 16 and he was 17. Porter strenuously denies the allegation.
The reckoning we are now seeing in Australia is different from the first #MeToo wave. It is much more careful about openly accusing individuals: Higgins’ accuser was not publicly named, Porter was not named until he outed himself, and all of Contos’ testimonials are anonymised.
This wave is also much more focused on specific reform: Contos and the 27,000 people who support her petition are calling for better consent education in school, and Higgins is calling for an overhaul of the culture in politics and Parliament House.
When you look at what women are calling for, there are at least five areas that need reform: leadership, sexual harassment processes, consent education, cultural change and making the criminal justice system work better for sexual assault victims and survivors.
Leadership from Canberra is vitally important because it signals to women that the issue is taken seriously. What we saw with Higgins was a person who was treated as a political problem rather than as a human being who had suffered an alleged assault. Morrison has plenty of reform ahead of him to improve the complaint processes of Canberra as a workplace, but there’s also cultural change required to make the nation’s capital a less toxic place when it comes to gender (think of the treatment of Julia Gillard, the slut-shaming of Sarah Hanson-Young, and Peter Dutton calling press gallery journalist Samantha Maiden a “mad f—ing witch”).
Exactly a year ago today, the Australian Human Rights Commission delivered a landmark report on sexual harassment to Minister for Women Marise Payne. Overwhemingly, the commission found, systems to address sexual harassment in Australia were “complex and confusing” for victims and employers and placed a heavy burden on individuals to make a complaint.
The report cited evidence that in the five years prior to 2018, 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men had experienced workplace sexual harassment. Payne announced $2.1 million in last year’s budget “to help prevent sexual harassment in Australian workplaces” but, a year on, the Morrison government has not responded to the report’s 55 recommendations.
Of all the events of the last two weeks, Contos’ call for better consent education in schools has had the most immediate, on-the-ground impact. The nation’s private schools have gone into a tailspin, with guest speakers being rushed in to give talks about consent and we’ll-do-better letters to parents. “[The] accounts were individually shocking and cumulatively harrowing,” wrote Newington College headmaster Michael Parker. “In articulating their experiences, [these women] have forced us to acknowledge that the answer to the question ‘Is what we do enough?’ is a simple ‘no’.”
Of course misogyny from private school boys is nothing new. In 2019, a female tram passenger captured boys from St Kevin’s College, a prestigious Melbourne Catholic boys’ school, shouting the lyrics: “I wish that all the ladies/ Were holes in the road/ And if I was a dump truck/ I’d fill them with my load.”
But, thanks to Contos, there seems a real opportunity here to open up the conversation about consent. That begins with some basic things: pressuring women into sex is not consensual sex. If women fear they are going to be attacked, they will try to minimise the physical risk to themselves. There are well-understood, well-studied psychological reactions to traumatic situations that mean that women may not speak out or struggle, such as the “freeze reponse” where they become immobilised when subjected to sexual violence or the “fawn response” (placating the attacker to avoid escalation of violence).
But changing attitudes is going to take more than just better consent education. Maree Crabbe is the author of In the Picture, a sexuality education resource for secondary schools that includes video clips, class notes and guidelines for teachers and principals to help teenagers deal with the influence of pornography. This week she’s had several private schools on the phone seeking her expertise.
When Crabbe read the testimonies on Contos’ site she saw clear evidence of the influence of pornography – the coercion, the language, the focus on male pleasure, the failure to negotiate free and full consent. She says the problem is widespread – not just in private schools – but we need to look beyond pornography at all of the cultural influences on young men, from gendered messages in the family home to sport, media, video games, YouTube clips and action movies.
“Whether it is in Parliament House or people’s bedrooms, in universities or whatever setting, we have a real problem with gender inequality and that’s the driver of violence against women. So you can’t just talk in the school classroom about equality and respect and need for consent in sexual contexts. We need those messages to be conveyed right across our culture,” says Crabbe.
“The cultural context doesn’t always nurture young men to be healthy, whole, respectful and generous human beings. Young men talk about the pressure from their peers to keep silent, to live up to expectations around being sexually experienced and being tough.
“Meanwhile, young women bear the brunt of all of this and while society suggests that they just say ‘No’, we need to remember their cultural context and the messages given to them about being agreeable and pleasing and not ‘difficult’ and ‘frigid’ in a sexual context.”
Crabbe is calling for a national conversation about “enthusiastic consent”: which means more than just agreeing or acquiescing to pressure or expectations. It means engaging in sexual acts because the participants really want to. “We need to help young people aspire to a model of sexuality that is positive, fulfilling and joyful because the priority for everybody involved in a sexual interaction is to ensure the enthusiasm and enjoyment of everyone else.”
Although the criminal justice system continues to fail sexual crimes complainants, it is important to note there have been significant improvements. Police in some states now have specialist teams dealing with rape allegations, there are one-stop shops set up for victims, and complainants nationally can choose to give evidence via video. Judges are allowed to direct juries on some stereotypes and misconceptions about sex crimes.
When I asked the Victorian and NSW Police about what their message to victims was this week, they encouraged people to come forward. “Our message to victims is that you will be listened to,” a Victoria Police spokesperson said. The NSW police encouraged victims to keep reporting, even if they didn’t want to continue with a complaint, pointing to a recent case of one alleged rapist, now before the courts, who was only charged because police joined the dots between five similar but separate complaints.
But advocates such as Burgin are pushing for changes to how the law deals with consent. Tasmania, says Burgin, is the only state with the “gold star” standard of affirmative consent embedded in law. This means that if an alleged rapist wants to rely on the defence that he reasonably believed he had consent, he must prove steps were taken to ascertain consent.
Victoria has these steps in its laws but they are not compulsory, and a recent NSW Law Reform Commission report failed to recommend that the law be changed in that state for embedded affirmative consent. ”We can tinker at the sides of the criminal justice system forever but we won’t see any substantial change or reform until we shift the focus to what the accused did to ensure they had free consent,” says Burgin.
Besides Uncle Vernon, this week I was also thinking about Helen Garner, who so enraged feminists when she fretted about the actions of University of Melbourne sexual harassment victims in her 1995 book The First Stone. What did she make of all of this?
She emailed me that she felt deeply for the women. “I know from what certain women dear to me have told me that though a woman may be a ‘survivor’ of rape, in the depths of her psyche she is irreparably wounded. And as for allegations that surface decades later which some people would prefer to brush aside, I can’t help thinking about a very old saying: ‘The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceeding small’.”
Women won’t just pack up their placards and return peacefully to their lives. Each woman like “Sarah” – and there are thousands – is at her own point in dealing with the past. She is peeling away the shame that is not hers and finding her own reserves of courage to bring these things to the surface – or to let them lie.
Some women are seeking justice. Some just want to be heard. But all want to take back the power – to make the story their own.
Melissa Fyfe is an award-winning senior writer with Good Weekend.