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Abuse that crosses generations is proof we need new narrative on rape

Since I launched my petition calling for better consent education in schools, I have had to learn how to read about sexual abuse with as little emotional attachment as possible, to protect my own mental health and keep the campaign sustainable. Each testimony has been confronting and triggering.

But reading The Age’s published accounts of abuse across the generations on Saturday gave me goosebumps and made me cry. This is not because the stories were any more harrowing than those submitted by younger women as part of my petition, but because I felt a unique sense of intergenerational solidarity with these anonymous women who had chosen to share their stories.

Sex education advocate Chanel Contos.

Sex education advocate Chanel Contos.Credit:Liliana Zaharia

Six weeks ago, some of the reports shared on my petition would have made the news all on their own, if the victims had gone public. Because six weeks ago, the public thought sexual assault was a rare occurrence in Australia. We’ve since realised it’s not, but that speaking up about it is.

More than 5000 victims of sexual assault have come forward to me, the Herald and The Age, all pleading for change. Testimonies have been submitted by women born in 1943, through to girls born in 2008. Girls still at school to women in Parliament have identified themselves as survivors.

I have been told by middle-aged women that this is the first time they’ve shared their stories. I’ve been told by girls younger than me that they themselves, their mother and their grandmother are all sexual assault survivors. There have been few women with whom I have interacted over the past weeks who have not had a testimony to share with me. We all have different stories, but we all want the same thing. Change.

I am told the “perfect storm” has emerged between Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and me this year. But, there was nothing serendipitous about this timing. The storm did not emerge; it was there the whole time. Australia felt it only as a light drizzle because our society puts up umbrellas so we can ignore the problem. These umbrellas are both structural and cultural and they make it hard to talk about sexual assault, but every single person who tells their story adds another raindrop and encourages others in the cloud to fall hard, making this storm impossible to ignore.

Brittany Higgins at the Women’s March 4 Justice at Parliament House in Canberra.

Brittany Higgins at the Women’s March 4 Justice at Parliament House in Canberra.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Women have collectively carried this weight on their shoulders for generations. Not only have we been victims of this rape culture but, because it is all we know, we have also perpetuated it. By internalising our own shame and reflecting that mentality onto younger generations, we’ve made it hard for those around us to speak up. As someone said in the Herald’s report, “their weapon is knowing you will be too scared to tell”.

Many readers are wondering how they can help, and the answer is to actively contribute to creating a society where it is not scary to tell any more. Think about the things that made it hard for you to talk about your own sexual assault. Was it your friends telling you that you were drunk, or your parents asking you what were you wearing, or was it your teacher constantly reminding you it’s your job to not get sexually assaulted? Who made you think it was your fault? Who made you feel shame for having that thing happen to you? Think about it – and then don’t be that person.

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