It’s not women versus men, it’s everyone versus rapists

Words by Sunny Chisholm

If a young woman cannot be safe in the presence of a teacher, a police officer or a politician, who can she feel safe with?

“I know now of course I was one of the lucky ones. I left that building without having been raped… I was spared the experience alleged by Brittany Higgins. These were the powerful and blistering words of Jamila Rizvi, an editor and former political staffer, speaking of her time at Parliament House.

Earlier this week, I joined the tens of thousands of allies and survivors who rallied across the country to #march4justice. It was a profoundly moving experience and one that I’ll remember as a defining moment in my life. We marched for every woman who has experienced gendered and sexual violence. 

If you have experienced sexual assault or know someone who has, a list of key support services in your state can be found here.

We marched for Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal staffer who alleges a colleague raped her at Parliament House. We marched for the now-deceased “Kate” (whose identity will be protected as to respect her privacy and any potential investigation), who is at the centre of a historical rape allegation currently making headlines in Australia. 

We marched for Sarah Everard, who was kidnapped and murdered on her walk home from a friend’s house (a police officer has since been charged with the crime). And we marched for Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, who was repeatedly and mercilessly sexually abused by her teacherbefore school, after school, in [her] uniform, on the floor”.

These women’s stories transcend area codes, countries and hemispheres. Their names will not be forgotten, because the realities of their situations aren’t lost on us. These could be our stories. These could be our names. Because we have all felt the burning discomfort of knowing you’re being noticed while doing completely unremarkable day-to-day tasks.

We have all felt the terror of realising you’re alone with a man – whether that be in an elevator, on a train carriage or in the street – and wishing you were literally anywhere else.

Brittany Higgins’ voice shook as she addressed the crowd outside Parliament House, and as I speak about these women, my voice gets wobbly too. I feel so furious and so betrayed by the institutions and systems that failed them.

If a young woman cannot be safe in the presence of a teacher, a police officer or a politician, who can she feel safe with?

For me, the hardest thing to reconcile, and the shocking truth of the matter, is that all of the perpetrators in question are people who are employed to respect and uphold law and order. In every respect, these men would be considered trustworthy, exemplary members of society. Instead, women were hurt (and worse) by the very men who were there to protect them – a tale as old as time.

And while it’s true that #notallmen are predators, it’s also fair to say that not all men are doing enough to actively prevent predatory behaviour. It’s not all men, but it’s enough men. Enough of them to foster a society where their toxicity is ignored, allowing them positions of power in our police stations, courtrooms, schools and parliament houses, with their behaviour going unnoticed and unpunished. While not all men are frightening, every woman is frightened.

How did it get to this? Could it be the entitled and corrupt culture fostered by Australia’s private boys’ schools that creates massive power imbalances in our country?  Exclusive, non-government schools seem to instill a mindset in young, privileged, and predominantly White boys that they are in fact untouchable. That they can force students to perform oral sex, spit on a homeless man and rape unconscious girls with little to no consequence. That they are above the law.

It’s not hard to imagine that these schools act as the perfect breeding ground for corruption, nepotism, elitism and misconduct. Growing up in an echo chamber surrounded by those who look and think like you, and work alongside you, while being raised by those who are responsible for public policy and legislature, is common in such networks.

And in the case of Christian Porter, our Attorney General and the man at the centre of current allegations, these are his realities. His dad served as the General Secretary for the Liberal Party, and he’s known Health Minister Greg Hunt and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher since adolescence.

Can we trust politicians or ministers to identify sexual harassment when they see it and call it out when they do? Brittany Higgins’ experience proves that we cannot. On this, she said, “it felt like the people around me did not care about what happened because of what it might mean for them. It was so confusing because these people were my idols. I had dedicated my life to them… Suddenly they treated me differently.”

When an issue that has been shrouded in darkness for such a long time is brought to light, “there’s widespread shock and disbelief over how something so evil could happen, and not just happen but happen so ubiquitously,” says Grace Tame. “And the answer is plain and simple – silence. Evil thrives in silence. Behaviour unspoken, behaviour ignored, is behaviour endorsed.”

A letter detailing the now-deceased ‘Kate’s’ accusations was sent to the Prime Minister, and while he claims to have been briefed on it, reports state he hadn’t actually bothered to read it. How shameful. A disappointing but illuminating display of how little he seems to care about the survivors and victims of sex crimes. 

During her speech at Hobart’s rally, Grace Tame said that “men are not the enemy, corrupt behaviour is. Corrupt behaviour always has been and always will be the enemy.”

This isn’t a matter of women versus men. This is everyone versus rapists.

With protesters’ signs reading “those who abuse women or protect abusers are not fit to lead our country” and “politicians must protect the people, not the party”, it’s clear this is a moment that requires leadership from our Prime Minister to address the pitiful standards that exist on both sides of politics. Because it’s not women who need to change, it’s these systems. And if they don’t, a message will be delivered at the ballot box come election time.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault you can call national sexual assault counselling service 1800RESPECT, or head to its website for support and advice. 

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