**Content warning: rape, sexual assault**
This is not another story about a girl who was let down by the system. It’s a story about how my efforts to help her changed my life.
In 2016, a young woman who was a volunteer for the ACT Greens was sexually assaulted. She was raped by another member, despite complaining about his inappropriate behaviour towards her and other women throughout the campaign. Since then, I’ve spent countless days and nights advocating, with others, to help her be heard and to hold those responsible to account. My friend, the survivor, was someone I knew through volunteering and I’d heard rumours of another man making her feel unsafe and uncomfortable in the workplace. I asked her if everything was ok, never anticipating what a man within a “progressive organisation” would do to her, and not realising that of course she’d be intimidated by me, an older man and a stranger, asking if one of my peers was acting inappropriately. I’ll say it now, I did not do enough to help her when rumours surfaced. I notified female leaders within the organisation assuming they’d take care of it, or that it wouldn’t eventuate to anything at all, just some silly young girl imagining things. How wrong I was. My ignorance and bias would lead to feelings of guilt, regret and disgust in my inactions. I failed.
When the opportunity to write something about this awakening for a feminist literary publication presented itself, I had mixed feelings, but mostly trepidation of mansplaining and over-simplifying my friend’s experience. First, I’m a privileged, white man and I recognise my entitlement and comments are super cliché. I’m guilty of exploiting my power and position within society for self-benefit and, all too often, to the detriment of women I’ve been in relationships with. Something innately tells me not to comment on systems of oppression, racism, women’s business, feminist issues or the patriarchy, because they don’t directly affect me and I wouldn’t have anything to offer the discussion. Most likely, I’d say the wrong thing and get in trouble, not wanting to learn something about other people’s pain and suffering – ignorance is nice and conflict is confronting, right?
In the context of the #MeToo movement, and the growing awareness of the impact of bystanders on women’s experiences of sexual harassment, staying silent is no longer an option. For me it wasn’t until my now friend experienced what has been called a “brutal and traumatic rape” that I “got woke”. Whilst her suppoters have been threatened, bullied and lied to, their suffering isn’t comparable to the young woman, one of the strongest people I know, who was violated, exploited, lied to, victim blamed, discredited and disputed, humiliated and made to question her identity when her party, friends and family denied her experience to protect themselves. She’s had to fight the organisation we volunteered for because they have not acknowledged or taken accountability for their involvement in what happened to her and other women, compounding their pain.
With all this in mind, I aim to speak to my experience advocating for a survivor and to reflect upon how “male allies” have supported in the sphere of #MeToo. So much of my friend’s story has been altered and edited for the male gaze; seven media outlets published 14 articles about what transpired and although some do her story justice, highlighting important components, not everything has been published. It’s almost impossible to get the media to report on these matters without substantial supporting evidence, but #MeToo and social media provides an alternate pathway to seeking justice. If you can’t see that #MeToo shines a light on systemic problems within the legal and criminal justice system or the toxic institutional problems facing women in the workplace, you’ve not been paying attention. But how does #MeToo, an online protest movement, translate into actual legal, criminal and social justice? How can male allies help?
It amazed me the amount of time, energy and effort required to get acknowledgement and justice for rape victims. I’ve sent hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls for almost two years in the attempt to help my friend. I reached out to what feels like everyone, the appropriate official internal and external institutions. For example, I’ve spoken with police, social workers, lawyers, politicians, the human rights commission, workplace health and safety, academic institutions and peak bodies. I have so much respect for these institutions. Specifically, the police and the service they provide the community – I couldn’t do their job. Witnessing the amount of evil, horror and cruelty they must see towards women and children, in their role I would dissociate all feelings of empathy and compassion for survivors because the job would demand it. It is this dissociation that contributes to oppression of survivors.
As a man, it’s hard to imagine the fear of being at risk of physical assault from a perpetrator because our rigid criminal justice system doesn’t have the funding, resources or capacity to protect and serve. In my opinion, we need to ask more of our governments to adequately fund the criminal justice system. My two years of advocating can’t be for nothing. The criminal justice systems failure to examine institutional neglect as a contributing factor to sexual assault cases, is not acceptable. Empowering survivors to have a voice, to be heard and starting a public dialogue is essential to addressing the systemic problem.
There has been some media commentary highlighting the disparity between sexual harassment and rape in terms of the “seriousness” of the issue, and suggesting that #MeToo is only addressing minor grievances. To this, I say wake up – 3 out 4 rapes are committed by someone known to the survivor. If #MeToo is a platform that allows women to call out harassment which prevents rape, it’s a necessary and powerful tool.
Again, interacting with the media left me shocked and appalled. Some wanted to publicly identify the offender, have the survivor describe her assault in detail, pressured her to go public and few had interest outside of the police investigation. Sadly, without the media, we never would have had “success” getting an “apology”, an internal investigation re-opened and support from public figures such as; Clementine Ford, Tracey Spicer, Lauren Ingram and Lee Rhiannon*. Although our actions helped us be heard and have questions asked, one of my biggest lessons is that survivors should not have to share their trauma for the public to take an interest in rape culture. All my failed endeavors left me asking myself one question: How can we expect survivors to advocate for themselves? This is a much bigger systemic and cultural problem, where we silence rape victims and punish their advocates for trying to hold people accountable.
For all the amazing public support we received sharing the story within the #MeToo sphere, sadly we received more negative feedback, trolling and hate. Perhaps it’s unique to be disliked by conservative bros and leftists at the same time for speaking out, but whether people thought she “should’ve gone to the police sooner” or “the Greens aren’t the only party to have covered up rape”, #MeToo exposed us to the heartless nature of humanity towards survivors.
It was an awakening for us to be hated by everyone, on all sides of politics, for simply wanting to be heard. Leftists wanted us to be quiet so they could start the “healing process” and conservatives agreed with Bob Brown and victim blaming. It led me to self-reflection and considering my own behaviour towards women in both a private and professional setting. Admittedly, I made minimal efforts to educate myself about the disparity, abuse and was willing to overlook others’ suffering as it didn’t impact me directly. For this I’m sorry, recognising an apology isn’t enough, further I ask for forgiveness, and aim to listen and act accordingly moving forward. You could say I’ve been radicalised.
So, when Benjamin Law started the hashtag How I Will Change it was a no brainer for me. Most men would surely jump on board and support the idea of self-reflection and showing solidarity to women who’ve experienced so much shit for so long, I thought. This was a pivotal moment for men, an opportunity to consider, reflect and engage with the public discourse, allowing the above-mentioned healing process. Sadly, many men, and in my sphere “progressives”, did not, or were not comfortable speaking publicly and instead ridiculed the idea. As humans, irrespective of gender, and a society, we must have this long awaited public discussion about our behavior and learn to become accountable, respectful and compassionate to survivors.
Having not done enough to help my friend before she was raped, I’ve gone out of my way for the past two years to help her be heard with the aim of creating awareness so this doesn’t happen again, and so the media, public and especially politicians consider these problems more seriously. Not one politician commented during the ABC Q&A MeToo special – am I the only one shocked by this?
Without question, this experience has changed me, renewed my commitment as an ally, vocal feminist and supporter moving forward. Because I didn’t do enough to prevent this horrific event, I will help and support the survivor, I will call out the wrongs and male prejudice. I will never again not take effective action to support anyone experiencing abuse and I will call out AllMen who aren’t. I’d name them here if I didn’t worry about the legal ramifications for Feminartsy.
This experience has left me wondering many questions. Why do these false prophets attempt to moderate the rage, suffering and pain of survivors when they claim to represent them and others with similar experiences? Don’t they see the hypocrisy and betrayal in claiming to advocate for social justice, women’s rights and victims of institutional abuse, and yet do not reflect upon their behavior and hold institutions to account? Are they blind or have they just not received adequate public pressure yet? The rigid criminal justice and legal system will not change without public pressure and #MeToo is a pathway to change. #MeToo has shown it can apply pressure to the media, the police, the courts and most importantly politicians.
Why is there not more outrage when we hear about the statistics? The number of women who are sexually harassed, assaulted, abused, murdered and silenced by powerful institutions and their leaders? Without question more men need to reflect, speak up, advocate, become accountable for their behaviour and act. How do we hold organisations to account regarding sexual harassment, violence towards women and victim blaming? We implement quotas that ensure diversity in leaderships roles whilst making legal and criminal consequences for organisations not having mandatory anti-discrimination policies. Additionally, we need to be proactive recognising most workplaces have a diverse and flexible team, including volunteers and contractors. Unions could make this a greater focus, accommodating individuals who don’t fall under historically traditional forms of employment. The Australian government needs to address the legal framework and funding for support services for the volunteer sector, as it is relatively non-existent in my opinion. An inquiry into how the power imbalance within workplaces, community groups and broader society, leaves women is structural disproportionate power structures where they are more easily exploited, predominately by men. #MeToo has introduced a broader public audience to these issues, but men can’t expect women to fix these problems on their own. We must demand more from our leaders, politicians, political groups and each other.
Men are not unaware of the struggle for recognition, the pain of institutional abuse and suffering surrounding victim blaming, but have decided against asking themselves “how will I change?”. Having no public profile perhaps I have nothing to lose but I’m calling out all male Australian politicians to be decent and considerate men and publicly address their behavior before #MeToo exposes you.
It was my white male privilege that enabled me to advocate for survivors without fear of ramification. It was the same privilege that arguably gives me a platform to write about this injustice but never truly understand or contextualise the pain. In 2018 we, as a society, have not adapted, accepted and engaged in a healthy public discussion on how we treat women and although it is not the sole responsibility of women, men, the Greens, political leaders, police, legal professionals or the media, we’ve got to all agree, it shouldn’t solely be up to a 21-year-old sexual assault survivor to share their story and trauma with the world so powerful men can dispute it.
* Side note: those women did more good for the survivor than they will ever know, just believing and sharing her story made such a difference, we need feminist leaders in our society to raise public awareness and I’ll be eternally thankful to them.
Image: Samantha Sophia
Zach Ghirardello has worked across the community sector and as a researcher within universities most recently. Previously, was a corporate hack that bought into the establishment. He can be found on Twitter at @zachghirardello