Talking About Rape

It’s the end of the footy season, so everyone’s talking about rape. Or, more specifically, about the young women who were so stupid as to put themselves in a position where they’d be raped, or be able to claim later that they were.

TV presenter Kerri-Anne Kennerley laid the blame on the “strays” who “throw … themselves at sportspeople”. “What do [women] expect,” she asked, “when they are out at night?”

Former AFL player Spida Everitt was also scathing about, “Yet another . . . girl making alleged allegations after she awoke with … an alleged guilty conscience.”

I have been raped. Twice. The first time was my first time – I was 17 – but I didn’t think of it as rape. Not even when the nightmares began and, following that, the depression.

I just thought I was a stupid girl who put myself in harm’s way and got what I deserved. Embarrassed at being so dumb, I told no one what happened. It was only years later when I stubbed my toe and couldn’t stop crying that my mother strong-armed me into seeing a psychologist and the story came out.

The second time was when an old boyfriend got my half-asleep roommate to let him into the house in the middle of the night. I was in my room and woke having sex. Surely this was a clear-cut case of rape but, again, I didn’t see it that way. Because now I was 21 and understood that you can’t thread a moving needle and I’d had sex with him before so what was the big deal and if I hadn’t wanted it why didn’t I scream?

In fact, what I did – then and later – was pretend everything was fine. I acted like what happened was exactly what I chose to happen. I was not prepared to contemplate the alternative framing of events and its emotional corollary – that I’d been raped again and this meant that I wasn’t safe anywhere, not even in my own bed.

I don’t want pity. Indeed, it’s fear of being seen as a victim that has led me to keep my personal story quiet thus far. I tell it now to try to inject the complex reality of sexual assault – how it happens and how those who experience it attempt to get their heads around it – into the public discussions we have most years at this time on the subject.

I also want to point to the contribution gender stereotypes make to the problem. Like young women today, I was sold a double message. The explicit one was that I was strong, capable and free to do what I chose with my life and body – sexually and otherwise – and not be judged for it.

The subterranean one was that if I acted as if I was entitled to be both free and safe, and someone did hurt or rape me, it was my own stupid, sluttish fault.

These contradictory messages have co-existed quietly in my psyche just as they do for some young women today until the Kennerleys and Everitts of the world lay them bare.

I laid my own demons to rest long ago. One thing that helped was the acknowledgment by one of the men that something bad had happened and it wasn’t my fault. This was several years later and we were at a party. He found me alone on the balcony and said this: “What happened … that night. I didn’t realise then but I do now. It wasn’t right. I shouldn’t have done it.” I forgave him right then and there.

So where to now? Has increasing social and sexual freedom been good for young women, or bad? The truth is that this is the wrong question to ask. Equality and freedom are chances that some women will use poorly and others well. Certainly every young woman, like every young man, will make mistakes and get hurt. This is what coming of age is all about. The hope is that as time moves on, and a critical number of generations accumulate wisdom they can pass to their kids, the relative balance of those who use their freedom wisely will grow.

For thousands of years, humans have lived in societies built on the exercise of superior male strength and the inevitability of female pregnancy. Inflexible and gender-inequitable rules for emotional and physical engagement between the sexes arose from these realities.

As societies governed by the rule of law and populated by women with access to reliable contraception become the norm, new rules of engagement for relations between the sexes – ones based on mutual understanding, respect and consent – will flourish.

There is no doubt that young men are changing. Many see women as their equals, are well across the concept of consent and – in response to the more assertive sexuality of their female peers – are interrogating the “real men always want it” stereotype as a first step towards a “no means no” mantra of their own.

Similarly, we must recognise young women who report sexual assault as canaries in the coalmine. It is they who are blazing the trail towards the safe and equal world we want for our daughters and sons. This is because, unlike me at that age, they don’t have the words of Kennerley or Everitt in their head.

Instead, they believe that, just like their male mates, they should be free to party with abandon when their team wins the grand final. And be safe while they do it.

Publication history

Talking About Rape  The Sunday Age & The Sun Herald