[TW: sexual violence]
Seeing snippets of the current political conversation and discord surrounding the topic of sexual violence in this country, has made me look away more than a few times. Even as I write these words, there’s a lump in my throat, a sting in my chest and a heat in my face. Do you know the type? This is shame. Seeing the conversation on such a national scale; in our senate, in daily news, on TikTok clips; has left me with the internal monologue, “you were right, they would never have listened.”
Hearing our country’s leader not able to empathise or seemingly even understand rape, even in his own office. Hearing fellow politicians and media figures rip to shreds the character of brave survivors speaking up and out. “Lying cow” said Defence Minister Linda Reynolds about Brittany Higgins as she went public with her story. A remark that our own PM has defended as “regrettable.”
And that’s the shame. That’s why I’ve looked away.
I’ve been operating a business in some capacity online, and visibly, since 2014. And now in 2021, it strikes me that this story is one I assumed to never share publicly. Yet in doing so, may provide others; and the conversation at large; what hearing others’ stories did for me.
And that is a sense of deep understanding. Of feeling less alone. Of beginning to chip away at the internalised shame and internal monologue of pain and secrecy.
Stories like Roll Red Roll, Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Samantha Nolan-Smith.
Stories of pain and also survivorship. Stories of fact. Stories of sexual violence.
At the age of 16, I was sexually assaulted twice. Once by someone known to me and once by multiple strangers unknown to me.
This is the first time I’ve written those words.
And like many with complex trauma, I feel partly numb and disconnected to them. To the point where I know precise locations where these attacks took place, and yet not precisely when they occurred. The disconnection and numbness is less so now. And that speaks to the power of trauma processing, of survivorship, of seeing this violence for what it is.
Rather, what it isn’t.
It is not my fault. Not acts “I asked for.” Not because of how I behaved, dressed, spoke, looked or merely existed as a young woman. Not because I owed these men anything, let alone sex.
These were acts of violence done to me. They were criminal acts that do not define me. And I stayed silent about them for a long time.
These words are from Samantha Nolan-Smith’s own story. “Shame is a silencing mechanism. It’s used within patriarchal societies to excuse men’s behaviour and suppress women’s voices and experiences. Until I saw another woman refuse to accept that mantle, it didn’t occur to me that I didn’t need to carry it either.”
In 2000, at the age of 16 I was living a chaotic life. I felt alone, lonely, misunderstood, deeply sad, hopeless, and desperate for love. Particularly, male love.
I presented to those around me at school, at home as OK. Never sharing those inner thoughts, not once, not with anyone.
I had no real friends. I skipped school. I regularly took ecstasy. I drank alcohol. I smoked cigarettes like they were air. I spent weekends in nightclubs, gallivanting here and there with people I deemed friends, and who frequently hurt me in all kinds of ways.
My youth and childhood trauma didn’t allow me to understand that the choices I was making; whilst sometimes helpful in the short-term; were causing more pain. Specifically my choice of male companionship. Any attention was better than zero right? And I had that attention for sure. I can see now how being objectified by men at this age was what I perceived as power. I had no realisation of the deep wounds this would leave, nor of the true powerlessness that I had. This also felt like the only good thing to happen to me day-to-day. Something to seek out.
One night, I was out with friends. We went to a popular under-18’s dance party in Sydney’s Darling Harbour called Crush. I was excited. I enjoyed this party when we went. I’ve always loved dancing. We were not drinking. We had not taken drugs. I’m not sure if it was during, or after the party that we found ourselves out the front chatting. Some older guys approached the group of us. They were somewhere between the ages of 19-25. They paid me attention. A lot. I really liked it. I also didn’t want the night to end, I rarely did. I believe there was a mention of getting some ecstasy. My friends weren’t interested in going with these guys. They said nothing about their thoughts on me going. I went with these guys, my friends left.
The car ride was long. I don’t recall feeling fearful or worried about anything. At that age, I rarely did. At some point we arrived and met another car with some other people. The drug collection point. I took the ecstasy.
My next memory is in a shitty motel room that wasn’t familiar. I have zero idea how long was in between those two memories. I do know that I was lying face down on a bed and I had no clothes on. There was one man to my left on the bed and one man having sex with me. I know both men had non-consensual sex with me over a period of time. I know I had no control over my body. I had no ability to speak. I remember my body moving back and forth as they penetrated my body from behind. I remember feeling strange. I remember feeling calm and unafraid. Also not myself.
The next memory that I have is waking up in the same bed, still without clothes and alone. It was light outside. Worry started to creep in. As the realisation that I didn’t know what had happened to me or where I was started to sink in. Looking out the window offered me no clues. I reached for the phone receiver by the bed and dialled the reception extension. I asked where I was. They told me the name of the motel on Parramatta Road, Auburn in Sydney’s west.
I dressed, walked to the nearby train station and waited. I felt out of my body, strange and numb. I also knew I wanted to get home. The train I caught took me into the city where I walked into the mall I was familiar with. I entered the public bathroom, splashed my face with water and stared back at my reflection. I understood something terrible had happened to me. Something I couldn’t explain to myself or understand clearly. Something that instinctively felt shameful. Something to push down and away.
And I did, for a long time. I told no-one.
In 2001; the following year; I was still 16, my then boyfriend was 19. I realise now I didn’t know much about him. And likely, him not me either. But boyfriend he was. Infatuated I was.
One evening, after partying at a nightclub on Sydney’s Oxford Street with friends, we went back to the hotel he’d booked for the night. There may have been others in that same suite, I cannot be sure. I can be sure though that he encouraged me to come into the ensuite bathroom with him. He positioned me for sex. Sex that we’d had before. And yet now, I didn’t want to. I said no. Quietly. Maybe he didn’t hear? I thought I wasn’t allowed to decline. I didn’t say no again. But my body did. It said no in its rigidity, its unwillingness, its closed state, its blank face staring back at us both in the mirror of the vanity he’d pinned me up in front of.
I remember disconnecting from my body. I remember staring at my blank face in the mirror. I remember screaming within and equally feeling like I had no voice to speak. Afterwards, I’m not sure whether I stayed or left. I’m not sure whether I broke up with him or not.
I do know that I told no-one. And I felt fine. He was my boyfriend. It’s simply OK I said.
There were two attempts to speak up for myself back in 2001, once to my mum in a coded letter where I didn’t really say what had occurred though said something happened and to my school guidance counsellor. He told me he had a duty of care to report certain instances I may share with him, so again I didn’t explicitly speak up. These instances remind me of my younger self thinking something wrong had happened to me and yet also full of shame that they had.
Not once did I ever think I could report these crimes. I’m not sure I even viewed them as crimes at the time? I didn’t consider that I could have died from the drugs I was given or suffered serious adverse effects. I didn’t consider that I could have been impregnated or given a sexually transmitted disease.
I feared that kind of attention, not being believed, being asked a million questions that I didn’t know the answers to - so what does that say? I had been slut-shamed so much by that age already by those around me, maybe I thought I brought this on to myself? I have sex with men, what does that say? I never once considered that I been “roofied” as this type of language wasn’t around 20 years ago. I never considered the multiple violations and acts of violence against me as that.
I simply thought about getting on. As I had done so many times before in life when things were hard.
Whilst these were criminal acts of violence, they don’t exist in isolation, such is the patriarchal oppression in our society.
The next year in 2002, at the age of 17, my boyfriend at the time was physically and emotional abusive. This 24 year old man controlled and manipulated me. He made me fearful for my life. At the same time, I wondered what kind of life I’d even have without him. I didn’t see a way out and I didn’t share any of this with those around me.
For years I’ve downplayed the sexual harassment I survived when working within the Department of Defence during the years 2006-2007 as a 20 year old woman. The sexual harassment that had a significant impact on my mental health at the time, my reputation in the job I held then, and how I began to see myself and my power in this world. These are lasting legacies. Legacies that I still challenge.
For so long I viewed my survivorship as impressive. I’d sometimes reflect “how well I was doing, considering.” However I barely ever acknowledged the far-reaching impacts of surviving these crimes.
At 17 years old, a short time after leaving the abusive relationship I was in, I had my first panic attack. I was diagnosed with panic disorder and anxiety a few years later.
These crimes have impacted how I see myself, how I perceive my own worth and value, how I trust my body and connect with it, how I connect with others, how safe I feel, how I downplay myself, how I take up space in the world, how fearful I am, how I relate to women, how I relate to men, how I communicate my needs, my body image, how I view sex, pleasure and intimacy and how sexually liberated I feel I’m allowed to be.
Only recently have I come to acknowledge the significant discrimination and oppression I have faced as a woman. I’m coming to see why the ideas of gender inequality sat so uncomfortably for me until now. Because I didn’t want to believe it. As a survivor of sexual violence, I needed to believe I had a voice in this world. Because otherwise, what’s the point? I needed that hope.
I do see myself as a survivor. And I am proud of myself. How I’ve continued to show up and want to heal, more and more as has been available to me in life. I also think it shouldn’t have taken sexual violence for me to learn about my body and rights, about pleasure, about sexual communication, how unequal society is on this matter and how deeply unprotected girls and women are. We teach girls the message to cover up their bodies and we victim-blame. We aren’t teaching boys not to rape.
This is my story.
And I am crystal clear on why I am sharing it. Largely to claim my story. To no longer allow shame to live in it. To claim my voice. And my power as a woman in this patriarchal world. One who will not back down. Who will take up space. Be heard. Live directly and as I truly choose to. Advocate for those oppressed.
Giving a voice to my experiences is also in part for those fellow survivors to feel seen, to feel deeply understood, to hear, “it was never your fault” and you are not broken.
We need to take up our own space as women. We need to step into the power we have within us. We need to listen and support survivors. We (all) need to dismantle the patriarchal systems of oppression that allow rape culture to be so normalised. The boys club is dangerous and it needs to be done, starting at the very top.