While getting ready for work recently, I listened with interest to your address to the White Ribbon Day Breakfast on television. White Ribbon is a cause that has been close to my heart for many years.
As a teenager, I was sexually abused by an adult family friend, and more recently, in my late twenties, I was involved in an emotionally abusive relationship. Despite these experiences, most people who know me would be shocked if they knew what I’ve endured. I’ve completed two degrees. I’ve built a successful and rewarding career. My colleagues, friends and family would describe me as confident, smart and successful.
However, like many survivors of abuse, despite my outward appearance, I have struggled with intense feelings of guilt and shame, depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation, and difficulties in all of my intimate relationships. Fortunately, I have received extensive support from family, friends and several psychologists. It is only now, in my early thirties, I consider myself to be in a relatively good place. Which is why I was surprised by how strongly I reacted to your address.
To be clear, this is not a letter about politics or policy. I applaud the Government’s focus on eliminating violence against women, and the important role you and other male politicians play in this realm.
This is a letter about language and focus, specifically: “But above all as parents, we have to raise our sons from the earliest age to respect women – beginning with their mothers and their sisters – the women closest to them, the first women they meet, they learn to live with. They must be taught to respect them, and we must encourage and teach our daughters to have greater self-esteem.”
Daughters. Greater self-esteem. Those words have replayed themselves in my head countless times since i heard you speak. I have asked myself: Did I have low self-esteem as a teenager? If I had greater self-esteem, would I have been sexually abused? Acutely aware of the fact that survivors of child sexual abuse are at increased risk of re-victimisation in adulthood, I wondered: If I had greater self-esteem, would I have tolerated the emotional abuse I experienced as an adult? Or would I have had the strength to walk away?
In the last week, I have had difficulty sleeping. I have been crippled by chronic physical pain, not felt for years. I have cried. I have reached out to an old friend for support. I have disclosed my experiences to a new friend, seeking additional support.
What I have realised, thankfully relatively quickly, is that the answers to the questions I’ve been asking myself are irrelevant. They’re irrelevant because there is nothing I said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do that caused the abuse. So what if I had low self-esteem? I know I am not to blame. And I know you know this too. I have no doubt your words were full of positive intent.
However, what I’ve realised is that those few words I heard were a huge trigger for me. They were a trigger because they took the focus away from men’s attitudes and men’s behaviours and placed the focus back on women. This is problematic because the majority of violence against women is perpetrated by men, and therefore men’s attitudes are pivotal to accountability and responsibility for that violence.
Therefore, Prime Minister, my ask of you is simple. Please continue to use your influence to drive attitudinal and behavioural change among men. Please continue to focus on the positive role men can play to stop violence against women.
There is a statement that appears on the White Ribbon website: “We can empower boys to stand up and speak out [about sexist behaviour] and also empower young women to understand that they have every right to expect respect.” The difference between “expect respect” and “encouraging and teaching [our daughters] to develop greater self-esteem” is that, like all of White Ribbon’s communications, the focus remains on changing men’s attitudes and men’s behaviour. “Expect respect” sends a vastly different message to “our daughters” about the role they play in violence against women, and the role they play in eliminating it.