This post includes a number of descriptions of sexual assault.
In my ample spare time (ha!) I run two active feminist social media pages. A few weeks ago following Christine Blasey Ford’s incredible testimony in the US regarding Brett Kavanaugh, I found women following my pages were getting increasingly angry. Their despair became more evident after Eryn Jean Norvill and Ashleigh Raper were both forced to defend themselves after being named, by others, as alleged victims of sexual abuse.
On one of my pages, women started posting their own experiences of sexual misconduct as a way of highlighting the poor response women usually get to discussing these crimes. The comments corroborated my own experience after being sexually assaulted four years ago. Women said they weren’t believed. Some were ridiculed and even punished for reporting.
I wanted to explore this rising tide of anger further, so I quickly wrote a post saying: “If you’re able, answer this: did you ever report sexual harassment, assault or rape, and weren’t believed? Give a short response, or elaborate on what happened, what you did, and what the outcome was. We’re also interested in whether you regret speaking up. We’d also like to hear from those who reported sexual crimes and had a good result. If you’d rather not report publicly, send us a message.”
The number of comments on the post immediately exploded. As well as many dozens of public responses, hundreds more were sent anonymously. There were so many I couldn’t keep up with re-posting these. Weeks later, they’re still coming in. Women have been pouring their hearts out, and the post struck a raw nerve.
Nearly all the accounts were negative. Only one was from a man (re-telling his mother’s assault). Two women (from around 600 commenters) said they’d been believed and had had a good outcome. The others were a tsunami of pain and sorrow, of women who’d lost jobs and other benefits because of predatory men (sometimes bosses, and sometimes multiple times), and who’d also lost family and friends as they weren’t supported after terrible attacks.
There was a huge amount to unpack from this, but what struck me most was that the anonymous reports I received were different from the public ones. These women were terrified of being “outed”, and their testimonies were even more heartbreaking than usual. Some couldn’t even state clearly what happened: desperate for recognition, they couldn’t trust me enough to elaborate. They said just a few heartbreaking words, generally “yes” or “me too”.
Of those able to say more, words spilled out in streams of horror. Sometimes perpetrators (all except one of whom was described as male) were family members, and so many were the boyfriends, husbands, exes, and friends-of-friends. Date rape was endemic. Violence was extreme:
- Peta* said she’d been driven out to a lonely road and refused passage home till she “had sex” with an ex-boyfriend;
- Jane said she’d been raped by her husband with a carpentry tool for refusing him sex;
- Jo was repeatedly raped by her step-father for years (this was common) and dozens of women were regularly raped by their husbands;
- Roxy was raped by a room full of jeering men after her drink was spiked (also a common theme).
None of these women had forgotten a single aspect of their assaults, even for assaults that occurred decades ago. They remembered what they were wearing, the smells, sounds, physical injuries and other minute details. They blamed themselves for their clothes, their alcohol consumption, where they were, for trusting a man (or men), and even for freezing in panic. Hundreds were still in the grip of PTSD and most couldn’t afford or access treatment for this.
As well as all this, the testimonies brought up another issue that is not widely discussed: while we think women are more open about sexual crimes since #MeToo started there are, sadly, still so many – perhaps even a majority – who can’t speak. They’re terrified of retribution, or of being sued for defamation (in fact, one told me she’s being sued for reporting her rape). They’re protecting family members, or they are frightened of losing family, friends, jobs, religious affiliations and other social connections. They crave recognition and justice but fear isolation and abandonment more. And they live in small towns and loved communities and can’t bear the idea that everyone they meet will know what’s happened to them.
In addition, many women can barely get the words out, they’re so full of shame. Fiona, for example, wrote: “I haven’t spoken about this for 30 years and never even written it down before, but telling you was cathartic and helpful”. Others repeated this: it helped to quietly tell me, even if they couldn’t tell others.
It appears we’ve only scratched the surface of #MeToo, and so many are still left behind. I want this to change. Partly for the women, because breaking their silence is critical for psychological healing, if nothing else. But also because men won’t care more about men’s violence unless they see the immense scale and suffering: those reading my post were certainly shocked and educated. It’s also critical to de-bunk the myth that women routinely make false claims because the opposite problem – of criminals going unpunished because women are too afraid – is, statistically, far more common.
In addition, the thousands of disclosures made to government agencies and others since #MeToo are mostly going nowhere. There aren’t the resources to process them and Australian law is too restrictive, in many cases, to gain justice for women.
For all these reasons, I want to make it easier for women to report these experiences. It seems so important to highlight this tragic issue. #MeToo was a great start, but it left so many women behind. Perhaps if we all saw more of the scale of the problem, we could force governments to commit more money, and act.
Women are suffering, and it must stop. I hear them, and I believe them. #MeToo.
*Names have been changed in this piece.