The treatment of women, especially in political life, continued to be a hot-button issue this year, with editor Michelle Pini's 8 December story receiving over 14,000 views.
#10 TOP INDEPENDENT AUSTRALIA STORY OF 2022
Dirty little secrets exposed in Higgins' case against Lehrmann
The abandonment of the Bruce Lehrmann trial, the man accused of raping Brittany Higgins, is a devastating blow for all women who dare to speak out. Managing editor Michelle Pini reports.
*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape
**Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.
HERE'S THE THING about sexual assault: it is usually a dirty little secret. A dirty little secret that emboldens perpetrators, disempowers victims and allows the whole sordid business to continue on repeat.
And when one of these dirty little secrets gets out, more often than not, it’s the victim who suffers.
In the case of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, we could be forgiven for not recalling the name of the accused.
By the way, it’s BRUCE LEHRMANN.
Former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in Parliament House, leaving her passed out and naked in the office of her boss.
We don’t need to repeat the name of the alleged victim — it has been plastered all over every mainstream media outlet for the past two years.
But in case you’ve forgotten, the alleged victim’s former boss is LINDA REYNOLDS, Liberal Party Senator and former Defence Minister in the Morrison Government.
It was Linda Reynolds for whom the victim worked and on whose office couch the victim was left after the alleged assault. It was Reynolds who would later industrially clean the scene of the crime, call her staff member “a lying cow” and then surreptitiously provide key information to the attorney for the defendant during Lehrmann's trial.
The unfairness of a legal system that makes a sideshow out of the victim, effectively giving the accused a leave pass is eloquently detailed in Jennifer Robinson's Guardian article, 'After watching how Brittany Higgins has suffered, how many women will be silenced?'.
As Robinson notes, the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann:
'...was described as “the Higgins trial".'
Indeed, women are always the ones that have to justify what they wore, whether they were drunk, intimate details about their past relationships, or even whether they had any right to have been out alone, as though just their existence while being female is enough to warrant crimes against them.
When someone’s car is stolen, insurance companies, while not known for their over-abundance of empathy, don’t demand to know why the owner chose to drive it that day, why it was parked seductively on a quiet street in a dark spot, or whether the car had been recently cleaned and polished, thereby making it irresistible to potential thieves.
Yet, these are the types of inane questions levelled at women who speak out about sexual assault. As these interrogations are considered acceptable in our legal system, why then aren’t alleged male perpetrators asked why they had been drinking, why they attempted to attract the opposite sex by dressing up, or why they were so taken with a short skirt or cleavage that they felt compelled to rape someone.
In this particular courtroom drama, the past of the alleged perpetrator, Bruce Lehrmann, is protected, no matter how sordid it may be.
Information about the alleged victim, however, carries no such caveats.
In the words of Brittany Higgins:
“I was required to surrender my telephones, my passwords, messages, photos and my data. He was not required to produce a telephone, passwords, messages, photos and his data. My life was publicly scrutinised, open for the world to see. His was not."
Our legal system attacks the victim and protects the accused.
And then there's the climate of toxicity in which this alleged crime took place. Brittany Higgins was a Liberal Party staffer at the time, working for the Morrison Government. So was Bruce Lehrmann. Her employer, Linda Reynolds, was a senior Cabinet Member.
Not only did Brittany’s boss deny any knowledge of anything, but she ensured any potential DNA evidence was professionally removed from the office couch and carpet where the alleged crime took place. The CCTV footage was withheld at the time, not only from Brittany Higgins but even from the Australian Federal Police.
Brittany was then promptly whisked away to Western Australia and placed under the close supervision of Michaelia Cash. Bruce Lehrmann, whose identity was suppressed, was catapulted into a new position away from any prying eyes.
And then there was the former PM. The PM, who knew nothing about anything. Allegedly.
The former Prime Minister, who, in the rape allegations against Christian Porter – then-Attorney General and highest law officer in the land – and abuse allegations against then-Education Minister Alan Tudge, immediately took the word of his cabinet members as evidence of their innocence. No further inquiries needed.
Scott Morrison, who told women protesting violence that they were lucky not to be shot.
Morrison, who similarly knew nothing of other parliamentary staffers masturbating over the desks of their female bosses.
Or of any alleged untoward activities in the Parliamentary Prayer Room.
The former PM, who looked away after each and every sordid abuse case. Cases closed. Alleged cases, that is.
All of this non-action on the part of then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison served to cover up and normalise such vile behaviour. It said to perpetrators everywhere, boys will be boys and confirmed the worst fears of female victims everywhere: that they would not be heard. They would not be believed. If anything, they would pay for speaking out.
Today, the disgusting abuse directed at Brittany Higgins simply for having the courage to speak out – described by her lawyer as the worst he’s ever seen in 20 years of handling such cases – has led to Brittany paying a very high price.
It has led to the discontinuation of the trial against Bruce Lehrmann.
It has put Brittany Higgins on trial and led to the hospitalisation of this brave woman for her mental health.
And it has added another compelling reason for victims everywhere to suffer in silence.
Here’s the thing about sexual assault: it is usually a dirty little secret. A dirty little secret that emboldens perpetrators, disempowers victims and allows the whole sordid business to continue on repeat. And so it goes.
**This article is also available on audio here:
If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online.