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It takes more than 'speaking up' to change a toxic culture

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Former media advisor Brittany Higgins is being dragged through a public scandal that should never have happened in the first place (Screenshot via YouTube)

Expecting women to speak up after a sexual assault won't change the toxic masculine culture that allows violence to happen in the first place, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

ON 15 FEBRUARY, journalist Samantha Maiden broke the story of the alleged rape of former media advisor Brittany Higgins by a senior staffer. The assault allegedly took place on the couch in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds’ ministerial office in March 2019 and the alleged perpetrator worked for Ms Reynolds, as did Ms Higgins.  

The Guardian subsequently published a piece by Katharine Murphy titled ‘Achieving permanent culture change in politics requires women to speak up’.

Murphy’s argument is that the ‘only way’ to achieve permanent cultural change in a misogynistic Parliament is for women to speak up ‘when bad things happen’ — that is, bad things such as sexual harassment and sexual assault.

She writes: 

The only way to achieve permanent cultural change in the self-regulated fiefdom that is the political office – a unique professional environment where everything revolves around the needs and the whims of the principal – is for women to speak up when bad things happen.

 

To find the self-confidence to value their own stories, even if the system doesn’t, and tell them.

For a start, “bad things” don’t just “happen”. They require human agency, in this instance a man who allegedly raped Ms Higgins. If ever there is an occasion in which to be cautious about language, this is it. 

Secondly, one of the first things a woman loses when she is sexually assaulted is her “self-confidence” and the ability to value herself and her story. Most information on post-traumatic stress due to sexual assault will note this reaction in many victims. 

The system is also responsible for these losses, given the manner in which it regards and treats female victims of male sexual aggression.

As we know, Ms Higgins did “speak up,” to no less an authority than her boss, Linda Reynolds. Subsequent events resulted in Ms Higgins believing that if she pursued the alleged rape complaint with the Australian Federal Police, she would lose her job. She did not speak up again until two years later, after realising that her struggle to continue working at the site of her trauma was proving untenable for her. 

Women have, in fact, been speaking up about sexual assault for more than 50 years.

It hasn’t done us a lot of good in terms of prevention. There is little reason to believe that speaking up in politics would be any different from speaking up in any other sphere, in terms of changing a hegemonic culture that is fundamentally hostile to women.

Nonetheless, women have done our best. We have spoken up in vast numbers. We have written books. We have made documentaries. We have made movies. We have, in all the ways available to us, spoken up about our rape, and the sexual violence we have endured.

Nothing we’ve said, none of the tears we’ve cried, none of the rage we’ve expressed, none of our grief for our lost lives, our lost opportunities, our lost childhoods, our broken, savaged, bleeding, violated bodies, none of this speaking up has stopped men raping us, or come anywhere near achieving that goal. 

How this monstrous reality escapes the notice of any commentator on the matter is baffling. 

Survivors are not a homogenous group. Speaking up may be beneficial for some of us at some time and nobody should be prevented from finding her voice and using it. However, prescribing speaking up as a responsibility survivors should shoulder in order to change the culture that has so dismally failed to protect us from male savagery is a bridge too far. Society clearly cannot or will not protect us. We are injured both within and by its systems.

We are then called upon to disclose our trauma in order to change the toxic culture. Obediently, we bare our ravaged hearts and souls and we do it over and over and over and over again. We are praised as courageous, admired as brave. Revisiting our trauma is lauded as a signifier of our strength of character and our resilience and our ability to feel concern for the world, despite our suffering. 

And yet, nothing changes. We are still raped. We are still murdered, one of us each week.

Speaking up hasn’t stopped any of it, though most of us that do speak up hope with all our hearts we might help save somebody else from suffering as we have, or that our story might let another woman know she is not alone. 

Instead, what has happened over time is that an expectation has developed, as expressed in Murphy’s piece, that we should use our trauma if we are to challenge and change a hostile and dangerous culture. What is amiss here is the existence of the expectation. 

The implicit and at times explicit demand that women speak up has created a sub-genre of tragedy porn, in which those of us who have survived are asked to earn our survival by disclosing our trauma, ostensibly to bring about a cultural change for the greater good. That change does not happen. Regardless of this lack of outcome, we are still asked to do the impossible and we are asked to do it by making our most private and damaged selves available for public consumption. 

As Ms Higgins observed, she shouldn’t have had to go public for her rape to be addressed. 

In reality, the only way to effect cultural change is for men to stop inflicting sexual violence on us. It is that simple and it’s that difficult. How much easier to tell women it’s our job.

It is not the job of a survivor to work out how men can be persuaded to control their violence against us.

Survivors owe nothing and to nobody and we especially owe nothing to the culture that did not protect us in the first place. If we do speak up, it must be only because we want to and when we want to, not because it’s our job to effect change. 

It is an indicator of the spiritual, psychological and emotional brutality visited unremarked upon women in this culture that after enduring what is unspeakable, we are called upon to find a way to speak it in order to change men.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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