Changing the Map: On Rape Culture in Australia (Julianne Negri)

Verity La New, Rogue State

Edited by Kathryn Hummel

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change.’ — Ursula Le Guin

Predawn. I like to run. Just me and my dog. No phone. No keys. Half-asleep, my legs knowing what to do before my mind knows what they are doing. We run alongside a dirty creek clogged with plastic bags like cholesterol in a vein. My mind wanders, the dog off lead, ahead or behind, it doesn’t matter, because we have a simpatico understanding. We like to run free.

It’s dark but the dog has a light. The darkness is liberating. It means I can’t be seen. It means I don’t care how I look. It means I can forget I am in a city. Just smell eucalyptus and listen to kookaburras as dawn clamours over the buildings to reach me.

One morning a man’s voice blasted through my tranquillity. A loud, aggressive, swearing voice from the bushes just metres from me. Fear rose with unexpected force through my centre. It filled me. Blocked my movements. Closed my throat. I tried to call out but couldn’t. I dropped my voice as if singing a deep note and managed to growl a call to my dog. It was not like in the movies. You think you can scream.

At least one in five Australian women are sexually assaulted. That is the reported assaults. Of course, it is much higher than that. Look around you. The packed tram you are on. The crowded train carriage. The office where you sit. Wherever you are. Look around and think about how one in five women have been sexually assaulted. I look around at the faces of the women around me and wonder what they bear in their muscles, their skin; in their bodies.

The town I grew up in was small — only fifteen hundred people. I went to the Catholic school and in our year we were outnumbered: ten boys to four girls. In grade six I was the only one showing signs of puberty and was quickly dubbed ‘Wobbles’ because of my budding breasts. The boys called me that ‘harmless’ nickname, and it wasn’t the only thing they said to me.

First thing in the mornings, my school would line up outside in classes. In our line, two boys in particular would hassle me. Say crude things. Try and grab my breasts and expose their penises to me. I never knew what to do. Sometimes I would take the high road and ignore them. They would laugh and just grab some more. I tried catching the eyes of other boys to plead with them to help, but they would just look away. Sometimes, at a loss, I would close my eyes and punch angrily into darkness.

If I went to the toilet during class, I had to return along the outside of all four classrooms. The boys would hang out the windows and taunt me. Ask if I was on my rags. Ask if I had gone to finger myself. I would look down at the painted white lines of the hopscotch as they yelled obscenities. They were never reined in. So scared of walking that gauntlet, I once held on until lunchtime, bladder bursting, hot with anxiety and unsure of what to do. The bell rang; everyone got up and left. Busting so much that I couldn’t even stand up, I pissed myself where I sat. I was eleven years old.

I never told a teacher because I didn’t have the words to describe what the boys were doing. Because the words I did have were too embarrassing to say. I felt ashamed. As if it would disappoint the teachers to express such things, to speak of these body parts. Sometimes I would hide at lunchtime and use my school captain pin to prick my left hand until I bled.

As a child I remember the violence of the family next door as a known fact, occasionally commented upon, but never with outrage. The regular shouting was incorporated into the aural landscape of the town. Then there was a stabbing. There was talk of that. Everyone said that Jean, the mother, was mad. And her mother, the grandmother, Mildred, she was mad too. And her daughter Tanya. All mad. I can’t remember who was stabbed, but it was Jean who did the stabbing. After that, the town called them the Wiltshire family, after the brand of knife she used.

I remember going to a kitchen tea at this neighbour’s house. The shouters. The stabbers. The bride-to-be was marrying one of the sons of the family. I was a girl, sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against the soft fabric of my mother’s skirt. We played a game of memorising a tray of kitchen objects, later covered with a freshly laundered and pressed tea towel. Then there was the pass-the-parcel. The final prize went to the blushing bride-to-be. It was a Wiltshire stay-sharp knife. Even as a child I had to swallow my guffaw, knowing the family’s reputation. My mum kicked me in the back. But it was so clearly a welcome to the family — here’s your own stabbing knife.

My harassment at school continued unabated. As did puberty. When I did get my period, still in grade six, I had to go to school in denim jeans because my uniform was blood stained. Wearing jeans was a beacon. Those boys who scrutinised my body so closely would know. I had to walk from my desk to the teacher at the front of the room. Heat flooded my body as I felt the boys’ eyes on my bum, thinking they must be able to see the giant pad in my pants, wondering if I had leaked blood. Each step exposed me more and more. As I reached the teacher’s desk, the anxiety became too much and I fainted.

I told my older sisters about the boys at school. At least about what they were saying to me. Being teenagers they sniggered and told me to ask rude things back. They suggested I ask the boys if they masturbated. I didn’t know the word masturbate. I looked it up in the dictionary, but without knowing the spelling, I couldn’t find it. I had no words. No words for what they were doing and no words with which to defend myself.

One morning from my bedroom window I saw a police car at the neighbour’s house and the teenage daughter, Tanya, taken away. The story unravelled. There had been a dead baby in the boot of her car and yet none of us had even known she was pregnant.

Our end of year grade six celebrations involved an overnight stay in a shearing shed on some kid’s farm. We slept in sleeping bags on a floor caked in years of greasy lanolin. So clearly I remember the star-filled sky that night and my increasingly fear-filled body. Earlier that day, on the bus travelling out to the farm, the two boys who had become my routine tormentors told me they would be coming for me in the night. I placed my sleeping bag next to some other boys thinking that might help protect me. Yet I felt increasingly defenceless, abandoned by the adults who were oblivious to what was happening.

They boys did as they said. They came for me. I was awake, too scared to sleep, waiting for them. I heard them approach in the pitch black. I was on my back and I slowly raised my legs in the sleeping bag and when they got closer I kicked out with all my strength. I connected with a body, the smaller of the two, and flung it away. There was a thud. The boy next to me stirred. My tormentors retreated but continued to sneak up on me throughout the night. I continued to stay awake. To wait. And to kick. Silently. No one helped. I didn’t call out. Finally, it was dawn and I felt as if the horror had passed; that the werewolves had become mere boys again.

That same year our local doctor shot his wife, four-year-old daughter and himself. Everyone talked about what a great doctor he was. How he must have somehow snapped; been driven mad by his wife to do such a thing. There was no talk of domestic violence, controlling behaviour, ongoing violence. Just shock when something broke to the surface. Like a stabbing. A dead baby. A dead family. And then it was deemed madness.

The taunting by the boys wasn’t isolated to the school yard. That summer at the swimming pool they touched me, chased me and groped me. If I saw them coming I would run and dive and swim and they would dive in after me like we were playing an innocent game of chasey. There were no parents at the pool back then. Just teenagers absorbed in their own hormonally-charged world, a kiosk lady who supplied band-aids, and a pool safety guard sitting on the side, hiding behind hat and sunglasses — a man convicted decades later for molesting a young girl. If I said anything about the boys to the adults the response was that it was cute puppy love. The boys liked me.

I stopped going to the pool. I cut my hair short. Tried to come to terms with the deep discomfort I was feeling in my body, becoming a woman in this small town. I developed anorexia.

The violent crimes I peripherally understood as a child continued to niggle me into adulthood. The town narrative of mad women and good men who just snapped didn’t make sense. Since then I have learned that our local doctor had a history of violence towards his first wife, which included sending her out to run in a field while he took pot shots at her with a rifle. Since then I have learned that my neighbour, Tanya, had been gang raped. My brother told me. They all knew about it. He knew at the time. A group of young men raped her. They used whatever was at hand, including the wooden leg broken off a coffee table. This was never a criminal case. They were never charged. They were never exposed or punished. Never called mad. Never arrested. Tanya, on the other hand, had hidden her pregnancy and given birth alone on the toilet to a baby that was stillborn. It all came out in the criminal case that she faced. After being arrested. Exposed. Charged. Called mad. Now I wonder at Jean, Tanya’s mother, and her violence with the knife. Wonder who she stabbed and why?

I left that town. Tanya didn’t. Neither did the boys who used to harass me. Nor, most likely, did the young men who raped Tanya. Sometimes news from the town still finds its way to me. Tanya has four children now. One of her children went to school with bristles stuck in her scalp from being hit with a brush. It was assumed that Tanya was the abuser.  A continuation of those mad generations of women — and perhaps it was. This is the news I hear from the town. No one talks about whether Tanya has to drop her kids at school and face other children’s fathers who could very well be the men who raped her.

I, too, have children now. Four daughters and a son. My two eldest daughters, while in their early twenties, have both been raped by strangers. And I actually find myself asking the question: will all my daughters be raped? I don’t live in a war zone. I live in middle-class inner-city Melbourne where the houses are architecturally renovated and the pets are designer cavoodles. Yet, here I am, asking myself this question.

If I ask this question, then I have to ask the other: will my son be a rapist? Because where are the men that perpetrate this violence? Surely they are all around us. It’s basic statistics. Look around the packed tram. The crowded train carriage, the office where you sit, wherever you are — look at the men. For sexual violence to be this pervasive, how many are rapists? Perpetrators of sexual harassment? Sexual violence? Assault? Ask a female friend if she knows another woman who has suffered sexual assault and she will say yes. Ask a male friend if he knows a perpetrator of sexual violence and he will say no.

Neither of my daughters’ attackers have been found, charged or convicted. Only a third of sexual assault crimes progress to the courts. Even then, only one in ten men charged with rape is convicted. The facts are that men can and do rape without consequences. Our society allows it at every level. Our culture enables it. They rape opportunistically. They rape randomly. They rape methodically. They rape in relationships. They rape strangers. They rape in groups. Unashamedly.

For my daughter to receive any victims of crime compensation, she may have to attend a hearing and detail her trauma. This is even with a police report. A medical report. A psychologist report. She would have to stand in front of strangers and tell them things she can’t bear to even tell me. It is like some ancient witch trial where all the gory details must be disembowelled and examined. Her doctors say this would undo much of her PTSD therapy which has included EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) a technique used on traumatised soldiers. She will not be compensated for the loss of her job. For months of no income. For moving house to get away from the street where it happened. And how do you compensate for loss of confidence? Freedom? Sense of wholeness? How to you compensate for the life you were supposed to have as a person you can no longer be?

My whole teenage years, the gap between the reality of what was happening in our town and the story perpetrated by patriarchal culture, played out in my body. Through self-harm, starvation, anxiety and depression. Where else could it go? We need to speak about this insidious misogyny that starts so early we learn to be blind to it. We need to expose the societal gas-lighting; a narrative that demonises women to protect men.

We need to arm our children with information and vocabulary to call out sexual violence. We need to stop enculturing girls to tolerate male harassment. We need to teach very young boys that any level of harassment and coercion is unacceptable. We need to do more than close our eyes and punch into the dark as I did when I was eleven years old. Fear may initially close up our throats: undeserved shame may flush our cheeks. But we need to name it and name it early. We need to admit to our rape culture.

 


Julianne Negri was a 2018 recipient of the Australian Society of Author’s Emerging Writer’s Mentorship Award. In 2014 she was runners up in the Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Short Story Award and in 2015 was Highly Commended in the Southern Cross Short Story Award. She currently works as a content writer for State Library of Victoria. Her debut children’s novel The Secret Library of Hummingbird House will be published by Affirm Press in 2020. Julianne is represented by Jacinta Di Mase Literary Agency.