I was twenty-six years old, living in a share house. It was a Sunday. I had breakfast with my Mum. She cooked me French toast. Later in the day, I had dinner and then drinks with some friends. There was no reason to think this day would be anything other than ordinary. I had no idea it was the day I would become a statistic.
Later that night, I caught a taxi home and became one of the one in five Australian women who have experienced sexual violence.
The assault broke my whole world apart. I couldn’t go home. For me home was now the scene of the crime. My fears for my safety robbed me of my independence and it was years before I could live independently again.
After the assault, I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror. Not long after, I cut off all my hair just so I wouldn’t have to look in the mirror and see what he saw, a victim.
I left my job. I tried to return after a period of sick leave but there was no way I could carry out my job like I had before. The effects of trauma destroyed my capacity to manage stress, undermined not only my confidence but even my capacity to concentrate. Flashbacks were so common that managing them, and the other effects of trauma, became a job in and of itself.
The man who assaulted me never sought my consent. He never made a pretence of it. He joked about having AIDS as a way of further harming me. He took photos of me without my consent.
Yet it wasn’t until I spoke to my doctor about what was done to me that I knew I had been assaulted. I knew I hadn’t consented. I knew my consent hadn’t been sought. I knew that I had been made to do things against my will. But I still doubted that what had been done to me would be seen as sexual assault.
I ended up reporting what happened to me to the police. After nearly four and a half years his lawyers struck a plea deal and he was charged with indecent assault to which he pleaded guilty. He served 869 days in prison and was then deported.
The experience of being sexually assaulted and being unable to identify it is not uncommon. The way we understand and represent consent in mainstream culture is often inaccurate.
The experience of being sexually assaulted and being unable to identify it is not uncommon. The way we understand and represent consent in mainstream culture is often inaccurate. We mostly seem to learn about consent indirectly, through books and movies or news reports. It isn’t included in our education; it isn’t a conversation we’re accustomed to having.
So many of us have grown up having our bodily autonomy overridden by family members, forced to kiss that uncle at Christmas or being told what we can and cannot do with our bodies, that our own choices are made somehow irrelevant.
Consent is often understood to mean an absence of no, an absence of resistance or even, resistance overcome. It is often presented as a matter of persuasion – something coaxed or charmed out of an initially unwilling partner. Consent is presented as something that can be communicated indirectly or unintentionally, as if somehow what we are wearing or how we behave has the power to speak on our behalf.
Consent is none of these things.
One of the devastating consequences of these misrepresentations is that we don’t always identify sexual assault when it happens. Victims blame themselves, society blames the victim and perpetrators are not held accountable for their crimes.
Surviving sexual assault has taught me about consent. True consent is a person freely and knowingly using words or actions to give another person permission to act. Consent requires that you respect the person you’re asking and you care about their response. It presumes you will respect whatever response you receive.
I am now a mother and I want things to be different for my daughter. Consent begins at birth. Bodily autonomy, equality and respect underpin consent and for my daughter I want that to be her experience. She will grow up knowing that her body is her own and that her choices about her body are to be respected.
If we are serious about preventing sexual assault, and protecting children from sexual abuse, then we need to be serious about creating a culture of consent.
Already at 18 months-old, I ask my daughter before I pick her up, before I change her nappy, before I get her dressed or give her a bath. Her body is her own and I respect her choices. We tell her the proper names for all her body parts and talk about why I need to touch her body, for example to change her nappy. We ensure that she is informed and in control.
Consent is everyone’s responsibility. But true consent starts even before asking. It is a culture of equality and respect. It is bodily autonomy – for women, for men and for children.
If we are serious about preventing sexual assault, and protecting children from sexual abuse, then we need to be serious about creating a culture of consent. We need to talk about it, we need to teach it, and we must all practice it.
Insight looks at how people understand and navigate consent. Catch up online here: