Trigger warning: this article discusses sexual violence.
When the Harvey Weinstein case truly cracked and reached a tipping point, I was in New York. I became obsessed. Every spare second I had I would Google and read article after article in the mass exposé.
Soon the response from the horror turned to the general population; to people, mostly women, sharing their experiences of sexual abuse, assault and harassment. I did see some blackfullas engaging in these discussions. Soon after that, men were talking about how they were complicit and what they would try to do dismantle the culture that allows this to happen.
The day after I returned home from America, I went to my grandmother’s funeral. This funeral couldn’t have been anywhere further from Hollywood.
It was bizarre to see all the #MeToos online yet in the flesh, I was in the presence of sexual abusers. At least one of these men at the event is a convicted rapist. It was so weird to see people shaking his hand and giving him hugs. We all know he did it. He’s likely done more. There was another man who has been accused of sexual abuse. Once again, like the other rapist, he was given hugs and support while his victim was absent.
I imagine my family is a lot like other families; plenty of love, a bit of dysfunction and a few secrets. Sexual abuse is hard to talk about for any people and any culture. When it is spoken about in regards to Aboriginal people, it’s often made to feel like a specific problem we face; something inherently Aboriginal. An entire group of men are condemned to be predators. This rhetoric is not helpful and also belies the fact that sexual abuse, assault and harassment exists in most cultures at levels that are alarming.
Most of the women, black or otherwise, I know have been sexually assaulted or abused by someone. They have often known the person.
Most of the women, black or otherwise, I know have been sexually assaulted or abused by someone. They have often known the person. It is not the scary stranger following you home at night who is statistically likely to be your abuser, it is someone you know. It can be brothers, cousins, fathers, uncles or family friends. They don’t always look evil and grotesque. They can look like you, be funny, charming and nice and all the while still do those terrible things.
We all want to believe that if someone was abused that we would do our best to help them. We all want to be good people. But when people actually disclose to us, sometimes we don’t respond in the best way. Sometimes we don’t want to believe the truth because believing the truth means the way we see that perpetrator will never the same. But it is not the perpetrator we need to centre in this moment - it is the victim.
We expect the victim to be perfect. We ask if they were drunk, if they are sure they remember it properly, if they were mistaken, if they have just made it up. And if they were children, we assume it must be their wild imagination.
Making the decision to tell someone about what has happened is an intensely scary and isolating decision to make. You worry that people will never look at you the same. As you share, you may be reopening that trauma. You run the risk of being isolated from your family and friends and being called a liar or them telling you that you’re somehow complicit in the abuse; that you invited it.
Support does not necessarily look the same for everyone. Some people may want to go to the police and it might mean holding their hand through that process. And yes, often the justice system fails people who are seeking justice. They place victims under scrutiny and also want a ‘perfect victim’. They want the victim to be broken, to have never used drugs or alcohol, to have never flirted in their life, to have never enjoyed sex in their life previously, to have never worn a revealing outfit, to never have done sex work, to not have mental health issues or to have never been friendly to the perpetrator. They make victims share their trauma over and over again waiting for them to crack.
They want the victim to be broken, to have never used drugs or alcohol, to have never flirted in their life.
Some people may not want to go to the police and that doesn’t make their accusation any less true. The justice system is traumatising so it is understandable if people don’t want to. Supporting those people means listening to what they want and listening to what their sense of justice may look like. Support is letting them know you believe them. Perhaps they will want to let everyone know what happened and who did it or perhaps they don’t want anyone to know. Support does not mean pretending it didn’t happen. Support is not prioritising the perpetrator. Support is not living in denial so you can go about your life like nothing has happened. Justice looks different for different people but putting the survivor first is crucial.
We are likely going to be hearing more and more about sexual violence, with more rich powerful men in Hollywood and elsewhere being called out for their actions and behaviour. This may be triggering for a lot of people who have experienced sexual violence. It may prompt people to talk about it more.
Either way, it is long overdue and we should take the opportunity to consider how to support the people in our own communities who share their experiences. If people do share their stories, we need to meet their bravery with our support.
Nayuka Gorrie is a Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance writer