Content warning: sexual assault
There is nothing but sheer exhaustion awaiting me in the news these days. Exhaustion and rage, rage and exhaustion, all felt in a dizzying spin cycle.
We’ve seen a line of high-profile incidents of sexual misconduct enveloping the Australian news cycle. Last month, Luke Foley, the leader of the NSW Labor Party, faced reluctant allegations of sexual harassment from ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper. The alleged Foley incident broke publicly just as the Federal Court was hearing final submissions in the defamation case between actor Geoffrey Rush and Nationwide News, the publisher of the Daily Telegraph, over a story alleging Rush had behaved inappropriately toward co-star Eryn Jean Norvill during an STC production of King Lear in 2015. And that story followed last year’s exposure of multiple allegations of sexual assault against television star Don Burke, perhaps the opening of Australia's #MeToo floodgates.
It feels, sometimes, like a lot of stories -- so many of them rage-inducing for anyone to read, but particularly tough to swallow if, like me, you are a rape survivor. Because when you have been abused by power and violence, that terror, shame and trauma is often waiting to claw at you again when your defences are down -- like when you read a story that reminds you of what you went through months ago or years ago.
Perhaps I could take the seemingly unending news cycle of sexual misconduct and violence if I could see some progression on the horizon, something to come after the abuses are uncovered to push us forward into bold new territory. But, right now at least, there’s so much trauma spilling onto the pages of our news outlets and social media profiles, it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees.
When we talk about #MeToo in Australia, for me, what we're actually referring to is a failure, a moment that wasn't
Last year, when the Weinstein allegations that sparked the second-wave of #MeToo overseas surfaced, film critic Cameron Williams called it “draining the swamp of men’s bad behaviour”. And this “draining the swamp”, so to speak, would be a good thing, a grand thing -- if only Australia had the capacity to do so effectively. But it happens that in so many ways Australia's litigious cultural environment is bent against any transformative mode of justice for survivors beyond simply outing high-profile individual abusers -- the kind of justice that would prompt curative and resounding change for the survivors who speak out against sexual violence.
So we’re at this impasse, locked away from understanding and progress, unable to forge connections between these misconducts we uncover and the culture that creates them. And for those of us who’ve watched in earnest to see how this #MeToo moment might adapt to the Australian environment, it’s like watching a hatchling that’s failed to thrive. Because when we talk about #MeToo in Australia, for me, what we're actually referring to is a failure, a moment that wasn't. Devastating though it may be to recognise, at this stage I believe there's too much standing in the way in our culture to allow any great flood of change to accompany the initial excitement of #MeToo's momentum.
Labelling #MeToo a failure, or calling for a more transformative, bolder mode of change, is perhaps dismissive of the cultural shifts that have occurred in the past year. It’s worth acknowledging that, a pre-MeToo climate perhaps would not have compelled Luke Foley to resign from his post at NSW Labor amid the harassment debacle. And judging by the dozens of articles published we’re at least a mite more comfortable publicly discussing the problems our country has with gender and violence.
These advances are important and worth noting, if nothing else than for the back-breaking effort -- largely on the part of those survivors offering up their trauma narratives -- which has brought them about. But they are not enough to fix the epidemic of sexual misconduct and violence that makes our public and private spaces, from schools to offices to packed trams to family bedrooms, so resolutely unsafe. We need more, much more.
In focusing in on these high-profile individual cases, which have wrought nothing but pain for those survivors involved, it seems we've done little to address what in our culture actually caused #MeToo in the first place
When #MeToo swept social media in 2017, many of us were wary. It was an unknown entity, this quick-moving solidarity moment for survivors to come together. And feminist commentator Ruby Hamad warned that the individualism of “the Me Too ‘movement’ prevents itself from laying foundations for long-term systemic change”. Now, as I watch #MeToo trip and stumble on Australia's toxic machismo, I know she is right.
In focusing in on these high-profile individual cases, which have wrought nothing but pain for those survivors involved, it seems we've done little to address what in our culture actually caused #MeToo in the first place. And so these allegations continue to come out, and powerful men continue to use our broken justice system to escape culpability. We're just knocking down pins, destined never to get a strike.
A year ago I wrote that we needed to stop asking survivors to fix rape culture and now I’m going to say the same thing again. Perhaps it’s hard, in the midst of the moment, to see what the future of #MeToo will look like in this country. But it has to stop looking like survivors offering themselves on the altar of suffering, just to expose a few high-profile abusers -- not when we’re so ill-prepared to agitate for any broader cultural shifts. I’m tired of that; we all are.
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