This is the transcript of a TEDx talk I gave with Griffith College on the 31st March 2017. The theme of the talks were ‘going beyond (your) fear’ and I spent some time thinking about this in the context of social change. I wanted to use this platform as well as I could, to use it for the most urgent message. My biggest fear in the area of activism in which I work is the silence of non abusive men regarding sexual violence against women. So I thought I would use this, but link it in with other fears; the immediate fear during a sexual attack, the fear of judgement from others, our society’s fear of being real and honest with themselves and others regarding sexual violence and finally my main point — my fear of the silence of men.
I hope this video and message will go far and have some sort of impact, and that people will remember the main messsage — “Do what you can, where you can, with what you have to give.”
One night in a suburban park when I was 16, I got drunk and passed out, and when I woke up, a boy around my own age was raping me.
I’d never had sex before. I didn’t really know what it should feel like or not feel like. I’d heard it might hurt, but this was a pain I’d never experienced in my life.
Thankfully I only remember small moments. Trapped in a frozen body, I remember looking at the inky black sky and the tree branches above me. And I remember the damp grass and twigs and mud beneath me. And my head felt so heavy, like it might sink into the ground.
And that was terror. That quiet freezing & enduring & observing my surroundings as everything else shut off — that was pure terror.
The freeze that I experienced in that moment seeped out into the rest of my life and being, so that I was in a near constant state of being stunned. I was so afraid of feeling the sadness and the pain and the shock of what had happened, that I shoved it down and blocked it out, and I made it be okay. I made it be okay in order to survive.
What this type of trauma does, is that it boxes you in. It cuts you off from those places inside you that are carefree, creative, spontaneous, light. Its toxicity rips through the beautiful, resourcing things in life, and everything is smeared with it.
It took me about a year to realise what had happened to me. And over that year a type of greyness or darkness settled like a veil between me and the rest of the world. And I felt dirty. I still do sometimes. I felt like I could be exposed as this broken worthless ruined thing at any moment.
And I still feel like that sometimes. That’s just the legacy of sexual violation, and that’s the legacy of having to carry your crime scene with you everywhere you go.
According to the Central Statistics Office approximately 6 people are sexually assaulted every day. More than one rape a day is committed. And 70% of rapes do not get reported, so the actual number is over 2 rapes a day in our tiny country. And out of the 30% that do get reported, only 8% go to trial, and only 2% are convicted every year. This means that an unthinkable number of men who have raped are free to rape again.
We still minimise sexual violence: We blame the victim, question the victim, don’t believe the victim, say things like ‘well there’s two sides to every story’ and ‘well we don’t have all the facts yet’. We have an excusing attitude towards the perpetrators, we maintain certain narrow ‘acceptable’ stereotypes of rape, of victims and of rapists. We maintain that there are grades of rape, some ‘worse’ than others, that there is a difference between date rape and forcible rape and rape rape. That there is confusing ‘grey area’. That I’m the kind of girl that gets raped, that there is a kind of girl that gets raped. That I brought it on myself. That it wasn’t really rape. That no-one will believe you anyway. That’s it not worth reporting. That he didn’t mean it, he was just chancing it. That it was my fault.
And we absorb all of this. At 16, I absorbed all of this.
And the total lack of a sense of security that occurs after a sexual violation makes us withdraw. When we are battling with many complex layers of feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, inside feels like the safest place to go.
So as for telling anyone, it had been a year — I didn’t want to cause cause a big drama. And I was full of fears — what if this changes how they see me, or how much they love me? What if they’re angry with me or they blame me? What if they can’t cope with it emotionally? What if they don’t keep it to themselves? What if they ask me questions I don’t have the answer to? What if I lose control over what happens next?
And the biggest fear of all, what if they don’t believe me? What then? If they don’t believe me, where am supposed to put my pain then? Who am I supposed to trust?
Over the years I experienced other sexual assaults, some even had a worse impact on me than the original rape. I started to read more and more about sexual violence, trying to find some way to relate, to connect, to understand what had happened to me and what happens to so many women & girls, and to appease this sense of dis-ease I was experiencing.
After a few difficult years I was bursting with wanting to talk about all of this, and discovered that I could have a little voice, that I could use this pain and this anger and the wisdom I had gained to highlight the injustice that a completely preventable crime is relegated in our attitudes and beliefs as some sort of inevitability, some sort of normality. I knew that I would have to be very personal in my politics; that in order to break anyone else’s silence on this, I’d have to first break my own.
But I found with each step I took, I grew stronger and I grew more confident in my opinions, and more confident in my impatience, and more confident in my anger. And I found the sense of liberation that comes with being unapologetically true to yourself. And I found beautiful, kind, strong parts of myself that I didn’t know were there.
While we rightly acknowledge the bravery it takes for victims to tell their stories, we omit reflecting on why it is that they have to be brave. Victims are forced not only to work through the dark places and fears within ourselves, but we are also forced to deal with the dark places and fears within everyone else.
It shouldn’t be on survivors to tell their stories and sacrifice themselves over and over again in the hope for change. What if we could all be brave enough, curious enough, to face our fears about rape and the men who commit it? What if we could all, non-judgmentally, with self-compassion, explore our attitudes, and biases, and beliefs, so that they no longer unhelpfully effect how we engage on this topic?
The greatest thing I learnt in my journey of becoming a therapist is the power of sitting with discomfort. I realised that change isn’t other people; change is me, it’s sitting with my own fears and my own anxieties that is the tough thing that needs the courage, and also the thing which is the most transformative, not just for me, but for the world I live in. Self-reflection takes courage because it’s frightening — we might see things we don’t want to see, but change only happens when we are uncomfortable.
Imagine, for just one moment what it might look like if the stigma around being a rape victim didn’t exist? If all the unhelpful & damaging & dangerous biases and attitudes and beliefs and stereotypes and prejudices and myths were gone? How rape victims would recover & thrive in a world like that. And how the men who rape would have a lot less to hide behind.
I don’t want to be called brave anymore for speaking about this. I want to live in a world in which I don’t have to be brave.
And people are speaking up a lot more, really bluntly, about rape, and the spectrum of sexual violence, but there are important voices missing. Voices that could change the landscape of sexual violence, voices that could work for change from within.
98% of rapists are men. Yet we’re still afraid of causing offense by naming that truth. 98% of rapists are men. Yet rape is still called a women’s issue.
Isn’t it time that men were part of this conversation about their fellow man? About their friends and brothers and uncles and cousins?
The president wrote to me last year after I gave a speech on this theme as well, and in his letter he said, ‘your speech is one of radical truth’. And this radical truth, which I thought was just common sense, is that as long as the non-abusive men are silent, and passive, and complacent on rape, as long as they think it has nothing to do with them because they’re not a rapist, nothing will ever change. Nothing.
Peer influence is our most powerful tools of social change. We all want our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours to be accepted & condoned by the people in our lives. We all want to belong. And behaviour is learnt. Men can harness this natural inclination by being explicit, blunt and direct in their zero tolerance attitude towards male violence and be a role model to other men and boys. Having a zero tolerance attitude is great but it’s meaningless unless you’re showing it to other people. And that means not allowing male violence against women to be a women’s issue any more.
Those men among us who are predatory and are inclined towards sexual violence — they’re here in this room, they’re people we know, 91% of perpetrators are known to the victim — This is as personal as it gets, because they’re not watching what I’m doing, they’re not listening to me. They’re watching what other men are doing, saying, believing. They’re watching their friends, their peers. They’re watching you. So if you’re not saying no out loud, what are you saying? & who are you saying it to?
If we want to see radical change, this is the conversation men have to be having. All I’m asking you to do what you can, where you can, with what you have to give. Maybe it’s something as simple as a being the person who organises the office fundraiser for the rape crisis centre. Or maybe it’s just having a conversation with your friend. It’s doing whatever you can within your own sphere of life and capabilities, to explicitly demonstrate your attitude.
There are some men here for whom this will resonate with more than others and that’s fine. Those men, you are the change-makers. The example setters. The role models. The men other men look up to. That’s what being a leader is. Doing the scary thing. Taking the risk. Saying not in my name. Saying as a man I do not accept this from other men and I will fight against it.
Because it’s no longer enough to be just a man who cares. This has to be not, ‘why me?’ But ‘how me?’ ‘How can I help? What can I do?’
It takes bravery to interrupt the status quo; to do things and discuss things that usually women do and discuss. You might be rightfully afraid of getting looks, or comments, or being rejected, or questioned, or laughed at. Either way it’s likely uncomfortable. All of this and more, and much worse, happens to rape survivors who speak out, and they survive. So start being the kind of man that rape victims will call brave.
And it’s not easy to say what I’m saying here. This isn’t a popular or comfortable message. I will experience awkwardness and silence from those I love. I will experience people purposefully avoiding certain topics of conversation, I will experience plenty of abusive commentary online, I will experience vast judgements and assumptions be made about me. I will be actively disliked for my message here this evening. But I’m not afraid or put off. Because once you are comfortable with other people’s people’s discomfort, you can do it again and again and you are stronger every time and your life will expand. Because that’s what living beyond yourself does.
The opposite of fear to me, is not fearlessness or courage, the opposite of fear to me is hope. Because while fear brings limitations, hope brings possibilities.
My hope for life, for love, and for humanity was never eroded by the boy who raped me, or the man who came through my car window to sexually assault me, or the trusted friend who gently violated me as I slept. Or any of the other men who have hurt me during my 33 years.
My hope is eroded by the passivity of good men.
What I’ve learnt over the last few years is that courage rubs off. And that we can’t be what we can’t see. Each person standing up gives permission to others to stand up. And when a man stands up in solidarity with rape victims & with a conviction to make change. I wish I could articulate properly what that sense of hope feels like. It is hope that brings me to tears for the beauty of it. It is that hope that makes all the risks I take worthwhile.
Fighting sexual violence is a war, not a battle. And wars needs warriors. Warriors commit to seeing the war through, even if that war isn’t over in their lifetime. We all have to commit, together, to keep keep listening, keep hoping, be brave and keep fighting, because each one of us here has the power to change the world we live in.
My greatest fear is silence. Because silence is complicit. And silence is colluding. Silence is agreeing. I’ve broken my silence. I’ve gone beyond my fear. I’m asking the men here, to go beyond yours.