At the Australia-wide March4Justice rallies in 2021, Brittany Higgins (a former Liberal Party staffer) and Grace Tame (Australian of the Year 2021) delivered speeches in Canberra and Hobart, respectively. Higgins was raped inside Parliament House. Tame is a survivor of child sex abuse. Both called for changes in Australian culture and our institutions to prevent “abuse culture” and to ensure the safety of those most vulnerable to sexual assault.

On Wednesday 9 February 2022, both women gave respective addresses at the National Press Club (NPC) in Canberra. Both criticised that too little had changed since they spoke at these rallies. (Though, the day prior to the addresses, Prime Minister Scott Morrison finally apologised to the survivors of sexual harassment and assault endured by employees in federal parliament.)

In her NPC address, Higgins explained her rationale for making her sexual assault public:

“I made my decision to speak out because the alternative was to be part of the culture of silence inside Parliament House. I spoke out because I wanted the next generation of staffers to work in a better place.”

She then lamented:

“I’m worried what too many people beyond the government and the media took out of the events of last year was that we need to be better at talking about the problem…. I’m not interested in words anymore. I want to see action.”

To clarify, the words Higgins is not interested in anymore are “weasel-words” – she is not advocating against free speech, nor rejecting the need for conversations on the prevalence of sexual abuse.

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Tame and Higgins both believe we need institutional changes to address this issue. And if we are to take anything away from the NPC addresses – and we should – it is this: institutional change must be tackled actively – though not all institutions are formal; we must challenge abuse of power – though not all power is formally bestowed; and those who are in formal positions with considerable power must act effectively.

To that end, Tame explicitly identified three necessary steps that must be taken to progress social and institutional change.

  1. Take sexual violence seriously – this means taking proactive measures to prevent it.
  2. Provide adequate funding to actually implement the proactive measures we need.
  3. Create consistent legislative reforms. For example, sexual assault of a child should not be named “maintaining a relationship with a person under the age of 17,” which was the law Tame’s rapist contravened. All such forms of child sexual abuse should be named for what they are. Abuse.

And, according to Higgins’ response during NPC question time, a greater gender balance in Government would help immensely.

Tame and Higgins have told Australia exactly what we need to do – so why isn’t Australia making adequate progress? Higgins clearly believes that the LNP Government, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison in particular, could be doing more to prevent such heinous acts. She explains:

“I wanted him to use his power as Prime Minister. I wanted him to wield the weight of his office and drive change in the Party and our Parliament, and out into the country”.

In spite of Morrison’s apology, and even in light of the 28 recommendations for change in parliament workplaces following an independent review headed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner (AKA the Jenkins’ review), Higgins perceives too little action, reminding us:

“Last year wasn’t a march for acknowledgement and it wasn’t a march for coverage. It wasn’t a march for language. It was a march for justice, and that justice demands real change.”

It is time to hold power to account.

On the matter of power, note its informal use. During her NPC address, Tame revealed that she had received “a threatening phone call from a senior member of a government funded organisation” ‘asking’ her not to say anything negative about the Prime Minister because “you are influential”. But Tame did not have the power in this exchange – the caller did.

Then there is the press, another crucial institution with an immensely powerful role to play in shaping the attitudes of the populace.

But what media seem not to care about, says Tame, is how trauma is often reinforced through powerful institutions like the press.

Since being named Australian of the year in 2021, Tame reports being: “re-victimised, commodified, objectified, sensationalised, delegitimised, gaslit, and thrown under the bus by the mainstream media.”

Strikingly, in spite of Tame’s reprimanding of the press for their re-traumatising actions, the anonymous phone call to Tame became the centre of the mainstream media’s focus of the NPC addresses – with Higgins’ contribution essentially written out of the narrative. Suddenly it was necessary and urgent to find the identity of this mystery caller and for the Prime Minister to assert intent to discover which agency was responsible (and, in so doing, delicately removing himself from the realm of complicity in this abuse of power).

Then, on 14 February, the Daily Mail ran a photo of a teenage Tame seated with what appears to be a ‘bong’ (a device for smoking marijuana). One can only presume that the decision to publicise this photo, which implicates Tame in undertaking illegal behaviour, would have the effect of tarnishing her public image. Media are supposed to report neutrally, not run smear campaigns.

On 19 February, Tame responded publicly via Twitter to all media who published “that” photo, stating:

“At every point — on the national stage, I might add — I’ve been completely transparent about all the demons I’ve battled in the aftermath of child sexual abuse; drug addiction, self-harm, anorexia and PTSD, among others. You just clearly haven’t been listening.”

She then goes on to chastise the media:

“By point-mocking a symptom of a bigger picture, you’ve reinforced the imbalance of an already skewed culture. You’ve chosen to punish the product of an evil, not the evil itself. This is precisely why survivors don’t report. Congratulations.”

Inertia and smear campaigns are just two of the ways institutions can perpetuate abuse culture, also known as ‘rape culture’.

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Philosopher Claudia Card has argued that ‘rape’ (here, meaning any and all sexual assault) is a terrorist institution. Sexual violence – a social practice – is gendered. We live in a world of “social norms that create and define a distribution of power among and between members of the sexes”. This is a type of social identity power – a power that is informally maintained through our actions and our assumptions about the way the world necessarily is. Women fear what men can do to them. Terror of this kind is manipulative. And terror is a shortcut to power.

Rape is also an institution (in an informal sense) insofar as it is “a form of social activity structured by rules that define roles and positions, powers and opportunities.” Cisgender men are usually the perpetrators of sexual assault, and women and children (including male children) are usually the targets of that assault. “For the most part,” says Card, “the rules become ‘second nature’, like the rules of grammar, and those guided need not be aware of the rules as learned norms”.

While I want to emphasise that not all – nor even most – cisgender men commit sexual assaults, that cisgender men can be victims of sexual assault, and typical targets (women and children) can be perpetrators, the constancy of this type of activity – in 2018–19, the majority of sexual assault offenders recorded by police were male (97%) – leads to the impression that sexual assault (tacitly: of women and children) is inevitable.

Since there is a social practice – an open secret – of women and children being sexually abused, women become socialised to fear sexual abuse. Women live in a state of apprehension, always on alert for signals of danger. Cisgender men (who have not experienced assault) do not have to live this way.

Thus, if ‘rape’ really is an informal terrorist institution in Australia, it would follow that one of the reasons Australia is yet to meet Tame’s first requirement – to take sexual violence seriously and to take proactive measures to prevent it – is because we have not yet disregarded the assumption that sexual abuse is inevitable. People may be working on changing such tacit assumptions, but on a mass scale we are yet to shift the dial.

This leads us to Tame’s second ask: adequate funding. Help the people who are doing the re-educating, who are running shelters, who need to access specialist legal services, who are training medical professionals in sexual assault cases, increasing access to psychologists, and improving the child welfare system. The list goes on. And, in Higgins’ view, if there were more women in Parliament, this issue would be taken more seriously – even though “quotas” is a “dirty word” to the Liberal Party, she revealed in question time.

Finally, we reach Tame’s third driver of change, to which her foundation has been working: creating consistent legislative reforms wherein, for instance, there is no reference to a sexual “relationship” between an adult and a child. However, one foundation can only achieve so much – we need a more proactive approach.

Higgins and Tame both identified the barriers to overcoming trauma, while making suggestions on overcoming the abuse culture that has been absorbed into some of our most powerful institutions. Thus, institutions are not off the hook. They have their role to play in dispelling both rape culture and challenging the presumed inevitability of sexual abuse.

Given this, why did the media sensationalise Tame’s anonymous caller, why was Tame smeared, and why was Higgins cast out of the media spotlight? Why is the Government dragging its feet on reform? Why do people keep spreading “that” photo on social media?

One problem, it seems, is this: while Higgins and Tame were indeed given a platform from which to speak, what they said was not really ‘heard’ (that is, properly understood) by the media, by politicians, and even by the public. When one is not heard properly, one is effectively silent. Silence is exactly what Higgins was trying to escape. And yet, it seems that what is said too often makes little difference.

Being ‘effectively silenced’ does not necessarily mean that someone literally cannot speak, or that they have no platform. It means that when they speak, they are misunderstood (often wilfully). The message that should be taken from their words is not the message that media, politicians, and even the general public actually hear.

The media have acted as though that one singular instance of intimidation was the most important issue raised that day. But the point Tame was making is that there is no need to name the person nor agency because this sort of silencing tactic happens all the time to people trying to change the status quo. One must ask, are the media and LNP, even the public, purposefully missing the forest for the trees?

To fail to heed the wisdom of these women, as spokespeople for survivors, is an absolute ethical failing. They are gifting us with their situated knowledge and experience-based insights that would lead to successful reform, as well as the many insights that have been shared with them by other survivors who have sought them as confidantes. Tame literally lists what needs to happen: one, two, three. But it is clear that the press and the Parliament have not yet learnt how to actually listen to the intended overarching messages of these women – and, until they (and we ourselves) do, nothing will change.

We must pay attention and be proactive in destroying the terrorist institution of abuse culture.