The language of rape

It’s been an interesting ten days watching Australia respond to unfolding events. Particularly the men. We were all horrified by the revelations of rape in parliament house, but their shock and disgust has been palpable. 

You would be hard pressed to find one woman that was surprised. We know the drill. This is why less than 20% of us report sexual crime to police.

And then, after two days, the story evaporated from the front pages.

A quick search on Murdoch news sites shows this past week Ms Higgins was covered 53 times. In comparison the Covid vaccine got 291 hits and Facebook 465. 

How do we get real change if the media won’t drive the biggest story of the year?

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or only reading the Murdoch press), here’s a quick summary of events so far. A young female Parliamentary staffer named Brittany Higgins was interviewed by The Project last Monday 15th February 2021. She disclosed her account of alleged rape in a Ministerial office and subsequent events that unfolded.

The Prime Minister’s response has drawn mass outrage. His language has been a lesson in misogyny and victim blaming. It also appears to be stacked with… how can I put this delicately? A good dose of lies. Ironically, it seems like he thought he’d get away with it because he’s gotten away with so much.

The day after Ms Higgins’ initial interview, after a chat with his wife to clarify things, Mr Morrison opened a door stop interview with the following. I’ve bolded a few pertinent words that need attention.

“…it shatters me that still, in this day and age, that a young woman can find herself in the vulnerable situation that she was in. Not her doing. And we have to do more, whether it’s in this workplace, or in any other workplace in the country, to ensure that people can work safely in their place and be at their best and do what they went into that job to do. Brittany talked about it being her dream job. We are all privileged, whether it’s members of Parliament, the people who work in our offices and indeed those who work in the gallery and do what we get to do in this place. It is a privilege, and we should be able to go about that important work safely. There should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation. That is not OK…. and I must say despite what were the genuine good intentions of all those who did try to provide support to Brittany, that clearly, by what she said last night, at the end of the day, she did not feel that way. And that is not OK. ” (Full transcript here.)

I cannot stress enough this was a prepared statement.

Mr Morrison takes great pride in his marketing skills. It’s safe to assume, the moment the Prime Minister’s Office was informed, multiple people got to work exploring angles for the boss’s messaging strategy. These words were not accidental. They were carefully crafted and fully loaded.

Words matter. Analysis of language and calls for change seems to cause discomfort and pushback. It isn’t cancel culture, it is the natural evolution of societal changes, many hard fought and won. To abuse language is to dismiss and discount the weight of words and ignore their impact. A civilised society needs language accountability; and Mr Morrison needs to be held accountable for recent words because they are not okay. 

In recent years, victim blaming, like racism, has shifted. There is a degree of subtlety that allows untenable words to be said then plausibly denied.  Known as gaslighting, this is an additional element that introduces a whole new layer of harm. Mr. Morrison’s comments have so many such layers they’re groaning under their own weight.

Mr Morrison’s opening lines managed to include an extraordinary amount of yeah nah language. 

Let’s start with the fact that Mr Morrison almost seems shocked rape, or using his words, this “situation”, still happens in “this day and age”. This is not an anomaly. An estimated 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted at least once. Half don’t even seek advice due to shame and victim blaming.

That Ms Higgins “found herself” in this “situation” implies some form of mutual responsibility. Women find themselves in vulnerable situations constantly. The degree of vulnerability is the only variant. Many women can’t even find security in their own homes. Mitigating “vulnerability” is a full time job. And sometimes women “find ourselves” in a “vulnerable situation” because risk is misjudged. Rapists don’t come with a label. 

Emphasis on “workplace” safety discounts the fact that women should be safe everywhere and the Labor Party is not immune. Releasing a meme saying “women must be safe at work” could be classed as appalling misjudgement but in reality it’s just more misogyny bubbling to the surface. Repeat after me “Women should be safe. Full Stop.”

Mr Morrison’s immediate and sustained “what-about-ism” smacks of “Timmy does it too”. We know this can happen anywhere, but the likelihood increases when you foster an environment that resists equality.

There are a lot more words citing “genuine good intentions” to “provide support”. That Ms Higgins “did not feel that way” implies no matter how much was done, nothing would be good enough because women! They expect so much. 

Constant reference of Ms Higgins by her first name, her young age and the trauma isn’t personal care. It’s saying this girl’s a little bit emotional right now, her perspective’s not entirely accurate and we need to be kind.

And here’s a tip, any claim this will be taken seriously is undermined when inquiries are not expert and independent. Terms of reference that only focus on Ms Higgins’ criminal complaint and vague ideas on how to do better reinforce a message that this is definitely not something this Government wants to address in any meaningful way.

That we have to do better is indisputable (by most, sigh), but all week Mr Morrison has peppered his statements with we’s and us’s. Are women included in this shared responsibility or is this a masculine collective? There is no sense of ownership and accountability. And constant reference to complexity implies slow, if not unreasonable, change. If only we had a leader that could take charge and make a difference by example and action.

The two key words I wanted this week were zero tolerance but they’ve been MIA.

With increasing calls to respect Ms Higgins’ privacy I can’t help but wonder, is Mr Morrison setting the stage to shut down questions in the near future? Now that Ms Higgins is taking her complaint to the police, will he also try and hide behind that?

This language isn’t just distressing, it’s dangerous. The Prime Minister’s words feel like a dog-whistle for men. Don’t worry fellas. I know it’s just a few bad apples. This stuff happens occasionally. But we need to pretend to take this seriously because the ladies are a bit upset.

Mr Morrison has not even said the following word: rape.

Mr Morrison’s response to Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate’s $20K shopping spree on watches carried far more weight: “I was appalled, it’s disgraceful and it’s not on.”

There was no consultation with Jenny. Mr Morrison demanded Ms Holgate step down and instigated an independent investigation.

“This all happened within an hour, Mr Speaker, so appalled and shocked was I by that behaviour.”

If only Mr Morrison felt the same level of outrage for Ms Higgins egregious allegation. Hell, we got more action with strawberries.

I’m not the only one that picked up on this appalling mismash of word gymnastics. Ms Higgins herself was appalled, telling reporters  “the continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors.” Media and social media have been talking about it all week. Mr Morrison has had ample opportunity to adjust his words and stop this behaviour. But he is well and truly wedded to his strategy.

On Sunday 21st February 2021, Mr Morrison expressed a desire for his investigations.

I hope they will give us what we need to change the culture not just today, but longer term. And I hope that it will ensure that the systems and processes that we’ve relied on here will create and provide greater support to anyone who would find themselves a victim of those types of events in the future. It’s a fairly straightforward expectation. I want the culture to be better. … There are changes that have already been made in recent years, and I think this will really help us do that… we need to deal with what’s happening in our house and everybody needs to deal with what’s happening in theirs.”

The commitment to change is…. Underwhelming.

Survivors of sexual assault are rightfully distressed and infuriated with this A-grade level gaslighting, but there’s also an entire community of committed full-time, part-time, casual and volunteer workers that support survivors of sexual assault. They carry the weight of multiple stories daily. They must be shaking their heads in disbelief and outrage. And the academics that study sexual assault must be beyond frustrated their science is consistently ignored.

Coalition members like to talk about mental health implications when it comes to Covid but they somehow fail to grasp the ramifications of sexual assault gaslighting.

Victims see and hear the language of rape and our attitudes are clear. Rape is unacceptable. In theory. In reality, the moment we talk about a specific criminal act our unequivocal stance waivers and the questions commence. There is one common theme, the victim. We’ve heard a lot from Ms Higgins. We’ve heard a lot about the response from Parliament House. I haven’t seen one discussion that focuses on the actions of the alleged perpetrator with anywhere near the same onus, veracity and explicitness. Why didn’t he drop Ms Higgins home then go to the office? How could he let himself be alone with an obviously intoxicated woman? If her intoxication meant consent could be doubted why didn’t he say no? These types of questions are reserved for the victim, not the perpetrator.

Ms Higgins bravery has allowed more women to come forward with allegations against her alleged abuser and more Coalition and ex-Coalition members have received a copy of Mr. Morrison’s marketing strategy and they’re sticking to the script. Are we surprised?

Of all the words that sprang to life this week, one paragraph in Ms Higgins first statement (released 17th February 2020) bowled me over.

“I didn’t know that security guards came into the office multiple times seeing me in a state of undress… I didn’t know that they debated calling an ambulance at the time of the incident”.

I keep coming back to this. It clearly demonstrates how Ms Higgins lost complete agency of her own self. It exposes her absolute vulnerability during those awful hours. It emphasises the complete lack of care and consideration given to a incapacitated 24 year old female and confirms the fact that others knew something was wrong and did nothing. It is validation.

We all know words have power. That power has been used to full effect by a Prime Minister and Party that will do and say anything they can to deflect, deny and delay.

Ms Higgins’ has been spurred to action by Mr Morrison’s deflections. 

On 19th February she told reporters, “The Prime Minister has repeatedly told the Parliament that I should be given “agency” going forward. I don’t believe that agency was provided to me over the past two years but I seize it now and have advised the Prime Minister’s Office that I expect a voice in framing the scope and terms of reference for a new and significant review into the conditions for all ministerial and parliamentary staff. It is important that the reform is real and drives change beyond dealing with just what happened to me, and how the system let me down…. I was failed repeatedly but I now have my voice, and I am determined to use to ensure that this is never allowed to happen to another member of staff again.”

Today she is filing an official complaint with police.

It is a wonderful irony that Ms Higgins has used Mr Morrison’s words to embrace agency in an entirely unanticipated way. I couldn’t help but cheer.

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