I heard a journalist ask 26-year-old, Australian of the Year, Grace Tame recently – “how do we sidestep [that] shame?”. They were talking about the shame of childhood sexual violence. Tame replied that it doesn’t sit at the foot of the survivor, it sits at the foot of the perpetrator. It was an elegant answer and the interviewer moved on. But I got stuck there. Heard not another word. That’s triggering in action, I suppose. Sure, I would like my shame to sit at the foot of my perpetrator, but it doesn’t. It sits with me. It sits so squarely with me you could say it is me. The trauma-world in which I’ve lived as a sexual abuse survivor, and am only recently surfacing from, and the accompanying shame that goes with it, has utterly shaped my life. There’s no side-stepping it. I can’t lay it down, turn my collar up, and walk away into the night, unburdened, unbound. I am fully bound. As Saxon Mullins said on Q&A – you don’t come out of it close to breaking point. You come out broken.
I was a teenager in the 1980s; the era of laissez-faire capitalism, the big fringe, Madonna, and rape-culture. Most of the movies I saw had some kind scene or premise where date rape was seen as both a fantasy, and hilarious. Remember the end of Sixteen Candles? Dreamboat Jake hands his drunk girlfriend, Caroline, to the love-lorn geek and says “have fun”. Even my mother, born-again feminist of the late 70s, didn’t ban it. She’d banned Benny Hill in our house – a radical move at the time – but she didn’t ban Sixteen Candles – because nobody did. We were all just swimming around in our ocean of rapey rapeyness like eyeless salamanders, pink and vulnerable, thoroughly wet through with it. And if you were sexually abused in that era, the resulting shame was profound, because it didn’t really count, did it? I mean, it didn’t on Sixteen Candles, and that was the iconic high-school love story of the decade.
What of today’s young women? What we were blind to then, we are less so now. The way our culture thinks about rape is fundamentally different. So, what difference does this make to their lives? Their shame? Shame is shame after all, the most Machiavellian of all the humannesses we humans lug around. It gets into the very cracks of us; takes hold. And not like a weed – like mortar. Jams things together where there should be space – for creativity, productivity, courage, love, trust. But what happens when shame’s backdrop changes? When the Patriarchal cage we’re all living in gets rattled?
A 26-year-old survivor spoke aloud – put a fully embodied, trembling and rage-filled voice to the bars of a behemoth cage and rattled as hard as her might would let her. The final report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse states it can take a survivor an average of 24 years to tell someone about the abuse they suffered. It took Grace Tame one. It took me 40. I am almost 50 now. I don’t feel nearly 50. Much of the time I am still a girl, frozen in time and place. Held fast by trauma and shame. It’s taken me a very long time to catch up to my almost 50-year-old self. And now these young women are rattling the cage and using their voices and I am standing here, old and invisible, broken and dysfunctional, feeling proud and relieved, but also acutely aware of my own devastating loss. I grieve the fact that I, and so many other women of my generation, were too frozen in place to rattle the cage. And what of those of us who did? Those who did have the courage to speak up and did so over and over again, despite the rape-culture stupor we were all in. Our Indigenous sisters, often the most invisible of women, are crying out in frustrated rage right now – why the hell did you not hear us when we spoke aloud? This isn’t new. We are the tired, the broken, the disenfranchised. Our bodies a living testament to what shame can do and where it goes when it so clearly does not sit at the foot of the perpetrator. You can see it in our fatigue, our autoimmune disease. In our hardened faces, unamused. The angry feminist face, so damn tired.
I’ve heard so many frustrated voices these past few weeks repeating those words – this isn’t new. Just having to utter them serves to undermine women’s experience. Reminding men that because we live in a Patriarchal system that supports white supremacy and the dominance of male power, when we question that dominant force, we do it alone. One of the defining characteristics of a dominant system is its lack of introspection. And now, in this moment, we are witnessing the coalescence of women’s separateness with a smattering of male voices. A Brisbane high-school boy’s polished speech, calling on his peers to be proactive in stopping sexual violence and harassment of women, has hundreds of thousands of views on instagram. It’s wonderful. It is. But as I witness this male clarion call, I am also angry. Where have you all been? And why are we heaping so much praise onto the shoulders of a teenage boy? While it’s encouraging to see the definitions of manhood changing – centuries of male silence being broken – we can’t let it fall to teenage boys. This is a leadership issue. The reckoning is here. Adult men with power need to stand up and change the narrative. Disrupt their own dominance. Interrupt one another when they default to toxicity.
As men (hopefully) do this, it’s my hope that women will properly tend to their shame. Not in the same way I tended to mine for so long – PTSD-clad and in crushing silence. But with proper help, and not hidden away, alone. Childhood trauma and shame can drag a whole world of dysfunction into a person’s life. Dysfunction that women often don’t even realise is a direct consequence of shame. It’s a lot to navigate. It disrupts relationships, careers, friendships. It undermines confidence and it can shut down your executive functioning, making existing in the material world an utterly exhausting, daily experience.
I’m afraid for these brave young women who are speaking out, who oftentimes are making a living in this space, and who are of the first generation whose identities were formed within a totally networked world. They are plugged in, visible, surveilled. They were weaned on the art of turning their own brave tale of trauma into a story of the oppressed collective – the we. Thank goodness this rage has arrived, the rattling of the Patriarchal cage, the demand for change, but we mustn’t assume that with it, we will be able to just pick up the shame that comes with trauma and lay it down elsewhere. Oh, for it to work that way. But by the time you’ve found the courage to speak your truth, shame has already dug in deep, and it’s a long, challenging, and deeply personal process to extricate it from your very bones, unbind yourself. I missed my own moment for rage as a young woman. I will not miss this moment to hold the space for those who are creating and having this moment now. So, I offer my wise-woman wisdom, from a long and circuitous journey through trauma and shame: there is a place inside you that is not tethered to the contraction that shame brings. And when you lean towards it, you are inviting yourself to be unbound.
This unbinding is a process men can share. My partner did. He held the space, quietly, unquestioningly, while I raged and grieved and learned how to be back in my own body. He said sorry – on behalf of the men who’d abused me and the people who’d failed to protect me. He didn’t need to own it like that, but he did. And it made a difference. As did the counselling, the sharing, the grieving – the process. I am so glad boys are speaking up, rallying the next generation, but men need to stand now. Take accountability. Whether you’ve ever been a perpetrator, silently complicit, or a true ally, it doesn’t matter. Just stand.