Tactical assault

To glance at this week’s headlines was to see just how much Australian gender relations have shifted in the past year. No longer are we ignoring women’s stories – the approach is now one of control, minimisation and punishment.

In a Sydney court, Eryn Jean Norvill was accused of giving testimony “rife with contradictions, inconsistencies and recent invention” by Geoffrey Rush’s lawyers during his defamation suit against The Daily Telegraph. It was testimony she never wanted to give, sparked by accusations she never wished to be publicly aired. Her identity being bound forever in the public imagination to his alleged indiscretions was a choice made by others, though one for which she has to bear the reality.

At the ABC, journalist Ashleigh Raper released a statement, detailing an alleged 2016 assault by New South Wales Labor leader Luke Foley, forced to speak up after Liberal politician David Elliot disclosed the accusation without her involvement or consent under the veil of his own parliamentary privilege. Foley resigned, although he took the opportunity to label Raper’s statement “false” and threatened to drag her into a lengthy court battle by launching his own defamation proceedings against the ABC. The message was clear: those who voice allegations of assault, even in confidence, will face the special wrath the justice system reserves for women.

“This is a position I never wanted to be in and a statement I never intended to make,” Raper wrote in her statement.

Her words echoed those of Catherine Marriott, whose name was leaked to the media after she made a formal, private complaint to the National Party about Barnaby Joyce’s alleged sexual harassment. “What was most difficult and what prevents a lot of people in circumstances like this [from coming forward] is the repercussions of being dragged through a scandal,” Marriott’s lawyer Emma Salerno told The Australian. “It’s the last thing my client wanted.”

It’s a pattern of behaviour, a backlash to the threat of power redistribution – control, minimisation, punishment – effective, brutal tactics.

Because in the past year, we have been told repeatedly that personal narrative has power. That individual stories of harassment and assault can serve to shrink systemic inequalities down to a human scale, rendering them impossible to ignore. Women may not have structural or historical power, but their stories have power.

If we accept that, then to deny a woman the right to tell her story, on her terms, is in itself a form of domination. Is, in itself, an attempt to disempower – consciously or subconsciously. And to attempt to control a woman’s story, to minimise her trauma, to punish her for daring to speak it – that is a form of abuse.

The stark reality here is that the dark drive to silence women often has violent ends. Jaymes Todd was free to stand in court this week and plead guilty to stalking, raping and killing Eurydice Dixon in a Melbourne park earlier this year. He was given the opportunity to validate the horrifying narrative of that night, pieced together by detectives over the past few months. Dixon was never given the chance to tell her story. It is a right that was taken from her and one that is wrested, effectively, from so many other women on a daily basis.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as "Tactical assault".

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