Trigger warning: the following article covers distressing incidents of sexual assault.
What do these men have in common? A long and devastating track-record of alleged sexual assault and harassment against innocent women and children.
The public cancellation of men sex predators, however, all too often generates unwarranted himpathy for their fate and consequently leads to victim-blaming survivors.
How we portray incidents of sexual assault and the judgement we cast on the parties involved is no better illustrated than in the book The First Stone by journalist and author Helen Garner.
In 1992, two women student residents at Ormond College within the University of Melbourne lodged sexual harassment claims with police.
The women alleged that the college’s then-Master, Dr Colin Shepherd, had separately harassed them at the same party, known as a ‘Smoko’, after the annual college Valedictory Dinner.
(The accounts were alarmingly similar.)
The survivors reported their experiences to police following the college’s dissatisfactory investigation into the claims.
Garner unwaveringly portrays Dr Shepherd as a kind and gentle man. A softly spoken, religious man.
In sum, Dr Shepherd is a man whose personal track record and reputation is incompatible with harassing drunk college students.
The two women students, on the other hand, are portrayed as entitled and sexually provocative.
These women have the kind of character traits that are compatible with falsely accusing a man of harassment or, at the very least, giving them enticing sexual cues.
Garner, a feminist who helped overturn Australia’s abortion laws in the 1970’s, leveraged Dr Shepherd’s willingness to talk, and the ‘wretched’ (her words) women survivors’ refusals to be interviewed, as proof that Shepherd was the one being targeted and victimised.
Is it surprising that the survivors did not want to be interviewed by Garner?
Ultimately, charges against Dr Shepherd were dismissed, although the trial led to his departure from Ormond, the position obviously no longer tenable.
But it wasn’t necessarily Dr Shepherd’s alleged innocence that cleared him.
Our legal system and collective social attitude on sexual assault is inherently biased against survivors at every turn.
In the 1990’s, a Sydney rape crisis centre had to instruct sexual assault victims that they were not obligated to answer police questions about ‘climaxing’ or ‘enjoying’ their sexual assault because that line of questioning was so common.
In 2005, over a decade after the alleged assaults at Ormond occurred, a survey for the NSW Criminal Justice Sexual Offences Taskforce revealed that there was a breakdown in due process by police for victims of sexual assault:
“When asked what was the most important information to give someone who has been sexually assaulted, 57 percent of victims said information about the police. Of the respondents who answered this question, 79 percent had reported the sexual assault to police. All of those people made statements. In 58 percent of cases charges were laid and the matter proceeded to court. Of the 38 identified cases where the matter did not proceed to court, 45 percent of those respondents said they did not receive an explanation for this. Of those who received an explanation, 82 percent were not satisfied with it. Lack of respect from police was a recurring theme throughout the survey, as was the view that the police did not investigate the matter thoroughly, nor did police prioritise sexual assault investigations.”
The media continues to expose predators and sexual assaulter after assaulter, and yet we continue to examine women survivors’ backgrounds with fine tooth combs rather than accept the rampancy of sexual assault. Bad men plead innocence or ignorance, and we have believed them for too long.
Infamously, Brock Turner – now a convicted sex offender – was similarly ‘victimised’ while on trial for sexually assaulting Chanel Miller, who was unconscious at the time, behind a dumpster at a Stanford college party.
In a letter to presiding judge Aaron Persky, Turner’s father begged for leniency on his son whose life was irreparably ‘altered’ for ‘20 minutes of action’.
That letter and favourable character testimonies led Judge Persky to sentence Turner to just six months out of a possible 14 years in jail, citing his ‘positive character references and lack of a criminal record’ in the judgement.
Turner served three months.
This kind of ‘privilege in action’ is so often extended to otherwise ‘good’, powerful or rich (white) men, that we’re usually taken by surprise when there’s some semblance of justice in cases of sexual assault.
No, it’s not inconceivable or even unlikely that a priest, producer, president, prince or privileged student commits sexual assault.
What is unlikely is that legal systems will punish the alleged perpetrator over the survivor.
In an article published by The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes that, like the Australian justice system, the American justice system is not only set up to fail survivors but also punishes them for speaking up:
“The American legal system… exists within a culture that remains profoundly ashamed about sexual violence, preferring to discuss such matters in hushed tones and polite euphemisms. The effect is often to dehumanize the survivor. It is also to mistake the survivor as the person whose actions are on trial.”
Chanel Miller became the scapegoat for Turner’s crime.
Turner was portrayed as a man guilty of making a ‘terrible mistake’, yes, but he was not a rapist in the true sense of the word.
At least, that’s what his friends and family vouched.
In her victim impact statement read at Turner’s sentencing, Miller commented on how the credibility of sexual assault victims is too often challenged through a very specific and biased line of questioning.
“I was pummelled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
The treatment and portrayal of Miller and so many other survivors demonstrates that sexual assaults are still predicated on outdated archetypes of ‘sexual assaulters’ and ‘victims’.
Women survivors’ credibility is almost always undermined through her behaviour, choice of clothing and actions at the time of the incident, and the kind of person she is in her everyday life and was in her past.
The more ‘badly’ she behaves, or has behaved, the greater her level of blame – and the less culpable her perpetrator.
Though the rise of the #MeToo movement has given credence to the insidious nature of sexual assault in every profession, every socio-economic demographic and every corner of the globe, the question remains, has anything really changed?
The media continues to expose predators and sexual assaulter after assaulter, and yet we continue to examine women survivors’ backgrounds with fine tooth combs rather than accept the rampancy of sexual assault.
Bad men plead innocence or ignorance, and we have believed them for too long.
There are countess examples of this even in the highest forms of office.
Just days ago, an investigation by The Sydney Morning Herald alleged that former High Court Justice Dyson Heydon sexually harassed six women associates and made inappropriate advances towards senior women legal figures during his decade-long tenure on the High Court.
An earlier independent investigation interviewed 12 witnesses, concluding that Heydon’s behaviour constituted a ‘pattern of conduct of sexual harassment’.
Former ACT Law Society President Noor Blumer, a current judge, former associates Rachael Patterson Collins and Chelsea Tabart are among the complainants who shared details of Heydon’s calculated advances, including non-consensual groping, attempted kissing and cornering them while alone.
It was because of his powerful position that Heydon could act with impunity.
Heydon’s predatory behaviour was an ‘open secret’, and yet all of the survivors reported that they felt powerless and/or fearful to report him. Some even left the law altogether because of him.
“The power imbalance is such that he is so senior … He was a giant of the profession,” explained the judge who had been assaulted by Heydon when she was a barrister.
A survey of over 2,300 lawyers by the Victorian Legal Services Board released in April found that 61 percent of women and one in 10 men had experienced sexual harassment within the legal sector.
Unsurprisingly, perpetrators were allegedly ‘almost always male’.
Among respondents, there was a widespread trend of non-reporting, with 81 percent of survivors not reporting their experience.
Again, the lack of reporting can likely be correlated to survivors’ – the majority of whom are women – founded fears that the system will fail them, or there will be punishment for speaking out.
In the US, another presidential election is imminent.
The presumptive Democratic nominee and current Republican President, however, have both been credibly accused of sexual harassment.
The president’s sexual harassment track record is so alarming that it’s perversely fitting a Democratic nominee with a track record of inappropriate treatment towards women of his own should run against him for office.
Joe Biden has a well-established reputation as ‘Creepy Uncle Joe’ for his non-consensual handsiness towards women.
Biden has been publicly accused of sexual assault and the harassment of women on numerous occasions, relating to incidents spanning nearly thirty years.
Intelligencer labelled Biden ‘president of Awkwardly Whispering in Women’s Ears’, providing proof in the form of a literal gallery of the times he’s been caught on camera inappropriately cosying up to women.
In 1993, junior staffer for then-Senator Biden, Tara Reade alleges he sexually assaulted her – kissing her, cupping her breasts and digitally penetrating her – when she delivered Biden’s gym bag to a (conveniently empty) hall of the Senate office building.
Reade filed a police report earlier this month, over 25 years after the assault, but claims to have attempted to file an initial report about the assault with an independent congressional office in 1993.
When trying to file that report, however, Reade says she was punished by senior staffers, moved to a ‘windowless office and cut off from some of her responsibilities’.
Backstage at a Las Vegas Democratic rally in 2014, Nevada’s then-Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Lucy Flores, alleges Biden approached her from behind, smelled her hair and planted a ‘big slow kiss’ on the back of her head.
Biden’s candidacy poses a huge problem for Democratic Americans who now have an almost impossible choice come November: voting for someone they recognise as a sexual predator or dismiss the accusations of credible women accusers and still cast the same vote.
In an article for Medium, American feminist writer Jessica Valenti reminds readers that, even when ‘inconvenient’, we must continue to believe the accounts of survivors who come forward.
“We can be loyal to our feminist values while recognizing the moral obligation we have to reduce harm and oust the dangerous bigot who currently sits in the White House. There’s plenty of ammunition to attack Trump that doesn’t require us to call a woman who has come forward about his opponent a liar. We can campaign against Trump without feigning enthusiasm for Biden.”
As in The First Stone, however, even feminists have a history of dismissing women survivors, but not because they are in disbelief about the rampancy of sexual assault.
Some women at the university expressed concern that Dr Shepherd’s case would undermine their campaign for workplace flexibility for working mothers.
For some feminists, sexual harassment is so commonplace that its individual impact on survivors is minimised, and women who report are seen to threaten the broader feminist agenda.
Even though reporting sexual harassment is a fundamental right of survivors, in most professions and cultures there is a deeply entrenched tendency to err on the side of disbelieving them or denying the truth. It's the reason why there's a pervasive culture of under-reporting worldwide.
It’s just easier to maintain a problematic status quo then uproot the whole system for the half of the population at greatest risk.
And that's the truth.