He was the neighborhood grandfather figure. Semi-retired, he sat on his front verandah which overlooked a manicured garden, and called out to us as we rode by. One by one we all ended up going to his home after school as he pottered about, preparing for his wife’s return home from work each day.
He was someone to talk to who would occasionally give us treats or let us play with his old phones or dogs. He would make a great show of asking about our day while complaining about all the children who swarmed him.
If the garage door was open, we were allowed in. If the garage door was closed, we knew to stay away. If I was inside the house when the garage door was closed, it meant another thing. Mostly, that I was being sexually assaulted or, as the neighborhood grandfather called it, tickling.
I knew it was wrong. At the age of seven, I started walking a different way home from school so I could avoid him. Often he’d find me, or I’d get busted coming back from the milk bar. He would take me inside. My defence mechanism was to fake-sleep. I fake-slept my way through my childhood.
At school, policemen would come to tell our class stories about girls being abducted by strangers with puppies and said the bad men did “terrible things”. They wouldn’t explain what the terrible things were, just that they were “terrible”. My mind tried to imagine what those terrible things were, each more surreal than the last. But the neighborhood grandfather called it tickling and everyone else seemed to love tickling so maybe it wasn’t terrible. And he wasn’t a stranger. Everyone else seemed to like him. I didn’t know I could say no.
One sweltering summer, I eavesdropped on my parents talking about how someone they knew was raped when out on a date but couldn’t go to the police. The phrase “lie back and enjoy it” was used. Though I’m sure I missed whatever nuance was present, their conversation indicated to me there was no point in telling anyone. It’s something that happens to unlucky people but protection just wasn’t always available. Sometimes, it’s just your lot in life, I thought. At the age of seven, I had assumed that I wasn’t worthy of protection.
Upon moving to a new school and with the neighborhood grandfather’s wife now retired, I was relatively safe after approximately four years of abuse. Sometimes he’d wait for me by his garage and pull me in, trying to reach up my school uniform. I’d stand impassively, listening to him tell me things as he moved about, unsure what was happening but sure of how I was expected to behave. Other times, he’d grab me by the ears and violently force his skull against mine, less a kiss than an act of possessive brutality.
It wasn’t “forcible rape” or “legitimate rape” as recently described in the news. I didn’t understand these nuances as a child, but I understood enough from what I heard said around me to think that no one would really care about what had happened to me. This wasn’t the sort of thing they had on the news or what I could hear from hiding under chairs at dinner parties. Maybe there was a nuance I missed, but I felt like a half victim; all of the sadness but none of the validation or protection.
When I eventually told my family, it didn’t go well. So when it happened again I didn’t tell them. Nor the next time. I tried to tell but the words just wouldn’t work. I stammered, I underplayed and I ended up saying nothing. When I did, I didn’t receive the support or soft validation I wanted, so I screamed at them intermittently for years, blinded with melodramatic pain.
In later years, I attended a rape trial which proved to be more traumatic than any of the abuse I ever suffered. I saw a bloated defence team mock and shame a mother because they couldn’t consciously do that in front of a jury to the juvenile victim. I saw the QC’s assistant visibly and acidly scoff every time the mother answered a question. I wept for the billable derision a mother faced, trying to defend her daughter.
But maybe there was a nuance I missed.
I have held off writing about this for as long as possible because I don’t want to upset my family. I can see that my own family has learned more than they should have to, blighted as they are with devastating experience. My parents are good people, with whom I have a strong relationship now, who simply didn’t know better. I can see they are trying. They’re nice, good, loving people. They were brought up in a different society to me, a society that will agitate and change even more as my own daughter grows.
Sexual attacks are an attack on families. They are an attack on society and our legally protected right to be free from assault. They attack a person’s ability to grow, bond and feel the protection that immediate families can provide.
Unfortunately, lack of knowledge about sexual assault can actually exacerbate the pain already felt by the victim. Though they may not mean to, others can make mistakes, can’t provide support or say things which can alienate the victim further. It may be because they don’t know better, it may be because it’s easier to blame someone else than accept the senseless and cruel violence that is sexual assault. Outmoded beliefs or myths about sexual assault perpetuate the cycle of shaming and abuse. We need to start breaking these cycles.
Protection is not granted because of the clothes we wear, how much we’ve had to drink, how we may have danced in a club, if we’re allowed outside to play or any other factor presented as defence. Protection is granted for every single member of society because society works best when we are treated the same without exception. A person told to ‘lie back and enjoy it’, ‘you shouldn’t drink so much’, ‘you shouldn’t have lead them on’ or that they are ‘strays’ or ‘dressed like peadophile/rape bait’ is being told they don’t have the same rights as the criminal who attacked them.
I refuse to let my daughter, nieces or nephews feel like their safety in the world is dependent on nuances. I dream better for them, better than a world where rape cases are called “sex scandals” or where victim’s alcohol levels and dance styles are recounted as implied mitigating factors. I don’t want that for them and I don’t want it for anyone’s children growing up in today’s society.
I’ll be attending Slutwalk 2012 in Melbourne this year. Again, I will attend with my daughter, and this time I’ll be speaking there about the importance of families making a stand, breaking the cycle and saying no more victim blaming.