If you're experiencing distress...

 


I’m watching ABC News. Again.

If you’re experiencing distress, she says, call Lifeline.

Barnaby Joyce has just been on. He’s saying “You can make any allegation against a politician and destroy their career. Look at what happened to me.”

On Monday, the Minister for Home Affairs weighed in. He said he wasn’t going to bother with “he said/she said” details of rape allegations.

If you’re experiencing distress.

What about rage? What if I’m experiencing rage, burning in my belly, radiating out through my pores? It’s making me unable to sit still. It’s making me try to post supportive language, to see if anyone else is feeling this. Is it pain? Or is it just pure, unadulterated rage?

I know I’m not the only one who can’t sleep this week. For the RAGE.

*****

I come from a culture, one of wealth, education, taste and power. My best nod to intersectionality is to acknowledge that for what it is. Our stories get told. Many do not. My contemporaries have power, in Australia, buckets of it. My contemporaries became doctors, professors and magistrates. And that’s just the women. The men own half of Melbourne.

Or they’re leaders in politics.

But that doesn’t mean these stories are meaningless - far from it. They are the stories of people who control our lives.

I am a class mongrel. My father was dux of his Grammar and a partner in a law firm. My mother grew up in a family of seven in West Heidelberg. She put cardboard in her shoes when the soles got thin. Dad had his head flushed down a perfect porcelain toilet for topping the History exams. None of this is easy.

*****

I went to a large, expensive girls' school where head prefects gave out order marks for tying your jumper around your waist. We had a school reunion a couple of years ago, and after a luncheon replete with exhortations to send out own children there, I ended up at a pub with a clutch of ex-classmates, catching up in a riot of nostalgia and alcohol. Everyone was fundamentally the same. The smokers now hid it from children, not teachers. I’m still a bit odd and swotty, just like I was years ago. Warm smiles remained warm smiles. One old friend gave me a hug, and declared “You know, I always wanted to make you a t-shirt that said “Awkward but Lovable”! I had to laugh, and hugged her back. I was not ashamed – perhaps that’s how I’ve changed.

We shared stories, perhaps stories we never would have told when we were growing up. One was having an affair; another was struggling with young children. Some were professionals, others were the hard-working wives of captains of industry, boys they’d met from the private school circle.

I left it all behind long ago. The private school scene didn’t really like me, and I didn’t really like it. The reunion was was like stepping into another world again, like boarding the train at platform nine and three-quarters.

*****

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you: upper class Melbourne in the nineties.

Every day I took two trams to school; the 48 and then the 69. The 69 tram – such an obvious joke that nobody made it – groaned with the weight of teenagers congregating from the corners of Melbourne, heaving us up and down Glenferrie Road, depositing to exclusive school by exclusive school: first Xavier, then Trinity, Ruyton, Methodist Ladies College, then further down there was Scotch and St Kevins. At 8 o’clock every morning, the terminus at the top of Glenferrie Road was a spilling mass of multicoloured blazers and hormones, buying lollies and cramming onto running boards.

Everyone knew who were the politicians’ kids. Or the footy stars’ kids. Two of my classmates’ dads beamed out at me from auction signs out the front of houses. Most were the children of lawyers and doctors, like me.

Generally, I hung out with the boys who weren’t rowers or rugby players. I liked the ones who were nice to me. There was a group who rejected sport, who introduced me to The Cure and the Stone Roses, who dyed their hair darkest black. They were interesting, and sometimes we’d meet on the steps of Flinders Street station and hang out in underground record shops in recession-era Melbourne.

They were also teased. Humiliated. Excluded. Everyone knew what the natural hierarchy was.

They also weren’t much fun. One year some started wearing a Guns and Roses t-shirt with a picture of a raped robot on the back, and listening to “I used to love her, but I had to kill her”, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t belong any more.

I loved dancing and pop music as much as I loved sighing to Robert Smith. I got curves and discovered makeup. I graduated from cordial clubs to nightclubs and fake IDs. And I liked flirting with men.

At one stage I was dating a big fish from a big boys’ school. One of the guys with muscly legs who wore boat shoes and a white cap and spread his legs wide when he sat down. He took up two-thirds of the couch with his body and the rest with his ego.  We went to a birthday party of one of his friends, where there was a marquee, and a tennis court, and a champagne fountain. We were teenagers, getting up to mischief.

A few months into seeing each other, I went on a summer exchange. The afternoon of my return, a friend called me. He told me not to call the guy I thought was my boyfriend. He said our consensual activities were common knowledge everywhere. I had been slutshamed. He’d shared my private notes, gifts and all the details of my body. It was everywhere. 

My little sister poured a milkshake over his head.

I never saw him again. I was never invited to any more parties with champagne fountains.

*****

Brittany Higgins alleged assault against someone who was senior enough for the security guards to let in to a Minister’s office. It didn’t take me long to narrow down some options.

Most were people I could have been at uni with. 

If so, he’s many years older than Brittany Higgins.

But Brittany was from another generation. She wasn’t exhausted by it all. She had the wind of #metoo behind her. We had radfems, who didn’t speak to us, and Naomi Wolf, who wasn’t enough.

*****

I had a good friend who lived in the next street and we took the tram together. He was the one who revealed that the jock had slut-shamed me - he was angry and wanted me to leave him.

A year later, the friend asked me to kiss him. I was surprised, and refused. I didn’t want our friendship to ever change. He never spoke to me again. We went to the same uni, and every time I saw him, he would glare at me, enraged.

He didn’t want me to leave the jock because he cared about who I was. He wanted me to leave him because he wanted me for himself.

*****

Ah, the nineties in the leafy suburbs; when we were told girls could be anything, but supermodels were invented by George Michael and all we wanted was to win the Dolly cover girl competition. When we knew no gay classmates, just girls who were too smart, serious or sporty for boys.

There was a class of young men who practiced their expectation that they would one day rule. They strutted the streets in their blazers and trousers – sometimes kilts – and talked about whether they would go to Monash or Melbourne law schools.

At university, they studied Commerce, and wore suits on internship interview days.

In my first year of law school, I met a young man with a lopsided smile who I really liked, and he took a shine to me. We flirted for months. One night we snuck off from a party and had a lot more than a pash down a Carlton alleyway. A week later, at the next party, he ignored me. When I asked why, he explained that he didn’t date “girls like me”. He never really spoke to me after that, except at the occasional legal training event where we’d make small talk and pretend nothing happened, that there was no pain.

One day I walked into the law common room with a cake in my hand. An old Grammarian in Sperry topsiders seated on the couch looked me up and down theatrically and loudly proclaimed “Are you sure you should be eating that?!” After that, I never went back in if he was there. My friend standing next to me was suffering from anorexia at the time. I probably went and threw up the cake.

A friend of a friend wrote a book about how many women he’d conquered and moonlighted as a “dating coach” while working for a large accounting firm.

A partner at the firm where I was clerking wandered up and grabbed an articled clerk on the bum at the Christmas party.

A beautiful housemate returned home one night, confused and tearful.

These men are now barristers, doctors, property developers. Politicians.

Remember “blue balls”? Boys used it all the time. If you were seeing someone but you wanted to say no to sexual acts, he’d complain and carry on that you’d give him “blue balls”. Apparently this was incredibly painful: boys would joke about it in front of us. Boys would openly talk about the girls who were known to be “dickteasers”, but also the girls who were sluts. We knew that, with some guys, if he wanted to have sex, you were damned if you did and damned if you didn’t.

At school, we were taught about how to break glass ceilings, and how to put on a condom. But nobody taught us about consent. About law. Nobody taught the boys, either.

*****

Many were good. Many still are. Many learned how to be. Many just survived. Some did not.

Too many couldn’t have cared less. They were relaxing on the travelator to their destiny.

*****

She was clever. Privileged. Kind. The world at her feet. Loved. These are the things we know about the victim.

If I were to guess what one of those guys thinks about their past behaviour, it might be this.

He’s a good guy. It's a witchhunt. It's the media. She's crazy. It's terribly sad. She knew what she was getting into. It wasn't real rape. She was into him, why wouldn't she be? It's not his fault he's handsome, a star of his sky. It’s morning after regret. Men don't cry rape. Feminism has gone too far.

Because she doesn’t exist, in his world. Not as a human being.

If you’re experiencing distress, call Lifeline.

*****

The reunion was starting to dwindle, and there were only a few left. I hardly ever see my old classmates, so I hovered. I chatted to an old friend, and asked who from the old crew she still saw. She rolled her eyes and named one of the blokes from the champagne party. She said he still propositions her at every party, “so nothing’s changed.” I asked what that looked like, and she demonstrated him pushing his groin into her leg.

Not long after, I got into my Nissan Pulsar and drove back to my small house I share with my kids and my dogs, and to my friends who have nothing to do with these people. I was leaving that faraway land and returning home. To a place where nobody humps me at parties. To a place where men don’t stand around in expensive suits talking about shareholdings.

To a place where I feel like I am respected and cared for. That’s no easy thing.

*****

I didn’t realise how much rage I had stored up. I have a habit of caring less for myself than for others. The thought of one more rich sleazebag acting like he’s entitled to a young woman’s body made me want to smash things. Not a glass ceiling – I wanted to smash the columns of Parliament House.

Her leg! She woke up because he was crushing her leg!

If you are experiencing distress…

I will be filled with disgust and rage for a long time, and so I should be. I have plenty bottled up that needs somewhere to go. So some of it has gone here. And some of it has gone into fiercely loving my kids, in this little place, where for now these people do not rule.

Go Brittany. You have generations of women behind you.

[And if you're experiencing distress, please DO call Lifeline. 13 11 14.]

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