Trigger warning: Rape and Sexual Assault, Child abuse/paedophilia
Just over four years ago Alyssa Milano tweeted a hashtag that had first been used by activist Tarana Burke more than a decade earlier, and in doing so, kickstarted a movement many more years than that in the making. Hashtag #metoo blew up and I remember seeing it on Facebook where it was used 12 million times during the first 24 hours. That’s a lot of me too’s. I debated whether or not to join the wave of people announcing that they too had experienced sexual abuse or sexual harrassment. I mean, yeah I had actually experienced it too. But was I obliged to go public with that information? In the end I did join in, posting #metoo on my Facebook timeline. No details, just the hashtag. I was swept up in the sense of connection, supported by strangers whom I suddenly shared a grievous bond with. It was quite empowering to be a part of that. But I didn’t feel comfortable sharing details. Not then. But things are different now.
The first time a man indecently exposed himself to me, I was around eight years old. Our young family of five were living in a two bedroom flat in Elwood, which wasn’t ideal, but it was all we could afford. The gentrified version of Elwood that exists now was not the Elwood that I grew up in. Back then, the streets of the bayside suburb were seedy, dodgy and inhabited by homeless people, thugs and junkies. It was a pretty rough place to grow up. So much so that my parents slaved for years to move out of there, transplanting us all to the peaceful, leafy suburb of Mt. Waverley just in time for me to start high school. Which was a huge relief because I’d been dreading graduating to Elwood High, where it was rumoured that all the new kids were welcomed by having their heads flushed down the toilets on the first day of school. I don’t know if that was actually true, or not. But I do know that it might have been true, and the idea absolutely terrified me.
So, despite being a ghetto neighbourhood, it was still the copacetic 70s, so our childhood was pretty idyllic. We were wild children, spending hours outside playing with the neighbourhood gang of feral kids, only heading back home when the chorus of parents calling their children in for dinner started echoing around the back lanes. We had some pretty interesting neighbours in that block of flats. There was the surly teen who spent hours pounding a tennis ball against the brick wall of the flats. We felt each reverberation like a booming metronome in our living room. His mum, who we all speculated was a sex worker because of the way she dressed and the hours she kept, melodiously yodelled his name every evening at dusk, “Ashley, Ashley, Ashley” until he finally picked up his ball and went home. Before long we would hear the clicking of her heels marking her departure into the darkening night. There was the old guy with one arm and a wooden leg who lived upstairs from us. He’d get home from work every evening and empty his colostomy bag against the wall in front of his yellow Holden. And of course there was Mrs. Goldberg, the landlord of most of the flats, who used to yell at us to stop roller-skating on the driveway because we were making cracks in the concrete. We’d just laugh and skate even harder.
And then there was the bum I accidentally came across in the back lane that one time, shocked to discover that the reason he was so curiously hunched over in the corner was that he was masturbating furiously into our rubbish bin. I stopped in my tracks, eyes widening, my fingers tightening around the bag of rubbish in my hand. Mr. Wanky turned to look at me and continued to beat off without breaking his rhythm, completely unperturbed. Our eyes locked, and I detected a hint of a smile. And he just kept on slapping that salami, almost defiantly, a man on a mission. Like I was the villain in this scenario. Not truly understanding what was happening, but having a very strong sense that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around, I flung the rubbish bag in his direction and briskly walked the hell out of there, intent on erasing the image of what I’d just seen from my mind. But I couldn’t.
That was the first time a man indecently exposed himself to me, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The next two times were in Brunswick, on our cousin’s turf. Elwood might have been a bit rough around the edges back then, but Brunswick was immigrant rough. Populated mostly by down-at-heel, working class Greeks, Lebanese and Italians it was always a little bit scary and a little bit intoxicating to go and visit our cousins, which we did often. Vicki and Peter, were a few years older than us and seemed so sophisticated and street wise compared to us coddled beach bunnies. Spending time in Brunswick expanded our minds and broadened our horizons. Unfortunately not always in a good way.
My youngest sister Pieta was five years old and I was ten, when we were cajoled, as we frequently were, into walking to the corner store down the street from my auntie’s flat to buy cigarettes. The good old days, am I right? On the way back, a guy in a Datsun that was parked on the side of the road rolled his window down and beckoned us over. Naively, we approached the car, and were treated to an eyeful of the dude’s extremely hirsute coat of strawberry blonde pubes. I’m talking Wookiee level hairy. When he was certain that he had our attention he grabbed his dick and pointed it in our direction, begging us to look at it. Nope. Pieta and I ran as fast as we could back to my aunt’s flat and reported the situation to the grown-ups who put together a posse to sort the guy out, though by the time they got there he was long gone. I wonder what Red’s doing now.
Another time we were playing a game called rocks on our cousin’s massive driveway with some other kids from the ‘hood. A guy walking by saw us, and thought that we might enjoy an anatomy lesson. He jumped up onto the brick wall at the bottom of the driveway and very nonchalantly pulled his pants down to flash us all, swivelling his hips like some kind of pervert lighthouse. We stopped what we were doing and stared, but this time we didn’t run away. If I had to guess how many times a man flashed his genitals at me when I was a kid, I’d say about a dozen. Maybe more. Did I want to see any of those penises? No, I did not.
I remember the first time I was sexualised as a child. My Dad’s best friend Manoli, someone he’d grown up with and known for years, used to be a regular visitor to our house. He’d known me my whole life and I felt very comfortable around him. One time, when I was 13 years old and my parents had left the room, he called me over to the couch and showed me a little picture of a woman’s face that he’d taken out of his wallet. He handed me the photo and told me that he thought I looked just like her and that I should be flattered because she was so beautiful. I couldn’t see the resemblance, but a surge of endorphins rushed through my body nonetheless. He then told me that he’d cut the picture out of a Playboy magazine, punctuating the revelation with a knowing wink. When my Dad found out, he absolutely lost it. He completely cut ties with his friend and we never saw him again. I felt kind of guilty about that, as victims often do, but I also felt gratitude to my parents for how they handled it. Their zero tolerance for his inappropriate behaviour taught me to respect myself.
That was the first time I was sexually objectified as a minor, but it wasn’t the last. Between the ages of 13 and 18 I played competitive tennis every weekend at Mayfield Park Tennis Club. Sometimes I’d get a lift home, but more often than not I would walk the 2.5kms between the club and my house, carrying my racket and wearing my tennis gear. Despite Mt. Waverley being a peaceful, leafy suburb, every single time I walked home I was honked, catcalled and whistled at by men driving past. Mostly men who were old enough to be my father. As a shy and self-conscious teen I dreaded the unwanted attention, but also felt a strange and unfamiliar sense of burgeoning sexual validation. I was becoming inured to the reality that once a girl hits puberty she suddenly becomes visible to men and their rapacious appetites. And she has no choice about that.
When #metoo happened, I started processing all the times I had been subjected to a man’s unwanted attention, every time I’d been inappropriately touched, every time I’d felt frightened for my safety. And I realised that I had actually amassed quite a few of my own “me too” stories. Stories that I’d internalised, because I had no other choice. As a woman, you just normalise these events, because they are in fact normal. Because they happen all the time. But that doesn’t mean that they should.
I started thinking back, and remembered the guy at school, who had a crush on me. He would give me gifts that I didn’t want and follow me home from school, disquietingly hanging around our street long after I’d gone inside. I remembered going for a walk with another guy at a party one night when I was seventeen. He was really drunk and really big, and in the dark back streets of Mt. Waverley he suddenly turned really gropey. In a diary entry written the next day, 1st July 1989, I wrote that he “could very easily have raped me”. Realising that I was in a potentially dangerous situation, and scared for my safety, I managed to coax him back to the party, his arm uncomfortably slung over my shoulder. When we got back I said I needed to go to the toilet and sought refuge in the crowd. It might not sound like a big deal, but that night I was actually concerned about the very real possibility of being raped. By a friend from school. I realised that I could no longer feel safe in public spaces. An awareness that I think almost every woman eventually comes to understand.
I thought back and remembered the two times I’d trusted guy friends to sleep in the same bed with me. I’ve shared a bed with dozens of friends over the years. But that trust was betrayed twice, when I woke up in the middle of the night having to fight the guy off. And you know what? I refuse to blame myself for allowing a friend into the sanctity of my bed. Because what I did was not wrong. What they did was wrong. Even today I’d be fine with sharing a bed with someone I know well. Because it should be OK. Because I refuse to allow the shitty actions of a couple of rogues to change my paradigm of how friends should behave towards each other. And I refuse to react to the lowest common denominator.
I remembered Patrick, the senior staffer from my work at the Department of Defence, offering to drive me to the Christmas party but pulling over about two blocks away from the venue to have a “chat”, before leaning over me and forcing his fat, turgid tongue into my mouth. I didn’t have the courage to push him away. I was too shocked and polite and intimidated to say no. So I just pretended everything was cool and convinced him that we should get to the party or we’d be late.
I recollected all the times I’d been groped by faceless lotharios in busy nightclubs and bars. From something as innocuous as a hand brushing up against my waist, to a squeeze on the bum, a pinched nipple or, as has happened more than once, a hand shoved up in between my legs in a quick and rough attempt to manhandle my private parts. Turning around to protest this violation would, of course, reveal nothing. Just a sea of artless faces, like nothing had happened at all, as though I’d just imagined the whole thing.
And then I started tunneling deeper, unearthing real traumas. I’ve been raped twice in my life. The second time I was 21 years old. For a long time I didn’t even call it rape. Because that is such a big word, and I didn’t want it to be that. But that’s exactly what it was. Dictionary.com defines rape as “unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person, with or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim”. So yeah, it was rape.
I was going out with my first love, Allister. Despite being madly in love, we probably weren’t a great influence on each other. It was a time in my life when I was a little bit wild and a little bit out of control. I attribute my current alcoholic tendencies to that time in my life. Allister and I both drank in order to get drunk, enabling each other, and almost taking pride in how shitfaced we’d get. I frequently polished off an entire bottle of Jim Beam in one night. All by myself. I can’t even touch the stuff now but back then I chugged it like water. Like I was training for the alcoholic Olympics, and going for gold.
When I got black out drunk, as I often did, I’d get up to all sorts of nonsense. I developed a penchant for climbing trees, absolutely smashed off my head sometimes passing out, precariously nestled in the crook of a branch. Sometimes I would fall out of the tree and really hurt myself. Sometimes I’d sneak into strangers’ backyards and help myself to a midnight skinny dip in their pool. Sometimes I’d have sex with Allister on some random front lawn (oh, the savage grass burns I’ve nursed). Other times I’d run away from all my friends and hide in a park for a couple of hours, fucking around on the children’s playground, sliding down the slide, swinging on the swings. Free as a motherfucking bird. Sometimes I’d wake up lying face down in a flower bed. Sometimes I’d wake up and have absolutely no recollection of what had happened the night before.
Yep. That was me.
Allister and I used to hang out with one of his friends, also called Alister, (true story, though for the purposes of clarity, I’ll refer to him as Al from now on). I was already a seasoned boozer, but whenever we hung out with Al, the drinking would ramp up, and we’d often end up guzzling liquor straight from the bottle (many bottles). The intention was oblivion. Mission achieved.
Al was funny. Not funny haha. Funny weird. He just did not like me from day one. Or did he? I honestly still don’t know. Whenever we hung out in a group, or as a foursome with whatever chick he was banging that week, Al would openly bully me, belittle me, insult me, berate me or (if I was really lucky) completely ignore me and act as if I wasn’t even there. I was so wet behind the ears, so confused and wounded by his animosity, that I would often completely fuck myself up by crying over it for hours. He seemed to absolutely hate my guts. For the first few hours anyway. After he got past a certain point of inebriation, things would change and he would start being a little civil to me. That was actually nice, and being the young people-pleaser I used to be, I’d forgive and forget his previously nasty ways. But when Al got really, really drunk, was when he’d start staring at me lecherously from across the room. I could actually feel the thickness and the darkness of his gaze, and my skin would start to crawl. Because I knew that very soon, he would find a way to be alone with me. And then he would start trying to take possession of me. He would follow me to the bathroom and try to put his hands down my pants. Or he’d corner me in a corridor and kiss me. Or he’d grab me from behind and force me into some bushes. He’d squeeze my breasts roughly, wetly hissing some booze-soaked, noxious bullshit into my ear. He acted as if he was entitled to my body. And even though a part of me found this crazy rollercoaster behaviour a little exhilarating, I never, ever encouraged it. I didn’t want it. I never consented to it. And I always pushed him away. He was an awful, toxic human being, and because of his behaviour Allister and I started spending less time with him.
We did decide together that it would be OK to invite him to Allister’s 21st birthday party, which was held at his parent’s remote country property in Kinglake. It was a great night and, of course, I got rip-roaring drunk. Despite that, I remember exactly what happened in the small hours of that morning. I remember it with crystal clarity. Most people had retired to their tents for the night, but there were still a few stragglers keeping the party going in the large tent Allister and I had set up for ourselves. I remember being in my pyjamas and going for a stumble, taking a time-out to commune with the wombats and to soak up moon. It was a frosty night but, numb to the cold, I lay down on a grassy mound, less than 25 metres from the tent. I gazed up at the bright, starry night, trying to keep it all from spinning so violently but didn’t have much luck.
After about ten minutes I decided that I should get up and go to bed, but I just couldn’t move, I was so drunk. I plaintively called out for Allister, but music was playing in the tent and I guess he didn’t hear me. I called out for him again, anyway, hoping he might sense that I needed him. Which is when I became aware of movement to my left. It was Al ominously crawling out of the darkness, towards me. He didn’t say a word. He just kneeled over me, obscuring the light from the moon, and started pulling down my pyjama bottoms. They were white with little pale blue dots. I shook my head and drunkenly pleaded, “don’t”. I tried to pull them back on, but he lifted my legs up and yanked them off. And then he lay on top of me and forcefully inserted his barely erect penis into my vagina. I kept saying no, and I kept trying to squirm out from under him. But I was crushed beneath his deadweight. I ineptly implored for him to stop, stop, stop, over and over. He was paralytic, but also determined. I realised that there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent what was happening. So I stopped fighting and went limp, just hoping that it would be over quickly, resigned to the horrific degradation of what was happening to me. This man who couldn’t decide if it was hate or lust that he felt towards me, had decided that he wanted to fuck me. And so he did. From my cloud of drunken despair, I heard a voice in the distance. Someone was calling Al’s name. They were beckoning him away from me. It was our mutual friend Gavin, to whom I’ll always be grateful for announcing his presence. It worked and Al recoiled from me, oozing back into the darkness from which he’d emerged. I don’t know how long it took me to get back to the tent, pulling my pyjama top closed as I entered because the buttons had all been ripped off. I chatted with the others for a few minutes, trying to act normal, like nothing had happened. How do we do that? Why do we do that? I said goodnight, and gratefully slid into the cocooning comfort of my sleeping bag, turning away and trying to forget what had just happened. But I couldn’t forget. I still haven’t forgotten.
That was the second time I was raped. The first time, I was about seven years old. It happened in Brunswick. I was out playing with the neighbourhood kids, at the back of the block of flats where my aunt and cousins lived. We were all joking around with a guy that the other kids seemed familiar and friendly with. Out of the blue he asked us, “Can I pick one of you up?” The other children scattered like marbles leaving me there, confused and wondering if I’d heard him correctly. His rheumy eyes settled on me and he asked again, “Is it OK if I pick you up?” I was frozen. I didn’t want to be picked up but I also didn’t want to be rude and say no. I had never been in this situation before and I didn’t know what was expected of me. I looked around at the other kids, but I couldn’t catch anybody’s eyes. Alarm bells were ringing in my head, and I knew that the situation wasn’t right but I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
So I said OK.
And he picked me up, and it was fine. All the kids gathered round again, and for a minute I thought everything was dandy, and that I’d been worried for nothing. Which is when he slid his hand inside my skirt, moved my underpants to the side and penetrated me with his fingers. I kicked against him and squirmed out of his evil embrace, demanding that he put me down. And thank goodness he did let me go. Thank goodness those other kids were around or who knows what else he might have done.
In my last ejo, my friend Terry asked me at whose feet I lay the blame for abuse. Sure, at the time, I did blame those kids for not warning me, and I blamed myself for not picking up on their vibe. And of course I blamed myself for agreeing to be picked up. I was even wracked with guilt because my parents had warned me to be careful when I went out to play that day, as they always did. I feel pretty lucky that I was able to quickly process what had happened to me in a healthy way and to release the feeling that I had done anything wrong. I worked very hard on that, because at the end of the day I knew that I was a child who had been preyed upon by an abhorrent human being. And so, when I look back at it now, I no longer blame those kids, who might have experienced the same thing, or worse, at that man’s hands. I don’t blame my parents for letting me play unsupervised in a sketchy neighbourhood. And I certainly don’t blame myself for consenting to be picked up. Because I didn’t know any better, and I certainly didn’t consent to what he did to me. I didn’t consent to being digitally raped. I blame only him.
Despite never talking about it with anyone, I don’t feel like I was seriously scarred by it. I just kept it to myself, armed with a new wariness of strangers. The first time I shared my story was about two years ago when I just unexpectedly dumped it on my poor sisters, a few months after our Mum died. I didn’t realise that it had needed to come out, but the timing makes sense. I think it had stayed locked away while my parents were alive because I knew that they would have blamed themselves, and I didn’t want them to. Telling my sisters was emotional and intense, but also quite cathartic and healing. And I’ve decided that I don’t want to keep it a secret anymore, because I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve carried the weight of it for a long time, and it was never even my weight to carry. Talking about it lifts that burden from me, and lightens my load. My feeling of the memory is no longer a smoky grey. What happened was very black and white. I was innocent, and what that man did to me was very wrong.
I don’t want to overplay anything that’s happened to me. A lot of people have been through a lot worse. But I don’t wish to minimise it either. None of that stuff should have happened because I never gave my permission. And even though I feel relatively unscathed, it’s impossible to know the extent, or the exact nature, of how I was damaged by each experience. The insidious thing about someone violating your body is that they depend on your sense of shame to keep it quiet and protect them. I did keep quiet about the things that were done to me against my will and without my consent. Because I did feel ashamed. I did feel dirty. I did feel that I could have done more, should have done more, to prevent it from happening. That it was somehow my fault. But no, I no longer feel that way. It wasn’t my fault. I was not to blame. I am no longer ashamed. And I will no longer be quiet.