Photo by Aman Kapoor
On the evening of the 12th of March, over one hundred people – mostly young women – gathered at Sydney Town Hall. They were there to hear a number of speakers relate their own personal experiences with sexual assault, and to attack the government’s disgraceful complicity in rape – the protection of Attorney-General Christian Porter from any form of investigation into the allegations that he raped a minor, and the harassment of Brittany Higgins, the parliamentary staffer assaulted by one of her colleagues.
Rape has long been a weapon of the Australian privileged classes against the oppressed. Sexual violence was and is integral to the colonial brutality enacted on indigenous people. A speaker, relating a story told to her by an indigenous woman who preferred to remain anonymous, talked about how custodians running “care” facilities used rape as a way of disciplining unruly children. Similarly, sexual violence is a common feature of the Australian prison system, enacted both by guards and other inmates, contributing to the torture-chamber effect these institutions have on the people thrown into them.
It was appropriate that the rally ended with a march to the Liberal Party headquarters on William St. The government’s attacks on women stretch beyond the Higgins and Porter cases, as the speakers noted; this is the same government that is committed to slashing social welfare, preventing women from securing the economic independence and the support networks necessary to leave abusive relationships. Porter himself in his tenure as Social Services minister spearheaded a number of these cuts. Significantly, he presided over the privatisation of the sexual assault hotline, 1800RESPECT.
The rally was also driven by the positive, growing movement of schoolgirls demanding that schools introduce proper education around consent. At present, such education is half-arsed at best, harmful at worst, but mainly just non-existent; this is particularly the case in private, religious schools.
Schools have a duty of care to their students, but in reality their duty primarily extends to moulding students to best fit their future class positions. Nobody can sincerely mistake such a duty for care. Many have experiences with teachers who did show genuine concern for them, but this largely happens in spite of the system, not because of it. It is telling that schools only really began dealing with sexual assault at all when they were forced to by civil suits and new legislation – legislation which itself was forced into existence as a concession to popular pressure.
Such legislation is far from perfect, however, as feminists know well. One speaker related how a law that was designed with the intention of protecting her – mandatory reporting – was used to disempower her. Early in her teens, she was sexually assaulted. A few years later, the mental distress she experienced as a result was such that it was interfering with her progress at school; she felt it necessary to disclose this to a school counsellor. The counsellor, bound by mandatory reporting guidelines, filed reports with the police and with the school. She could not even own her experience of being assaulted – it was taken from her, into the hands of the cops and the courts.
This is not to say that things would have been better if the mandatory reporting laws did not exist, or that we should demand their immediate repeal. The point is that in a patriarchal society, where men possess the systematic power to control women’s lives, there is no law that will truly end sexual assault, or give full recourse to victims. They will never provide us with the weapons to destroy their own authority. Christian Porter and his defenders chastise “mob justice” and ask for the rule of law to be respected, but can the “mob” be blamed for being cynical, when we can see the victims of the rule of law with our own eyes?
Just like capitalists introduce limited reforms to dissipate workers’ anger in order to better preserve their own system, so too do politicians with the limited reforms introduced to deal with gender oppression. The progress in society towards greater equality has not come from the generosity of the people in charge. It has come through rebels like those in front of Town Hall forcing change. It’s that same force that has the potential to go further than any movement has in the past, to abolish the systems that beat us down, so that we can all be free. By coming together, we break the fear the rapists, the capitalists and the politicians force on us. By coming together, we lay the seeds for a new world.