When one of Bobbi Sykes’ rapists was found guilty in 1961 he was dragged kicking down to the holding cells screaming, ‘What the hell! She’s just a Abo! She’s just a fucking boong!’
The publisher of her searing memoir, Snake Cradle had the prescience to print on this very page a photograph of Sykes as a child, standing with her sister in the grass in her Sunday best, offering a flower in her outstretched hand.
In this hideous context, it’s close to unbearable to take in this dear little soul looking with uncertainty into the camera, knowing such an appalling fate awaited her at only 17 years. The rape she endured by a ‘sea of white male faces’ was so violent, even her perpetrators were gobsmacked she’d lived.
The controversy that would surround her Aboriginal identity was immaterial to her perpetrators. One of the first trials that convicted white men for rape against a black woman, they’d clearly factored in a defence so dependable – that of a universal lack of defence, or protection, for Aboriginal women – they were no doubt just as astounded to be charged, as to stand trial… let alone serve time.
The telemovie Redfern Now is as unflinching in its telling of sexual violence against black women. Written through the two women’s trauma is the conflicting ways they seek to protect themselves, one by seeking legal redress, the younger woman by shunning the exposure of an investigation and trial.
Both of them have also factored in what they’re up against as black women. But the older character Lorraine, played by the arresting Deborah Mailman, is ready for her detractors and as much as it costs her, more than able to fend off the ready-to-hand imputation that she solicits sex for money, and that simply by dint of being born an Aboriginal girl she would be perceived, as Ernestine Hill put it in 1943 as, ‘easy for the taking’.
Her perpetrator and his counsel would factor the way racism and misogyny hinge in Australia and directly appeal to this in their defence.
Sykes wrote of young Aboriginal girls in country towns in the 1970s being repeatedly raped in police cells. At Wilcannia a group of girls not 16 had each been picked off the street, taken in and raped ‘anytime he can take us off to the station’. When their boyfriends tried to defend them they had themselves been jailed. Some, Sykes wrote, ended up as ‘deaths in custody’.
Access to Indigenous women’s bodies reaches back into the frontier when this ‘necessary evil’ was said to be required for irrepressible colonial masculinity in regions unpopulated by white women.
“If you were to put rams in with ewes what would you expect?” one sheep farmer explained to the South Australia 1899 select committee adding that “men are placed in positions where for 10 or 15 years they never see a white woman. In the interior, there are a lot of these flash young lubras about, and you can hardly expect men not to touch them.”
The right of extraction – a tenet of settler-colonialism – found ready application on the bodies of Indigenous women.
This is not to occlude the ‘spectrum’ of sexual relationships in frontier and post-frontier settings, which ranged from abduction and aggravated rape to consensual, companionate marriage, between settler men and Aboriginal women. But the manifest violence against women was largely met with pervasive apathy, evasion, resignation, winking and looking the other way.
It was even boastfully euphemised by the ugly trope ‘black velvet’, or the even nastier typecast the ‘Gin Stud’, both terms deriving from long established and expedient notions of colonised and enslaved women’s inherent lasciviousness.
When the abuse of women was defended by their men, it very often triggered escalating clashes leading to wholesale massacre. In 1885 four “respected and industrious pioneers” were murdered on the Daly River by “blood-thirsty savages” – who were afterwards suspected of “outraging” and abducting Aboriginal women by the Aborigines’ Friends’ Society.
Their defender, Alfred Giles, scoffed at any suggestion of a “violation of chastity and purity where chasteness is unknown”. The very idea of “chastity among their women”, he famously said was “preposterous. Not less preposterous, therefore, is the idea of the black women being outraged, unless it is by stopping their supply of tobacco.”
Even humanitarians such as Mary M. Bennett were doubtful there could be any defence for Aboriginal women. In 1930, she published on their sexual vulnerability, citing raids on stations or “motor car ruffianism” comprising “motor car loads of men from bush townships or construction camps bent on ‘ginsprees’, in other words drink and prostitution orgies.” Yet Bennett also subscribed to the entrenched view that, “people cannot be robbed of what they do not possess nor native girls of chastity”.
It wasn’t until a scandal erupted over Japanese pearlers’ relations with Aboriginal women – characterised as poaching – just before the war that white Australians, (other than missionaries and humanitarians), began to imagine that they should be defended against rape, albeit by brown men, not white. During the ensuing diplomatic tensions, over and again it was said Aboriginal women could have no reasonable defence since their men were accused of prostituting them.
In seeking supports to combat violence in some remote communities Aboriginal women have encountered more of this form of blame-shifting. Violence from their own men is shrugged off and tolerated by the wider community. Moreover, since this violence has been misappropriated to justify the closure of communities, there’s little scope in a polarised debate to acknowledge it and calls for support by women.
Redfern Now chronicles a policing and legal system that, since Sykes’ trailblazing prosecution, and the feminist rape reform movement, hopefully offers Aboriginal women better outcomes. But the long shadow of this history of racialised sexual violence however can be seen in both Syke’s and the telemovie accounts.
It’s still there in the shame and wariness for victims, of having to fend off ingrained perceptions of Aboriginal women’s sexuality as inherently licentious, or as traded by their men, as completely devoid of agency.
In another of Sykes’ accounts of racialised rape she tells of Germaine Greer pressing a young girl, standing trial among a procession of Aborigines up on ‘drunk and disorderly’ charges. Sykes described, “an assembly line of Black people being tossed in gaol”. Greer asked the girl if the police had tried to have sex with her while she was being held. Blushing and squirming the girl affirmed the police had raped her five or six times that night.
Sykes continues, “Germaine leapt to her feet and walked to the edge of the verandah. I could see the girl thought she had said something wrong to upset Germaine.” Greer later said the girls’ lack of indignation, her resignation, pointed to rape as a “way of life out here”.
What she missed as a white feminist was how in pursuing the question of her rape, she’d shamed her and then her outrage was misread as perhaps aversion.
As Mailman said in an interview following Redfern Now’s screening last week, “it’s a conversation we have to have”. The work mobilised by Rosie Batty, the counting of murdered women by their ex-partners by Destroy the Joint, and run by the Guardian, the devastating documentary of violence against women in India by Four Corners, the campaign to refute that violence is a reason to close remote communities – these causes have converged this week to remind us how violence against women is at once universal, and profoundly complicated by race.
Whatever change we hope to effect, being alert to the mesh of elision, confusion, shaming, blame-shifting and demonising that arises around rape and race is crucial.
The Sykes trial and the screening of Redfern Now are watershed moments in this unwritten history of sexual violence against Australian black women.
They remind us there are two levels of safety Aboriginal women still have to negotiate in asserting their sexual agency – in even demanding safety it may be less safe to speak out.
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