In August, tens of thousands of sexual assault survivors awoke in Victoria to find our rights to be publicly identified had been revoked. The front page of the Herald Sun decried: “Let Us Speak” and called for a “crucial” overhaul of the gag law which had been quietly introduced back in February.
The new laws stipulate that sexual assault victims whose offenders have been found guilty can’t speak out about their own pain under their real names. For many it came as a shock. But for everyone who had been working behind the scenes, including the victims whose stories sit at the heart of the campaign, launch day was day zero: the day everyone else was made aware that our rights had been scaled back.
This is where I come into it, I am Melissa*. One of the victims whose story has spearheaded the campaign alongside Maggie* – who featured on the front page of the Herald Sun. As an advocate, I’d been in contact with the creator of the campaign, Nina Funnell, in the past, and was blown away when I was informed that Victoria’s law had changed and we potentially had a fight on our hands.
My initial reaction was shock: Nina must be mistaken. Deep down I knew she wasn’t. My shock moved to hope as letters to Victoria’s Attorney General, Jill Hennessy were written in both June and July explaining the problem and detailing the impact on both myself and Maggie. I was hopeful that once the Victorian Government was made aware of the problem, they would move swiftly to amend the law.
Yet as time went on, the hope faded and a feeling of despair settled in. The responses over the next few months fell short. The Minister for Women didn’t respond at all, and the response from the Attorney General was both dismissive and non-committing. The fight amped up, Maggie and my plea became public.
The Let Us Speak campaign – formed in partnership with Marque Lawyers, End Rape On Campus Australia, and Rape & Sexual Assault Research & Advocacy – has become vital: it’s now the public face for silenced victims. Fighting to give them back the right to put their own name to their own experience.
But irrespective of this new gag law, a victim’s rights in telling their own truth “the how, when, and where” has always been controlled by others. Initially there’s a struggle to name what happened, then comes the shame once you do. Followed swiftly by the worry of not being believed, coupled with gaslighting and fear of your abuser.
This fear alone can stop you from ever reaching out for help, and honestly I almost didn’t. Fear of having your entire life pulled apart and judged in a courtroom, or worse still, a not guilty verdict.
Once you get past all these gatekeepers there is the media and having to prove his guilt for your voice to be heard. Your right to be identified is scrutinised against someone else’s guilt. Once you leave the courtroom and start to place yourself and your humanity back into the picture, you become defined by the bare basics of what happened to you all over again.
Sexual assault comes with bucket loads of complexities for survivors to manoeuvre. None more complex than how the deeds of another defines who you are within the courts, the media, and public spaces.
To begin with, the courts strip you of your identity. As a victim you become ‘a witness’. The violation of your body is reduced down to the bare mechanics of what went into where. Your pain becomes a medicalised list of charges. It’s clinical and cold. There’s no compassion behind it. Who you were then, and who you are now is not visible. Including the impact these mechanical, clinical exploits had on you as a person.
The only visibility your humanity is given within a courtroom is via your Victim Impact Statement, and even that is fraught with all sorts of complications that can go wrong.
As hard as all this is, you do get to the other side of the court process. It ends eventually. Even then, justice is a fickle ideology. No matter what way it goes, there are no ‘lucky’ victims. When the gavel lands you ultimately have to find the justice and peace within yourself.
All I can say on that is to be kind to yourself, and have empathy for the people around you, including other survivors when they can’t be kind to either themselves or you. Then, depending on if and when you want to tell your story, the other side of it begins.
Navigating the media gauntlet is not something new. Victims who’ve already spoken in the past know the discomfort and exertion of being entangled in the legal red tape that ties you up in knots just to be identified with your own pain. To have your rights scrutinised against that cold list of charges that belong to a guilty individual is the side of speaking publicly no-one fully understands unless they’ve lived it.
As victims and survivors we’re trying to break free from the confines of that list of charges. To no longer be characterised by it whilst expressing the impact of what was done to us in real human terms. Taking steps to make ourselves a whole person again, putting back what the courts stripped away.
Even though we’re not the sum of our experiences, those experiences have sought to erase the sum of our humanity. Who can and can’t speak is prescribed by those inhuman mechanical acts. Reclaiming your humanity within the public space is controlled and defined by the undertakings of others.
Consequently the impact for victim survivors, like myself, who had told their stories publicly comes into play. I’d moved away from my personal story and onto a broader conversation surrounding societies understanding of rape.
For now, I can’t do that. None of us can.
This law change negates who we are as individuals. Including what we do now as public advocates. Reverting us back to ‘that list’ we thought had been left behind in the courtroom. The sense that everything you have done and all your work to date can simply be erased is palpable.
While it’s been confirmed the gag laws will be reviewed, redress will be difficult. Honestly, in one form or another the harm has always been present. Every time a victim wants to tell their story, they are reverted back to the basics of what was done to them. Or worse still, erased when the courts failed to prove it.
Our rights are held against ‘that list’. I’ve heard the words “it’s not that we don’t believe you” but essentially they are saying “until we see that list of someone else’s actions, we actually can’t believe you”. It’s a never-ending path of silence that loops back on itself.
Navigating this path in how to coexist with your own history is personal. Only you can choose what way to go. Yet the very fundamental element that paves your way is ‘who holds the rights to your choices’. While not everyone wants to tell their story, all choices in how you take ownership of it should be within reach. Always sitting with the victim survivor.
This is where I’m imploring you to understand the damage that is done to us every single time we take ownership of our pain. When we place it on the line, trying to position ourselves back into the clinical narrative – ‘that list’. The one that dismantled our identity, and erased the personal impact.
Having your right to be publicly identified with your own pain judged by this clinical list is poignant. As much as you progress from it, you get repeatedly brought back into it over and over.
I thought I’d finally gained some distance. Redefining who I am and what I do within the public space, but I, like many others have been swept right back into it all over again. The inertia that confines our stories has rendered victims invisible. While at the same time, painfully visible.
For now, our names are #LetUsSpeak.
* Melissa (not her real name) is applying for a court order so she can self-identify in public as a sexual assault survivor, with support from Marque Lawyers and the #LetUsSpeak GoFundMe.
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