Why We Stay Silent, Why We Stay Friends: Unlearning My Role in Misogyny

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Not everyone who participates in the misogynistic parts of our society benefits from it, writes Gemma Clarke.

“Oi, the funniest thing happened last night.”

I’m sitting next to Neil, an acquaintance who, like me, went to law school. We’re on our way to a lavish event.

Since I moved away from my hometown, Neil and I only really run into each other at events like this, but we used to be quite close.

He begins his tale: “After you left the bar last night, Liam took the ugliest chick home.”

My face crumples. I can tell Neil thinks I’m the perfect person to collude with over a story like this, having shared many explicit encounters with me in the past. I’ve never quite placed my finger on why – perhaps it’s because I’ve had more sexual partners than most other women on this bus, or that I was sometimes considered “one of the boys” – a backwards compliment that pitted me against my female peers, but one I used to enjoy thanks to the internalised misogyny I carried in my youth.

Neil continues. “He was rooting her in our hotel room so loudly – so me and Tom decided to film it. We got fully ready to burst in, but when we did they’d locked the door.”

The air between us is heavy. The people around us are chattering excitedly.

“Neil,” I say, quietly at first. “You’re a lawyer.”

My voice rises. A few people start to look over. “What makes you think that it is ever okay to film someone having sex without their consent?”

Neil’s eyes widen in surprise. I think I am the first person to ever ask him this question. Later, he apologises, and we move on with our friendship.

A few years pass and I’m at another event with the same group of mates. I haven’t seen Liam in ages, but we’re still great friends. Our relationship has never been sexual, but a few times when we were younger, he’d been handsy in bed once I’d fallen asleep. I always woke up and batted him away, though. It’s a common gripe amongst many of my girlfriends, but because Liam is such a loveable guy, we mostly just joke about it.

After the event, I flop into bed at my brother’s house at 3am, top and tailing Liam on a fold-out couch. Multiple times, I wake up in the night and he’s up my end of the bed, gyrating his hips into me from behind and rubbing between my legs. I chastise him, swat him away and switch sides.

It’s hard to say how long Liam attempts this for. After what feels like close to an hour, I’m exhausted from saying no, and my body starts to respond – albeit against my conscious mind.

“Fine!” I huff. “Hurry up though. We’re not kissing.”

I roll onto my belly and we have sex for two minutes. He ejaculates on my back and falls straight asleep.

The next morning, I drop him home without making eye contact. I feel physically sick for days. It’s not that I said no to him – I eventually chose to comply to avoid further harrassment. But I just didn’t expect a friend to coerce me like that.

Liam and I don’t speak again for a long time, and when we do, he says sorry and assures me that next time we share a bed, he won’t physically harass me.

“You know the worst part about that night?” he says. “I had to break up with my girlfriend. I realised that if I was cheating on her with people I don’t even care about – no, no, I don’t mean it like that, you know what I mean – I mustn’t really love her.”

As a scholarship kid at an elite private school, the class divides were observable even from the carpark. For many boys – wealthy, clever, confident, sporty, attractive and high-achieving – life was breezed through on the easiest setting. This privilege manifested itself as social currency, and at parties, girls who weren’t quite as socially adept were easy targets, especially if they were drunk.

According to the experiences provided to me from multiple women, often the only “consent” they gave was just an absence of no. At school on Monday, where incidents that occurred over the weekend came to light, the girls would be shunned, with their resultant “reputations” continuing to haunt them for years to come.

Last week, Attorney-General Christian Porter identified himself as the unnamed Cabinet minister facing a historical rape allegation.

Born with Liberal Party blood in his veins – his grandfather was a Liberal minister in Queensland and his father was the director of the West Australian Liberal Party – for Porter, a successful career in politics was guaranteed. He went to Perth’s uber exclusive Hale School, made the national schools debating team and then, in his own words, “smut [his]way through law school”.

While studying, some of the things he wrote in print about women are carbon copies of things I have heard come from the mouth of my former schoolmates and university peers: “Lawyers are just well-dressed prostitutes… Our opposition’s case had more holes than Snow White’s hymen.”

After a pub crawl called ‘R U Barking?’, which saw participants dash between pubs with plastic bags tied to their wrists to fill with vomit, Porter wrote about the “chick teams”.

“[They’re] about as gratuitous and off-putting [a]display of female sensuality that has ever occurred on R U Barking … If anything, all these teams achieved was merely a revelation of the fact that they all have wildly exaggerated positive body images.”

In 1999, Porter was a finalist in Cleo Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year competition. When asked which song he would pick to serenade a woman, he chose ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen.

Late last year, an ABC’s Four Corners investigation revealed Porter’s long history of nauseating sexism and wildly inappropriate behaviour, culminating in him being formally reprimanded by former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. He has just been accused of raping a woman on his debating team in 1988, well before he entered politics.

During his strenuous denial at a media conference in Perth last Wednesday, there was one line that stayed with me: “No-one is beyond an allegation, no-one.”

As he said it, he looked around the room. To me, at least, it felt like a plea and it felt like a warning: back me or, one day, they’ll come for you too.

It’s been an emotional few weeks watching the hotbed of misogyny and privilege that is Parliament House and in particular, the Liberal Party, come to the surface. One friend told me she wept all day at work after listening to Porter’s media conference, disheartened at the helplessness of it all and Scott Morrison’s unequivocal backing of Porter’s innocence without even bothering to read the allegations himself.

The accusations levelled at Porter and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s blanket dismissal of calls for an independent inquiry, the allegations of rape made by Brittany Higgins and the intentional mismanagement that ensued, and the three young women featured on ABC’s 7:30 Report on Monday who allege inappropriate behaviour by Frank Zumbo – MP Craig Kelly’s senior aide – are all symptomatic of a capitalist, patriarchal culture that preserves power and breeds male entitlement.

Though at times it feels impossible and exhausting – the ‘he said vs she said’, the constant triggering of memories, the uphill battle against institutionalised sexism – the stench of male privilege, especially white, upper-class male privilege, is now irrefutably rancid after hundreds of lifetimes of invisibility.

People everywhere are starting to realise that, as Jackson Katz explains in his viral TED talk, “perpetrators aren’t these monsters who crawl out of the swamp and come into town and do their nasty business and then retreat into the darkness”. The men who commit sexual violence and rape are our siblings, our co-workers, our bosses, our parents, our children and our friends. Sexual coercion is not a result of individual deviance – it directly stems from the normalisation of hegemonic masculinity, male entitlement and rape culture.

Recently, a woman from my hometown of the Gold Coast revealed that she was sexually assaulted by two boys from the private school I went to because she was “poor”. She came forward in the wake of a petition that went viral demanding we get more holistic sexual education in Australian schools. The woman heading the petition, Chanel Contos – a former student at a prestigious Sydney girls school – said she is in talks with MPs and has plans to launch a website very soon.

The other day, my dad asked me if I’d like to drive down to Canberra with him from the Gold Coast and back in a period of 72 hours so that we can go to the official March4Justice to protest against Parliament’s ongoing discrimination towards and abuse of women. Though he’s always been a progressive thinker, he wasn’t ever much of an activist, but last year he stayed home a lot due to COVID, started cooking gourmet meals for my mum each day while she worked and downloaded twitter. Now he’s an active pro-feminist.

“They had a Royal Commission over Julia Gillard’s bathroom renovations,” Dad growled. “They can have one for Christian Porter.”

Sometimes, I ruminate about the ways in which I have been a complicit cog in the system. The slut-shaming I have participated in, the misogyny I have been an outlet for and, lately, why it is I am still friends with multiple men who have attempted to – successfully or otherwise – coerce me into having sex with them.

But, in much in the same way a woman might meet up with her rapist years later in a restaurant without bringing up the incident once, I think I did it to retain my dignity. To reframe those relationships as ones in which I was respected instead of degraded.

So instead of feeling guilty about my own internalised misogyny, I’ll continue working to unlearn it and will focus on how I have been – and will continue to be – part of the resistance, emboldening people of all genders to do the same.

Gemma Clarke

Gemma Clarke is the editor of Global Hobo, the former deputy editor of the triple j Annual and a freelance Australian writer.

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