Note: this article discusses sexual assault.
After a week or so of madness, there is time to pause and reflect. I have spoken with a vast array of media people as the Christian Porter story unfolded, been asked 1000 questions and mostly replied with: “I can’t comment on that.”
I have some observations.
Like all society-shaking stories, this one is playing out at two levels: cognitive and emotional. The media’s open narrative has focused on the true crime saga, the attendant morality play and the deeply and deliberately confused debate over the rule of law.
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Beneath that has been a clash of the subconscious, almost precisely gendered. On one side of the media’s gender divide: barely concealed rage, frustration and determination to call out the culture of acceptance around sexual violence. On the other, what I’d describe simply as mystification. Why, the men ask rhetorically (because they’re not listening to the answer), are the women so angry and upset?
Of course, not all women, and not all men. The patriarchy has its female supporters, just as the revolution has male allies. And the men v women dichotomy both obscures the equally entrenched and unexamined problem of male-on-male sexual violence, and ignores completely the non-binary population.
However, the media is binary and there is a clear (albeit slightly generalised) divide between its male and female parts on this subject. That, anyway, is my observation from what I’ve experienced.
I don’t speak for any women and will not attempt to mansplain their emotions. What I can say is that, of all the visceral impacts I have felt over the past week, the most profound has been the surfacing and resurfacing of traumatic experiences, coming from pretty much every woman I’ve encountered.
What I detect, I think, is an undercurrent of unreported trauma, which gives me a clue to the scope and scale of the endless pandemic of sexual violence in our society, almost exclusively perpetrated by men and overwhelmingly inflicted on women.
Among men of the media, and not just the old ones, I have seen and heard expressions of dismay. Yes, they say, we abhor sexual violence wherever it appears. But surely we must resist the temptation to let loose the vigilante mob? Our very civilisation is at stake, all we have built since Alfred the Great.
Being a patriot to the rule of law myself, I get that. However, there’s an emotional content in the male response which is obscuring the logical argument. It’s called privilege, or rather the fear of loss of privilege.
The system — by which I mean all systems, legal, political and media — was designed and built before women had a pass to get into the building. To take one example, the criminal justice system was not designed with rape in mind, because men don’t much get raped.
The system entrenches male privilege and operates organically to shore it up. Women, being half the population and currently quite angry, represent an existential threat to the system. Men, who have always effortlessly thrived in the system without ever having to contemplate that their progress might be stalled or stopped by such a random element as their gender, are feeling suddenly somewhat at risk.
Thus the resort to shibboleths like the rule of law. The irony, that these same men routinely discard such sacred cows whenever it suits them but now insist that they have sacred force, is only infuriating the non-privileged half all the more. The result is a lot of shouting.
So it is that a perfectly rational male journalist of wide experience and solid sensitivity can sincerely say that, while he understands and supports the call for change in how we listen to and address the experiences of sexual violence survivors, what about if the man being accused was him? Shouldn’t we all spare a thought for him?
Well, no. For two reasons. First, there is no evidence that false reports of rape are more than a negligibly tiny phenomenon. Second, the best research indicates that if a man commits a rape there is a 0.71% chance that he will be reported, arrested, prosecuted and convicted. This means, in statistical reality, that it is a crime he will almost certainly get away with.
Those are the facts of system failure. Men built the system and still, by and large, run it. We have forfeited our right to resist its demolition and replacement with something better. We should get out of the way.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Michael Bradley was the lawyer representing the woman at the centre of historical rape allegations against Christian Porter. Porter denies the allegations. The women took her own life last year.