The Opaque Ceiling

CW: sexual assault, rape, trauma, institutionalised misogyny, derogatory language

At the tail end of 1997, an ill-informed obstetrician told my mother she was carrying a son. Now, after 19 years spent observing and experiencing the challenges of womanhood, I wonder if my life would had been easier had that doctor been right. Admittedly all genders are confronted by unique trials, but I find myself increasingly fearing a world that is inhospitable to women.

Earlier this year, I accepted a drink from a young man during a casual night of dancing with friends to celebrate the New Year. Never did I expect that I would replay and agonise over that small gesture for the following six months. Never did it cross my mind that this handsome, giggly young stranger would haunt me. Through no fault of my own, my sense of being was irreversibly shaken and I was sexually assaulted. Having grappled with this experience for many sleepless nights, I now find myself hyper vigilant of the misogyny that pervades day-to-day life. As a society, our language and thoughtless behaviour establishes the breeding ground for a rape epidemic, and yet survivors of sexual assault are continuously ostracised and shamed.

Those I love poured their efforts into re-empowering and healing me – for which I am forever grateful. However, my college administration – whether unconsciously or not – fosters a culture of shame and blame. Within hours of disclosure to a peer, a male staff member had phoned me and asked: “What can you do differently next time?” However, without the ability to single-handedly eliminate the patriarchy and deeply entrenched sexism within Australia, there was absolutely nothing I should have done differently that night. Instead of focusing on criticising survivors for placing themselves in vulnerable positions, let us eradicate the common disrespect and predatory behaviour that mutates into rape.

Unfortunately, that was not the last time I was condemned for my status as the victim. A year ago I applied for a clerkship with the Army Reserves. The recruitment process was dithery and took time, but by mid-July I finally received news of my psychological interview. As someone that actively seeks counselling, exercises and practices mindfulness, I naively assumed I would be viewed as mentally fit – despite the assault. After an hour of discussing my primary school trials and tribulations, the interviewer, an older gentleman, bluntly asked me if I had ever been sexually assaulted. With sheer honesty, I told him that earlier in the year I had, but explained my thorough self-help strategies and subsequent progress.

“You will not be proceeding past this point. Women, such as yourself, are a liability to the military”, he said. Quietly, in a state of absolute shock, I picked up my purse and tearfully walked home. For days, I laboured over the same few insecurities. Was I a liability? Was this one experience going to become my permanent shadow? No.

No one wants to be a sexual assault survivor. It is traumatising and exhausting to learn to trust again and find happiness. But I choose to see my survival as empowering. I wear my resilience and courage as a badge of honour, as we should all be able to. I am not a liability; rather, I am a constant reminder of the importance of respect and the repercussions of treating others in an undignified, cruel way. This experience does not define who I am, but it is a testament to the strength of my soul.

There is nothing I can do to re-write history or clean my memory. My plea is that, moving forward, we collectively devote thought and energy to how we can combat a culture that fosters disrespect and ultimately sexual assault. I was recently sitting amongst a group of male friends who I hold in high esteem. They are thoughtful, intelligent and kind young men. Yet, as I increasingly analysed our conversation, I was mortified to notice jokes about sluts, complaints of unattractive sexual partners, and unjustifiable crudeness. I genuinely believe that our frequent exposure to sexual vulgarity has desensitised us to the horrific nature of this language. Righteous so-called meninists would likely roll their eyes at me, and respond with “take a joke, Love.” But language is not a joke, it sets the tone of what we choose to perceive as acceptable. Language defines how we treat each other, and can have an unknown yet profound effect on someone else.

I recently went on a fruitless date. He was charming and well-educated, and I was somewhat swooning during our small talk at KoKo Black. During light-hearted conversation about childhood fears, he jokingly commented “triggered!” I didn’t move a facial muscle, but I felt as if someone was standing on my chest. While the word was a witty pun in a conversation for him, I know the disorientating vulnerability that a trigger engulfs you in. I can remember being triggered in the middle of a strobing, crowded dance floor – unable to move because I had crossed gazes with the man that assaulted me.

Words are powerful: pay attention to them. The way we speak to and treat each other sets the standard and becomes our norm. If you see something that does not feel right, say something. The ugly truth is that rape will still exist tomorrow.  The element of hope is that, over time, we will foster respect and suffocate toxic rape culture. Over time, changing attitudes have the power to change the prevalence of sexual assault.

Finally, to my fellow survivors, this world does belong to you too and you are loved. You may not be able to see it right now, but there is a plethora of support options out there desperate to help you. I have had nothing but positive experiences offloading to friends, visiting ANU Counselling and seeking frequent help from Women’s Health ACT. Go when you are ready, but do not suffer quietly. This experience is one of the most testing that life can throw, but you are stronger than it.  This too shall pass – the world is still waiting for us.

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Resources:

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. (02) 6247 2525, 7am – 11pm, seven days a week.

Women’s Health ACT. (02) 6205 1078, 8.45am – 4.45pm, Monday – Friday.