Occasionally a story breaks that, although the circumstances are not terribly new and on the surface not that surprising, nevertheless triggers a deeply buried rage within women. A furious, frustrated rage.
The Brittany Higgins story is one such trigger.
“This hideousness unfolding in Canberra has left me floored,” texts a colleague; “So utterly sickened,” writes another. I’m even asked if the treatment of Higgins reflects some kind of “disease thing going on” in Parliament House.
A disease of non-accountability, perhaps? A disease of protecting politics, the party, and power at all costs?
Women’s rage over this story is not only due to our lack of surprise over the apparent high-level institutional abandonment of a distressed young woman – although that is petrol to the fire. The full depth of women’s rage is fuelled by impotency. Our own.
Here we are. Again.
American writer Soraya Chemaly’s recent words to an Australian audience are echoing loudly right now: “If men knew how truly angry women around them often are – and understood the structures enforcing women’s silence – they would be staggered.”
Nevertheless, the salacious details continue to drive media clicks. Did they really steam clean the couch, the scene of the alleged crime? Did parliamentary staff really unlock the Defence Minister’s office door, despite watching the cocktail-dress-clad woman wobble and weave with drunkenness? Did the former minister for women Senator Cash really say “sleep tight”? Did the PM’s office know an allegation of rape had been made way back then? Did a senior Liberal powerbroker really call Higgins to check she wasn’t going to spill the beans to Four Corners?
As all these yet-to-be legally contested issues propel the story though newsfeeds and headlines at a cracking pace, female rage is brewing.
Our rage is about power. And women’s inherent lack of it.
We know Higgins’ boss at the time of the alleged rape, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, was careful not to tread on the distraught woman’s “agency”, by telling her the choice to alert police was hers alone. But, as every woman reading this would know, the ramifications of such a career-busting choice were poisonous, no matter what Higgins chose.
To do nothing would mean being forever sullied by secret shame. To go public, as she now has, would mean her name will be forever sullied by a sex scandal. To go to court – well, we all know what hell that will deliver.
Meanwhile, the invisible man in this story has apparently gone on to “a good job”, and has not suffered “any consequences at all”.
Higgins was 24 years old, in her “dream job”, when she found herself, drunk, half naked and pinned down on the minister’s couch crying, with a colleague’s sweaty body allegedly slumped on top of her.
While this is any woman’s worst nightmare, the fact is that every ambitious, career-hungry female will at some time in her 20s or 30s find herself in a sexually compromising situation with a man who has some form of power over her. Be it her boss, a colleague, an acquaintance, or simply a weedy chap who assumes all women are fair game.
It may be just a fleeting moment, experienced as a flush of vulnerability and confusion. Or it may escalate to something dangerously complicated. Either way, most women know that horribly uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability, confusion and power imbalance. Some of us smile, talk or flirt our way out of it. Others don’t get that choice.
Hearing how outmanoeuvred and powerless Brittany Higgins felt, not only during the assault, but at every turn since, is enough to enrage any woman. But the Prime Minister weighing in with a burst of empathy because, as Jenny reminded him, he has “daughters”, is, well, simply too much. A below-the-belt patronising punch.
When those fathers in Parliament, in power, first learnt of this sordid story, back when Liberal Party fixers were, as Senator Cash said, “getting everything under control”, did any of them think to pursue or punish the man who lured a drunk, young, naive novice into a sexually compromising situation? No?
Perhaps they don’t have sons?
- Virginia Haussegger is chief editor of BroadAgenda at the University of Canberra and a former ABC newsreader.
This op ed was originally published in The Canberra Times, 17 February 2021 (online), 18 February 2021 (print)