Content notification: This story discusses sexual violence and trauma.
Whoever said the personal is political was not kidding. The experiences of Brittany Higgins are a striking example. As her story was shared in the media, on social media, and in the courtroom, it was both intensely personal and intensely political. This was true not just for Brittany Higgins herself, but for women across Australia.
For me, the story was particularly personal. In a television interview in February 2021 Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a fellow political staffer, Bruce Lehrmann, at Parliament House in 2019. As a young intern in a federal politician’s office in the early 2000s I had been raped by the politician’s chief of staff.
Unlike Brittany Higgins, I did not report what had happened to me. I feared that if I did, I would not be believed, my reputation would be destroyed, and I would no longer be able to be an active member of the political party in which I hoped to build a career. Instead of reporting my experiences, I minimised them and tried to move on.
I put them in a box, closed the lid, taped the box tightly shut and shoved the box into my mental attic. In the years that followed—as I built a career, a family, a life—something would occasionally happen that would remind me, that would make the box rattle. But for twenty years the lid stayed on the box, until the events of 2021 blasted the box wide open.
Brittany Higgins sharing her story, and the intense media focus that followed, meant that I was no longer able to ignore my own story. It demanded to be told. It demanded to be dealt with. The problem was that I had no idea how to deal with it. At first, just the thought of telling someone from the party, or the police, or a lawyer, or a journalist, what had happened to me back then sent me spiralling into an anxiety attack. I was worried that any action I took would end up ruining my life.
I was right to be worried. I had seen how Brittany Higgins and other women in politics who had spoken out about allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and bullying had been treated by their employers, by the media and on social media.
I had seen what had happened to their careers, their reputations, and their mental health. The personal price Brittany Higgins has paid for speaking out has been astronomical.
Rape is a profoundly disempowering experience. The horrible irony is that in trying to take back some power, victim-survivors risk being disempowered in other ways. Making a formal report to police is likely to be retraumatising and may not result in any charges being laid. Other legal options, such as a civil case against the perpetrator, could potentially result in bankruptcy. Going public in the media or via social media means risking defamation proceedings and opening yourself up to online abuse and reputational damage. Understanding in theory that there are barriers to seeking justice is one thing. Hitting your own head up against those walls is another thing entirely.
When I was raped, I was trapped in a horrible situation with no good options. Years later, as I grappled with how to respond to having been raped, I was once again trapped in a horrible situation with no good options. My anxiety turned to frustration, my frustration into anger. My anger became rage as that situation affected all aspects of my life, while the man who had raped me remained oblivious to the damage he had inflicted.
Over time I began to cautiously disclose my experiences to more people, mainly women. I was aware of the statistics, but I was not fully prepared for how many women would then confide in me that they had been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually abused as children. Like me, those women were angry.
All of us, and countless women across Australia, saw the endless media coverage of Brittany Higgins. We saw the comments on social media: the supportive comments, but also the victim‑blaming comments and the abusive comments. We also heard the comments from some of our relatives and friends who were not aware of our own experiences.
Why, they wondered, was Brittany Higgins at Parliament House late at night? Why was she drunk? What did she think was going to happen? Tellingly, they did not ask why Bruce Lehrmann was there, why he was drunk, or what he thought was going to happen. We made mental notes to ourselves not to confide in those people about what had happened to us.
As Bruce Lehrmann’s case went to court, I tried to minimise my exposure to the news coverage, and not to become too emotionally invested in the outcome. But some of the evidence was disconcertingly similar to my own experiences, and those efforts ultimately proved futile. Watching Brittany Higgins’ statement outside the court after the case ended in a mistrial was devastating. The reason behind the decision not to proceed with a retrial—that the risk to Brittany Higgins’ mental health was too great—was heartbreaking.
But I want to end on a note of hope, not heartbreak. Alongside the deluge of abuse that Brittany Higgins and other women who have spoken out publicly have received, there has been a huge outpouring of support and solidarity, best demonstrated by the thousands of people who joined the March4Justice events last year.
And other thing to note. In case you missed it on social media, the “cards for Brittany” campaign started by BroadAgenda editor Ginger Gorman has gone viral and has resulted in hundreds of Australians writing supportive cards and letters to Brittany.
When I have shared my own story with others privately, almost all the responses have been supportive and validating. They have made me feel surrounded by an invisible circle of strength. One woman I contacted, a public figure, wrote to me: ‘Please know that you are not alone and there is an army of women around the world supporting you!’ I hope that Brittany Higgins knows that the same army is right behind her.
- Picture at top: This image was taken by Jenny Scott at the March4Justice, Tarntanyangga, 15 March 2021. It’s used here under a a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)