Sexual violence

Bodies in Trouble: on sexual violence and the problem with hashtags

When a body’s in trouble,

Oh, the body’s in trouble,

Who who who do you talk to? 

Mary Margaret O’Hara, ‘Body in Trouble’

This last week has seen social media overwhelmed by a deluge of pain from troubled bodies: stories from women, genderqueer and transgender people detailing incidents of sexual harassment and assault committed by men, each appended with the tag #MeToo. The flood came after a tweet from actor Alyssa Milano in response to an ever-increasing number of allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein.

But as the virality of #MeToo fades, it is worth asking some questions: how much pain can a hashtag hold? Are hashtags really a constructive device for social change? And if the answer is no, what might change actually look like?

Solidarity between bodies, troubled bodies, is important. The allusion to Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble here is also important, both for centering a broad, intersectional conversation, as well as thinking through trouble as a pedagogical mode.  Giving these troubled bodies a place to go, a place to speak, a place to be received, is important. It should always remain central to the feminist project. This is how bodies become a collective body, a strong body that has the capacity to speak loudly and push for change.

While I understand that for some #MeToo has proved itself as an act of catharsis and provided a source of solidarity, for me, solidarity from other women has never been an issue. I come from a long lineage of abused women who went to great lengths to ensure I knew what unacceptable behaviour from men looked like. So much so that when I first encountered sexual abuse at the age of nine, my home daycare worker’s husband the perpetrator, my mother’s voice, which had on numerous occasions coached me through what to do if such a thing should ever happen, played on loop at front of my mind. The day he assaulted me, I told my mother the second she closed their front gate.

My mother and grandmother were both unable to speak about or come forward with their own experiences of childhood sexual abuse, which in both cases was severe and ongoing, until adulthood. As a result I am privy to the repercussions of lack of access to solidarity, of space to speak. The pain of this silence, the way it echoes throughout a life, is immeasurable, but it also moves generationally. Part of this process of laying charges against my first abuser, my mother and grandmother by my side, included a digestion of their traumas, as well as my own. I want to praise #MeToo for affording women the option of that solidarity.

But it is worth examining who, exactly, #MeToo affords solidarity to. Is it for all women? ‘There are very real and serious limits to the discursive power of campaigns like #MeToo,’ academic and writer Crystal Fleming pointed out last week. One of those limitations is whose voices are heard. As reported in Ebony, many read Milano’s use of the hashtag as a co-option of the ten-year-old Me Too movement, thus continuing the cycle of erasure or dismissal of the experiences of women of colour, and of other marginalised voices, both in digital and real-world spaces. Over the past decade, Tarana Burke’s Me Too has worked tirelessly to provide support for survivors or rape and sexual assault, offering a considered and detailed three-step model involving empowerment, connection and education. Burke’s Me Too creates a safe and sensitive space in which to receive and work with those who’ve suffered assault.

Milano’s #MeToo campaign operates differently. It hasn’t just been about providing support for these bodies, and between these bodies. It has also been about building awareness around just how insidious and prevalent sexual assault and harassment is. Overwhelmingly it speaks towards privileged bodies, those of perpetrators and bystanders, specifically men, who, frankly, often aren’t listening.

Access to information on just how rampant sexual assault and harassment is has not suddenly been granted. This hashtag does not suddenly shine light on a problem we didn’t know about before. If you’ve forgotten just how alarming the statistics are, take a look at this brief rundown – and then consider that a huge number of sexual assaults go unreported.

We’ve seen online campaigns like #MeToo before: in 2014 there was #YesAllWomen, last year #BeenRapedNeverReported, and before the Weinsten story broke we had Bill Cosby.

What concerns me about #MeToo is that it requires a performance of trauma, that we’re peddling victims as affective labourers in the vain hope of revolution.


Feminist grump; feminist grumps; what a lump. Sara Ahmed

Sometime before my first assault I remember sitting on the back verandah with my abuser and his wife watching an argument between a couple on the street. The man was hurling insults and abuse at the woman, who was just standing there crying. My abuser and his wife left the verandah, passing it off as a simple argument between jilted lovers, leaving me to sit there.  I stayed and watched as the man turned away, got in his car, and then ran the woman over. For a long time the physical assault of this stranger and the incident of my sexual assault has played out side by side in my mind: it wasn’t until years later that I saw the connection between my abuser’s reaction to this event, his unwillingness to step in, and the way in which his mentality toward girls and women was supported.

Around the time of my second assault – I was thirteen this time and the perpetrator an older and cooler boy than me – girls would line up in the school lunchbreak according to breast size. Boys would watch on while they got the girls to feel each other’s breasts and to tell them ‘how many handfuls’ each measured, sometimes groping us themselves. Later some of these same boys would discuss their weekends, talking about which girl they had ‘put on the spit’ in the park. There was no mention that these incidents were in fact without consent. That they were gang rapes.

These stories all feed into the bigger problem that is everyday rape culture – a culture that preserves the monster myth and turns us away from the perpetrators closest to us. A huge part of this culture involves the way men are socialised in speaking to, about and around sexual assault and harassment. For me, there is a salient difference between how male and female sexual partners have handled my disclosure. In telling male partners, the conversation inevitably turns to management of their emotions, or the sense that I have inconvenienced them, told them at a time unsuitable to their needs and desires. I remember feeling this same frustration from my father after my first assault. I have one distinct memory of him, he who had largely been absent during the process of court hearings and counselling, tucking me into bed one night only to tell me that it was time I got on with things and moved on. In other words, that it was time for me to stop talking about what happened to me. Female partners on the other hand have been gentle, patient; they have engaged, they have tuned into situations that may make me uncomfortable and offered support. Sadly, they have also often shared their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment.

The thing about #MeToo is that it affords men the opportunity to scroll past, much like in real life. When men have engaged with the hashtag, admitting fault and taking responsibility, the praise and placation they receive is nauseating but unsurprising, working only to remove focus from those assaulted. Conversely, so many men have disengaged with the movement for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps a lack of direct correspondence with #MeToo would be okay if it meant allyship was already in action in the real world – but so often men believe this is the case without understanding what that truly means. These men believe that they are already good; that because they don’t personally assault or harass women, action need not apply to their lives. They forget that so much of what we need men to do is share our labour, to call out bad behaviour when they witness it (which is undeniably often), to rupture the bracketing that occurs around sexism, assault and harassment (for example: he’s really a good guy, but a bit of a sexist). This is work that continually risks being ostracised, silenced, humiliated. It means active engagement, it means reading sources like this, it means listening, it means seeking out and receiving all of these things. It means hard work.

For me, a massive part of my trauma has been about speaking it aloud, so much so that the trauma of coming forward with my story is of equal weight to the encounters with assault and harassment itself.  Our conversations around sexual harassment and assault aren’t just constituted by our social contexts, they are also largely systemic. The structures that are set up to deal with sexual assault and harassment are broken.

The trauma of coming forward with my first assault prevented me emotionally from doing so with my second. The court process allowed for me, at nine, to be cross-examined by a lawyer who continually repeated variations of ‘I put to you that you’re lying’ until I broke down, unable to continue. Similarly, the primary school I attended lacked adequate support. When I told a friend what happened, it spread through the school, resulting in bullying from both students and teachers. In one particularly painful memory, I am pulled from class and sent to the principal’s office, only to be told I was giving the other children nightmares, and to stop.

How is it possible to reduce rates of sexual assault and harassment given our criminal justice system is so inherently flawed? Australia’s current legal system uses the victims of sexual assault, including children, as the key source of evidence in a trial, meaning the defendant’s lawyer is tasked with discrediting them, via often intimidating and traumatic cross-examination. An article in The Guardian quotes Justin Peter McLellan, the chair of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse:

As this audience knows our criminal justice system is designed so that the trial is effectively a contest between the state and the accused, from which there emerges a winner and a loser. There is a real danger that, in the eyes of the community, the legitimacy of the criminal justice system will be undermined if the system is not concerned with revealing the truth as to what really happened but rather the winner of a contest.

He goes further, purporting that there is currently ‘little encouragement’ for people to come forward: ‘Why risk potential re-traumatisation, a risk which materialises in many cases, to merely be a player in a sophisticated lawyers’ game?’

Perhaps this risk would be more willingly undertaken if the rates of conviction were higher. The same article reports figures from the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistic and Research, on rates for all convictions in NSW between July 2012 and June 2015 were 89% But when it comes to convictions of sexual assault, that figure drops radically. ‘For child sexual offences, the conviction rate was 60%…. sexual assault against adults, which unlike child sexual offences must deal with the issue of consent, was lower, with a conviction rate of 50%.’

In the case of workplace sexual harassment and assault, there is not only the risk of trauma via legal systems, but the question of whether the incident should be reported to an employer at the risk of personal job loss or career damage. Looking at the volume of Weinstein accusations it is important to question why so many women couldn’t report. Where were the unions taking industrial action on behalf of these women, where were their systems of support?

When it comes to reporting fellow artists, there is a fundamental lack of any real system via which to report, often resulting in a resounding silence. If you are sexually harassed or assaulted by a colleague or fellow practitioner in the arts, the probability of having to see or work with the perpetrator again is incredibly likely. As a writer this may mean working on the same project, or it may mean encounters at literary events, or that your perpetrator will continue to be published, will continue to receive accolades and funding. Feeling safe often means retreating from professional contexts in which you may encounter your perpetrator, inevitably resulting in possible damage to your own career prospects. There is little consequence for men committing sexual assault and harassment in the arts; it continues to happen because the structure of the community allows it to.

Further to this, there are fundamental problems around even the idea of complaint making. In her research on complaining, Sara Ahmed argues that victims of sexual assault and harassment are often warned off making complaints, that to do so would be damaging for the victim and perpetrator, that it is treated as ‘potential damage’. She interrogates the nature of the word ‘complaint’ itself, a word that, she argues, has countless negative qualities, belonging in the same family as ‘killjoy’.

Being heard as complaining is not being heard. You are heard as expressing yourself; as if you are complaining because that is who you are or what you are like. If you are heard as complaining then what you say is dismissible, as if you are complaining because that is your personal tendency. When you are heard as complaining you lose the about: what you are speaking about is not heard when they make it about you.

Making a complaint is not an accessible task anywhere. We’ve seen evidence of how this pertains to institutions in the recent Human Rights Commission report, Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities, which reveals that ‘94% of students who were sexually harassed and 87% of students who were sexually assaulted did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.’ This same problem applies to the arts, though is perhaps complicated even further by the atomised nature of the work. As a writer/musician/visual artist/actor/dancer who is harassed or assaulted by a fellow writer/musician/visual artist/actor/dancer, who do you lodge a complaint with? How do you such a thing?

Earlier this year I was part of a process that detailed three incidents of sexual harassment perpetrated by a fellow poet. The incidents involved three women writers who all experienced similar harassment on the same night by the same man at a literary event. Had these incidents occurred in isolation and the four of us not spoken and mobilised, these incidents would not have been reported. In fact the amount of effort it took to report this person to his employer, as well as individual publications, publishers, festivals and organisations, even when shared between the four of us, was exhausting. A huge reason why this process was so laborious was because none of the places we were reporting him to had any formally accessible policies or systems in place for lodging a complaint.

The three women in this instance were Amelia Dale, Emily Stewart and Evelyn Araluen (I use all of their names here with their consent). All three of these women are respected academics. Emily and Amelia both hold influential publishing roles, and Evelyn is a well-known activist. All four of us have published widely and I work for the national body of poetry, Australian Poetry. Had the same thing happened to an individual or group of women lesser-known or with less leverage in the community, I am doubtful the complaint would have been taken seriously, or that it would have been followed with action.

It’s true that #MeToo has provided solidarity for many women in need, but it’s not enough. I don’t want this article to slip into the void of hashtags and online echo chambers. I want men to stand in solidarity with women in the real world. I want all of you to call out institutional and socialised sexism, harassment and assault when you witness it. I want arts bodies to create structures that are accessible and supportive. I want movement to protect women in the arts, and in all industries.

There is no reason why such change cannot start today, I am calling on arts organisations and publishers to insist that women in arts spaces and workplaces are treated as equal to their colleagues. Moreover, I propose that arts organisations adopt an agreed-upon set of processes and procedures for how they respond to incidences of sexual harassment and assault. I am currently drafting such guidelines in consultation with fellow female artists and arts workers, and we will publish them here in mid-November. We want arts organisations to agree to adhere to these guidelines; to declare that they will not, for instance, hold events at venues or work with organisations that do not make the welfare and the artistic security of women a priority.

These guidelines will also present an opportunity for the MEAA to support the campaign, to see that these demands are put in place at all the organisations and workplaces of the workers the union represents.

Rather than relying on a criminal justice system that is inherently broken and violent – a system that presently (and historically) abuses First Nations and LGBTQI folk, people of colour and women – it is crucial that we move toward alternative and community-based justice models that focus on accountability processes as well as victim support.

I want this to be a call to action.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Melody Paloma is a poet and researcher based in Naarm. She is a MFA candidate at UNSW and the author of Some Days (SOd, 2018) and In Some Ways Dingo (Rabbit, 2017).

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