QUARTERLY ESSAY 84 The Reckoning

 

Correspondence

Hannah Ryan & Gina Rushton

What comes after the story? #MeToo relies on the idea that storytelling is revolutionary, but the ability of the movement to deliver accountability has always hinged on what follows the accounts of harassment that it demands people divulge.

Adrienne Rich wrote that when a woman tells the truth, she creates “the possibility for more truth around her.” The victories of the movement have been won in these truthful spaces excavated by each disclosure. It is through stories that we unearth not just sexual harassment and violence, but the lengths to which institutions go in minimising, justifying, excusing, denying and hiding it.

Jess Hill records how the #MeToo movement has always derived power from storytelling – a chorus of survivors speaking together to testify that this harm is common, but unacceptable. The essay maps the courage and tenacity of the survivors who have spoken up, spoken out and spoken back over the past five years.

Telling these stories has not been easy, in part because of our stifling defamation laws and the legal caution exacerbated by the recklessness of the Daily Telegraph’s Geoffrey Rush story. But some survivors, and the frontline service providers and advocates who fight for them, were also let down by the way the #MeToo movement initially unfolded here – as covered by our reporting, which Hill references in her essay. Our investigation documented the formation of NOW Australia, the local version of Time’s Up, co-founded by Tracey Spicer, who became the face of the nation’s #MeToo movement in October 2017 when she asked people to bring her their stories following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

By September 2019, Spicer claimed she had more than 2500 disclosures, and we found some had not been responded to. Amelia, a woman who disclosed to Spicer for the first time her harassment by a media figure, told us she gave up expecting a reply and assumed what happened to her wasn’t “violent” enough to warrant one.

“Women sending information will be offered counselling and any support they need,” Spicer told a newspaper, later publicly claiming to have connected “every person who has disclosed to me” to lawyers or counsellors.

The danger of a single person taking carriage of so many disclosures was further exposed in our subsequent series with Nina Funnell and news.com.au, in which we revealed the violation of survivors’ privacy in a documentary, starring Spicer, about the #MeToo movement in Australia. An early version, which included the real names, faces and personal stories of rape and domestic violence victims, was circulated to media without the survivors’ knowledge or consent. They had no knowledge their confidential disclosures had been shared with a film crew, and one woman told Funnell: “I didn’t consent and she hasn’t told me she would use my information in this way.”

This is an egregious example, but how many times have we watched survivors lose control of their own stories as they are co-opted by media or political interests? After actor Eryn Jean Norvill’s private complaint became tabloid fodder and she was dragged through a defamation trial, she stood outside the courtroom and said: “As you all know, I never wanted these issues to be dealt with by a court.” When Catherine Marriott’s report of sexual misconduct by Barnaby Joyce was leaked to the press, she said all her control had been “taken away.” When journalist Ashleigh Raper’s allegations of sexual harassment by the former NSW Labor leader were aired under parliamentary privilege by a political rival, she said it had happened without her “involvement or consent.”

Does this loss of autonomy and control not reinscribe the same dynamic of disregarding someone’s consent? As Hill acknowledges, people are denied the ability to tell their stories on their own terms, and even when they can, they risk public scrutiny and legal retaliation. If the movement is going to continue to gain muscle and momentum from survivors presenting their trauma so as to repeatedly prove the endemic nature of harassment and violence, we need to get better at protecting them. It is from storytelling that the movement has always drawn its power and it is the storytelling that exposes survivors to further harm. A public disclosure cannot be the template for driving reform when it comes to sexual harm. What comes after the story?

Last year’s Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, found a trauma-informed and empathetic journalist in Funnell and, with other survivors, they campaigned to overturn gag laws preventing survivors from publicly identifying themselves. This is arguably an example of a story delivering material change – but even here, a young survivor of child sexual abuse has had to repeatedly retell her story at great personal cost. As Tame tells Hill, she was recently in the ER and lives “constantly on the precipice of a shame state from the retraumatisation.” She helped overturn laws so that survivors could tell their story, not to insist they should.

Hill ends her essay by asking whether we are “winning” this war. We can take stock in many ways: In 2022, is a woman who tells her story of abuse or harassment in a different position than those who did so in 2017? Is she more likely to be heard and believed? Is justice more within her reach? Does she have greater access to help and healing? Does this access still differ based on her race, sexuality, disability or socioeconomic status? Most importantly, is a woman any less likely to have such a story? In other words, is sexual abuse and harassment any less prevalent because of #MeToo? (The statistics would say no.)

Glowing media coverage of NOW promised a triage service that would direct survivors to legal support, counselling and journalists as tensions ran high between Spicer and board members over what they could realistically achieve. The organisation folded in 2020 and became a cautionary tale – not only in how a well-intentioned group lacking infrastructure and experience can collapse under the weight of its own expectations, but also in the effects of over-promising and under-delivering to survivors of sexual violence. The irony was that if NOW had come through, it might have connected the hashtag to “the work,” as Tarana Burke requested and Hill summarised as “grassroots activism, actual expertise in dealing with sexual violence, and the mission of structural change.” If it had been better funded, if it had addressed the genuine concerns about diversity and the needs of women outside the arts, if it had spent time consulting with the sector about how to support people after their disclosures, if it had garnered political will and funding to deliver that, it might have been able to offer something material to survivors.

Success should continue to be measured by what we offer those who have stories to tell – whether or not they want to tell them. Instead of leaning towards the ears of survivors and saying, as our prime minister did to Tame, “Well, gee, I bet it felt good to get that out,” we might have listened closer that day when she said, and as many survivors express, “Lived experience informs structural and social change.”

Hannah Ryan & Gina Rushton

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 84, The Reckoning. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 85, Not Waving, Drowning.


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