She said

Protestors at the Women's March 4 Justice rally outside Parliament House, Canberra yesterday (Monday, 15 March, 2020), one of more than 40 similar events held around the country. Photo: Shane Rattenbury MLA/Facebook.

In this essay, in wake of the Women’s March 4 Justice rallies across Australia, Sunny Grace weighs into the issues of sexual assault, rape and gender power dynamics from a powerful personal perspective.

It comes in waves, women coming forward with sexual assault or rape claims. Memories crash into the psyche years after the event, causing an inability to continue to repress or justify them anymore and women start to drown in the trauma. It is sneaky like that, trauma. It creeps up on you no matter how hard you try to deny it, justify it, put it in its place, tell yourself you are the crazy one. 

Over recent weeks, we have heard testimonies from Brittany Higgins as well as the unnamed accuser of Christian Porter and tens of thousands of teenage girls via Chanel Cortos’ petition.

Not since #metoo have we seen such relentless investigation of rape and assault in the Australian media. And yet, once again, this will not augur well for other women who want to come forward with their own experiences. Again, the rhetoric abounds: She was drunk. They were drunk. It is a matter of she said, he said. There is no evidence. I didn’t do it, he said. 

Again and again, women discover they have nothing to gain by coming forward. It is a losing game. Even when they aren’t the ones coming forward (as in the case of Geoffrey Rush vs The Herald Sun where EJ Norvill’s actions were scrutinised and judged) their characters are run through the media and the mud. 

Every time one of these stories hits the media, I am taken straight back to my own memories. The time I was in a British Paints ad with Rolf Harris when I was nineteen. I probably looked fifteen. 

Rolf cornered me in a doorway and touched the cleft in my chin while staring straight into my eyes, saying lasciviously ‘I’d like to lick that.’

I had been so excited to work with him. This was 1990, twenty-four years before he was found guilty of sexual assault on women and children throughout his career. This scene made it into my short film, Trigger Happy, which I made while triggered by #metoo. 

A British television news report on the jailing of Rolf Harris after he was found guilty of indecent assault charges on 5 July, 2014. Video: 5 News/YouTube.

I think at the time of the incident, I kind of laughed it off. Told a few people it was hilarious. But when his accusers came forward, I fell apart. I knew he was guilty. I felt dirty. Ashamed that I had laughed it off. This is how insidious it is to suffer abuse at the hands of a powerful man. Or any man or teenage boy. Like the girls’ testimonies in Chanel Contos’ petition, I lost my virginity at fifteen. Way before I was ready, and with a boy I thought understood my desire to wait. 

And yet, somehow, I found myself in a room with him and his friends, not able to stop him from having sex with me. Fast and unceremonious, it was over before it began. I was mortified. An intelligent girl who believed in women’s rights and equality, brought up during second wave feminism, I let it happen. I blamed myself but at no stage did I give him an enthusiastic yes. I just thought it was what I should do to keep him happy. 

All the popular culture I had consumed encouraged me to act this way. I don’t think he had any idea that what he was doing was wrong. Everything and everyone around him built him up to believe he was the man – good looking, charming, funny, with that way of looking at you that made your stomach flutter. We all thought he was hot. We fought over him. We all desired him. Why would he think it was wrong to take my virginity if he wanted it? He dumped me the next day.

When I was propositioned by a photographer at my first modelling assignment not long after this, I had the strength to say no. I was fifteen and he was in his early twenties. This happened countless times when I was modelling and acting. 

As I reached my twenties, I started to feel the effects of trauma in my life and I became an easier target. I have slept with men when I was drunk who I am sure thought it was consensual. And yet when I think back, I feel sick. Some of them pursued me for years, waiting until they could see a weak moment to pounce. Others tried to seduce me offering me riches and jewels, like a Prince Charming.

Eventually I wised up and realised the fairy tales don’t come true. Prince Charming often becomes the toad when kissed, or rather when he kisses you. All slimy tongues and sticky hands. They are brought up to believe it is their right to take the woman they desire. It is everywhere in films, books, myths and legends. 

I have more recent experiences of abuses of power with men more senior and powerful than me and I am still afraid to come forward to report them. It would shake the very foundations of the life I have been carefully building to keep myself safe and on track. These past few weeks it has been reinforced again that women don’t win when it is a matter of, as Peter Dutton described, She said, he said.

Over 5000 people gathered in the forecourt of Parliament House, Canberra yesterday (Monday, 15 March, 2021) as part of the Women’s March 4 Justice rally in the national capital – one of over 40 such events held across Australia. Photo: Shane Rattenbury MLA/Facebook.

I want to be brave, but I am afraid I would unravel. Because I am the same age as the woman who alleged Christian Porter raped her. I too was a shining star at sixteen. And by twenty-five, my lustre had dimmed. I felt relieved when, at that same age, I met my husband, who would go on to protect me from men like the one who thought it was okay to grab my breast at a McDonald’s when I was walking by.   

But I shouldn’t need my husband to protect me. Just as no man should need to have a daughter to understand rape is a horrific crime.

As a mother of two sons, I am always talking to them about consent, as is my husband. I know we drive them crazy, but I realise we are a minority in a sea of voices they are exposed to every day from – from TikTok to movies. 

Young women are still encouraged to use their bodies as objects of desire. There still seems to be this great divide, perhaps even more so now thanks to social media, in the gender power dynamics amongst teenagers. 

I am heartened by Chanel Cortos’ petition and women’s voices uniting – as they did around Australia yesterday – and to hear their cry taken up and amplified by young men. 

I salute the young women fighting for men to take responsibility for their actions and understand what consent really means.  

My hope is that we can all move toward a consensual space where mutual pleasure is the goal. Because when we come together it can be beautiful. 

The crisis support service Lifeline can be reached on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.