What have we learned this year from Australia’s three most famous sexual harassment cases?
It’s simple: Even if you’re a good girl, you’re still going to cop it.
We all know what the “Bad Girl” sexual harassment complainant looks like from the movies; the hard-nosed chick who’s taking her boss all the way to the bank because he put his hand on her knee. Or the office sourpuss who “can’t take a joke”.
The three women at the centre of the three cases that have transfixed Australia this year, however — Eryn Jane Norvill (Geoffrey Rush), Catherine Marriott (Barnaby Joyce) and Ashleigh Raper (Luke Foley) — have one thing in common. They all tried extremely hard not to be in an article like this one.
It’s actually heartbreaking, the extent to which these women tried to play by the rules, or simply to suck it up and move on. All three were adamant that they did not want a public show trial of their complaints.
Marriott explicitly specified that her complaint was to be confidential, Norvill asked that even the alleged perpetrator not be told (she just wanted better processes in place to protect women in future), and Raper said clearly and repeatedly to anyone who asked that she didn’t want anything done at all.
Women’s stories appropriated for political gain
How any person handles their own response when they believe themselves to have been subjected to sexual harassment is up to them.
One of the cruellest aspects of sexual harassment and assault is that the victim has to deal not only with the indignity of the offence itself, but also the subsequent flurry of attitudinal micro-donations as every Tom, Dick and his dog pops in their two cents’ worth on whether that person Owes It To Others To Stand Up or should just Toughen Up Princess.
In all three of these cases, however, the personal decisions of the women were ignored.
The stories of what happened to them were appropriated by others for political or commercial gain.
None of them has gained a cent, nor benefited in any way, apart from knowing that around Australia there are millions of women who would stand prepared to give them a hug and buy them a drink.
Two of them can add “weird involuntary role as quasi-defendant in defamation case” to the list of things they did not ask for, which begins and ends with “having my very promising career totally tipped up by an event outside my control”.
A struggle about how best to be good
In the United States, Dr Christine Blasey Ford stepped up voluntarily to tell her story about an experience with a youthful Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court nominee.
Her eagerness to please in the stand had a terrible poignancy. Many women stopped in the street and wept as they watched her evidence on their smart phones, so familiar to some of them was the struggle going on inside this one woman. Not a struggle between good and evil, but a struggle over how best to be good.
Kavanaugh has since been confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court.
Ford has had to move house four times, cannot go back to her work as a university professor, and has had to engage personal security due to the constant harassment and death threats levelled against her and her family.
MP will never face a public trial like Raper
Norvill, Raper and Marriott, meanwhile, have all now faced the exact thing they didn’t want — publicity, and the delight of knowing their names will always be associated with an unwelcome incident they didn’t ask for and would rather forget.
Raper now faces a defamation trial over the very allegation that she tried at length not to have made public. And that’s thanks largely to a bloke who wanted to make political mileage out of it, New South Wales Liberal MP David Elliot, who — thanks to his parliamentary privilege — will never have to suffer the depredations of a public trial like that which Raper, against her will, now contemplates.
Foley, according to Raper, said he was too drunk to remember clearly what happened on the night in question. Nevertheless, he likes his chances enough to sue.
During closing submissions this week in the Rush defamation trial, Justice Michael Wigney observed that it seemed “bizarre” that an actor like Rush, intensely committed to his craft, would put it all at risk to indulge a sexual impulse to touch a colleague.
Sure — that is bizarre.
What’s more bizarre, though, is the idea that any of these women — who tried so hard to avoid a fuss, to play by the rules, to keep things confidential and to protect their professional reputations against the very circus in which they find themselves painfully centre stage — are here because they’re making it up.