Rolf Harris is not the only one in the spotlight in his trial. Those who give evidence against him suffer their own shame, primarily from the collected media who want to know “why?”
A woman is reduced to tears by a defence attorney in a courtroom; she is giving evidence about her claim that she was assaulted many decades ago by the famous (and now infamous) entertainer Rolf Harris. It is his second trial for such offences. He was convicted after the first in 2014.
She cries because the lawyer interrogates her about her alcoholic mother, seeking, one assumes, to cast doubt on her emotional stability and therefore the trustworthiness of her evidence.
She is being shamed for daring to step forward and give evidence about what she alleges she endured as a 16-year-old. She is accused of trying to manipulate other complainants, of positioning herself as a “spokesperson” and wanting media notoriety. She is asked why she waited so long to speak up.
“Why did you not come forward to support the other women?”
“Because you have to go through this when you do.”
It is the nastiness that women must endure if they dare to speak up about what has been done to them that keeps them silent. It is this silence that predators have relied upon for centuries. The silence of victims is the great enabler. And they remain silent because they are ashamed and know that if they do speak up, society and its institutions will reinforce that shame with every weapon at their disposal, including cross-examination.
There is no greater insult that we can hurl at a woman than to call her shameless, yet it is not an epithet we hear hurled at men, no matter what they have done. We want women to feel shame, even when they have done nothing wrong. A woman who is not constrained, burdened or controlled by shame is terrifying.
But why must women carry the shame that rightfully belongs to others?
Of course, it is not only women who must bear the sackcloth and ashes of their victimhood. The men who have come forward to speak of their abuse as children at the hands of priests and other authority figures during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse have also had to overcome crippling shame. Nevertheless, I have not heard these men (and they were mostly men, abused when they were boys) called shameless – although one American Bishop did try to claim that as the age of reason is 7, victims of that age or above were somehow also culpable. Nor have these men been brutally cross-examined, thanks to the exploratory (rather than adversarial) nature of the Royal Commission. If criminal charges are laid, perhaps they can expect to be.
“I must have done something, said something, worn something or failed to do something that made him do what he did,” we say, otherwise we must accept that life is chancy and we are much less in control of what happens to us than we like to believe.
Why do we shame the victims? Why do they shame themselves? Partly, I think it is because we want to maintain our illusion that we who watch are safe from such abuse. If we can convince ourselves that the victim was somehow complicit in their fate, then we don’t have to face the reality of danger. “I would never wear that, go there, do that, say that,” we tell ourselves, “so it couldn’t happen to me.” We do the same thing to cancer victims. “I don’t smoke, I eat healthy, I think positive, so it won’t happen to me.” It’s bullshit, of course, and it’s also cruel. To soothe ourselves we further hurt those who are already hurting.
Yet victims do it too. I have done it myself. Those who have been abused in some way accept shame because it is a perverse coping mechanism. “I must have done something, said something, worn something or failed to do something that made him do what he did,” we say to ourselves. Otherwise we also must accept that life is chancy and we are much less in control of what happens to us than we like to believe.
Perhaps the only way out is to face our shame. Although the woman in the Rolf Harris case was reduced to tears, by deciding to come forward and testify she did in fact take back some control. Harris no longer has much power over her.
Innocent until proven guilty is a basic tenet of the law that I support wholeheartedly, but I loathe the way it is used to heap further shame and misery onto the victims of crimes that are sexual in nature. The truth of such crimes, unless they end in murder and there is a body, is that they are generally done in secret and become he said versus she said. Victims should not have to die before they are believed.
Entrenched, unacknowledged misogyny and sexism means we trust the word of women and children less. Our own darkest fears mean we want to believe they contributed to their own fate. We deny our own vulnerability so completely that we feel compelled to blame anyone who reminds us of it.
No wonder the woman, the child and the man who has been abused keep silent. Yet, if they do, the abuse goes on.
Jane Caro is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of women’s stories about sexual abuse, harassment and assault. “Unbreakable: Stories of Hope and Resilience” will be published by UQP in July, 2017.