Can we please stop the victim blaming?

A missing person sign on the coner of Hope Street and Sydney Rd, Brunswick.

A missing person sign on the coner of Hope Street and Sydney Rd, Brunswick. Photo: Penny Stephens

By now, we’re no doubt all familiar with the distressing case of Jill Meagher. In the early hours of Saturday morning, Meagher went missing while making the short walk from a bar in Brunswick to her home five minutes away. At the time of writing, the public were no closer to knowing where she might be or what might have happened to her. The details surrounding her disappearance were still thin on the ground, with even the route she took home subject to speculation rather than concrete facts.

Yet less than 72 hours later, self-fancying armchair detectives had already taken to social media to share their uninformed, moronic theories on what might have happened. A Facebook page ostensibly set up to support the search for Meagher has been inundated with all manner of unhelpful commentary, from the relatively benign (but incessant) pleas for Meagher’s family to contact a psychic (apparently police will take days to discover anything, but psychics have feelings about things) to the nauseating speculation about the level of emotion being displayed by her husband (can we all pause for a moment to remember Lindy Chamberlain?).

And naturally, the trolls that reside beneath the bridge that connects stupidity with hatefulness can’t stay away. Despite the fact that this woman is still missing and that we have found no trace of her yet but in the dark recesses of our imaginations, some folk are still relishing the opportunity to remind women that if they don’t want anything bad to happen to them, they should be more careful about drinking/staying out late/talking to strangers who aren’t their husbands/wearing suggestive clothing/walking while female/having a vagina in the first place.  

Missing... ABC radio employee Jill Meagher.

Missing... ABC radio employee Jill Meagher. Photo: Facebook: Help Us Find Jill Meagher

Yesterday, a man commented on the "Help Find Jill Meagher" community Facebook page and included the following assessment:


"She was obviously at a bar/club, left there in the early hours of the morning, obviously partially pissed/drunk, and she 'lead someone on' [sic] and the consequences followed her. if she is going to flirt with someone, make sure that you go through with it because someone is obviously pissed off with her….in my opinion, it’s now old news, she met with foul play as a result of her actions inside the pub/bar OR as I mentioned before…ask the husband." 

If you think it’s disgusting to speculate on whether or not a still-missing woman might have been ‘asking for it’, you’d be right. (I’m sure I don’t even need to repeat that the idea of anyone, man or woman, ‘asking’ to have violence of any sort inflicted upon them is utter codswallop, no matter what they might have been wearing/doing/drinking at the time.)

Police tape at Hope Street, Brunswick, where belongings of missing woman Jill Meagher have been found.

Police tape at Hope Street, Brunswick, where belongings of missing woman Jill Meagher have been found. Photo: Penny Stephens

Unfortunately, many people who use the internet are stupid. They lack the ability to see beyond their own immediate circumstances, yet have somehow convinced themselves of the idea that their opinions - opinions based on nothing other than raw feeling, bigotry and some rigid sense of how they feel the world should work in order to best absolve themselves of any responsibility for decency whatsoever - are as meaningful and valid as those that belong to people who practice consideration, thoughtfulness and compassion. They will storm without shame into a sanctuary whose sole purpose is to give hope to friends and allies through the dark days ahead and, after desecrating its walls, they will breeze out again having achieved nothing other than causing a little more heartache and a little less hope.

I expect this of trolls on the internet. But it’s a little different when it comes from the mainstream media. It’s here that we really see how far we’re willing to descend when it comes to turning a potential tragedy into a ‘good story’ with a splash of moralising thrown in for good measure.

On Monday, Neil Mitchell expressed the hope on 3AW that Meagher had been “off partying somewhere, [because] judging from her Facebook page she likes a good party”. That it’s become de rigueur for journalists to rummage around private Facebook pages in order to bolster stories is problematic enough - that Mitchell found it necessary to comment on what kind of lifestyle Meagher may or may not have enjoyed in a speculative story about her possible abduction simply beggars belief.

It gets worse. Yesterday, Andrew Rule spent approximately a thousand words in the Herald Sun painting a picture of a beautiful, naive young woman who simply should have known better than to walk down dark, forboding Hope Street when another route would have served her better and proved safer.

Rule uses the following lines (among others) to ostentatiously furrow his brow and waggle his finger at Meagher for neglecting to notice her vagina and take proper care of her safety: “Police believe the stretch of Hope St from Sydney Rd west across the railway line is Jill's usual route home to their apartment.

“We all have our favourite routes, from habit rather than logic. But for a stranger looking around in daylight, there seems no obvious reason why a young woman would choose to walk this way home late at night ... There are better spots for a young woman to be walking alone after a night out drinking with workmates, ending in Sydney Rd after starting in the city."

Except that no one, especially not Rule, has any idea which route Meagher took that night or if she was even on Hope Street. This moralising rubbish was predicated on the mere speculation that she may have been walking somewhere that Rule, in his infinite grown-up male wisdom, thinks is unsafe.

He doesn’t consider that perhaps Meagher - if she indeed was on this route - has probably walked it a thousand times, many of those at night. He doesn’t consider that many women AND men walk all over Brunswick and other suburbs all the time AT NIGHT and encounter nothing other than the obnoxious squeals of late night revellers. He doesn’t consider that women, trained from an early age to assume every night-time situation could carry some danger (despite the fact that the majority of attacks occur in the home by people known to them and not always at night, and that street harassment doesn’t operate in conjunction with the rise and fall of the sun) naturally develop strategies and tools in order to get themselves home safely, despite the constant bleating from people that they need to take more care and accept the reality of their own vulnerability. Nowhere does he (nor any other critic who makes it their business to blame women for being reckless because it's easier than blaming men for attacking them) acknowledge that it is the right of all women to be able to walk safely down any street they like - but knowing that they are unable to, they make intelligent choices about where they'll go because they are autonomous adults whose own experiences in this area supersede any kind of advice Rule might be able to give them.

Andrew Rule especially doesn’t take into account the fact that, while he’s loudly wringing his hands over the curious decision of such a beautiful young woman (these things seem very important to him) to walk herself home at night via an unconfirmed route that he doesn’t approve of, her husband and family are still dealing with the alternate trauma and hope of waiting to find out if this has all been a big misunderstanding; a horrible dream. The very last thing they need is to deal with the false veneer of concern people hide behind in order to morally chastise and scold young women for not understanding that the rules are different for them.

Jill Meagher is a real person, not a plotline on a shonky TV detective drama. She has real people who are frightened for her welfare. Yet we have strangers speculating publicly about what she might have done to put herself in harm’s way and tabloid media commenting on her social habits? Is this what we’ve become? Leave the detective work to the professionals. Abandon the moralising altogether. There are only three facts that the public need to be mindful of. First, there is a woman missing. Second, her family have cause to be frightened. And finally, crucially, neither they nor she have done anything to deserve the nightmare they currently find themselves in.