"There has been a language built up to support victims and condemn perpetrators that is becoming more widespread... and has personally made me feel more empowered." Photo: Stocksy
I got my arse groped on the tram the other day.
Walking towards an exit on the crowded number 96 towards St Kilda, I felt a hand clasp firmly around my left buttock.
I was instantly repulsed.
This is not the first time a man has felt the right to grab me sexually, uninvited and unwanted, in public or private. In the times before, it scared me so much that I would go into a shame spiral, promising myself never to tell anyone. I remember being groped at age 13 while out with my girlfriends in the city. I didn't even tell them, I was so embarrassed.
But this time, nah-huh.
I whizzed around and sent that excuse of a man into his own shame spiral with my loud public yelling.
"What did you just do?" I screamed, finger pointing. "What gives you the right to touch a woman like that? It's illegal."
I might have come up with some better points, but I was just happy I could muster up anything at all.
On the walk home, like a pro, when another man gave me a "Hi beautiful...", I returned with a confident "F--- off!".
I felt liberated. Shaken, but proud. I'd beaten my usual deer-in-headlights fear response.
When I was 18, I woke up to being sexually assaulted by a friend's boyfriend. I completely froze. I pretended to still be asleep. I was frightened into immobility. When I told my boyfriend – who was asleep next to me when it happened - and friends, their response was bewildering.
"It can't have been that bad if you didn't stop him."
"She must have liked it."
His response was that he was "horny". People thought this seemed reasonable. He stuffed up; boys will be boys and all that. He was not exited from our social group. In fact, I came home one day to find him at our house.
After the tram incident, it got me thinking.
Why was I able to speak up now? My instinct this time was to fight. How come?
Similarly, when a young man told me a few weeks ago, "I'd poke you in that polka dot dress", the tirade of rage I exploded in his face even startled me.
That I'm now 34 might have helped, but I feel there was something more at play. I believe it is because I feel more supported.
Although the comment sections on websites, such as this one, are filled with victim-blaming misogynist diatribes and we are now all familiar with the acronyms MRA (men's rights activists) and PUA (pick-up artists), alongside has grown a dialogue that confronts these archaic attitudes.
Perhaps the support I now feel has been spurred along because the online women-haters only shed light on the obstacles we face.
After my encounter on the tram, I decided to post about it on Facebook, unsure how it would go down.
It received more than 120 likes and almost 50 comments. Women and men jumped on in support. I was blown away.
Unsurprisingly, some women said it had happened to them. But, what did surprise me was the language used by both women and men to contextualise the behaviour, not commonly heard in years before. Especially not in 1998 when I had no such words. Phrases such as 'victim-blaming', 'male privilege' and 'mutual respect' were used.
There has been a language built up to support victims and condemn perpetrators that is becoming more widespread. Movements such as #YesAllWomen and #EverydaySexism, writers such as Clementine Ford and Ruby Hamad, men such as Tom Meagher and former Victoria Police Commission Ken Lay have personally made me feel more empowered. It's the knowledge that I have my society's support that helped me to find my voice.
Then there were the men who decided my post was all a big joke. Because fear of walking in a public space, sexual trauma and anxiety – all identified outcomes of sexual assault – are so funny.
One of the worst things sexual assault does is turn the pleasurable, primal and human bonding experience of sexual touch into a cause for panic.
These comments show me the long way we have to go.
The worst one told me it was because of my "mighty fine ass" that "all the boys wanna get all grabby wit (sic) you". When I told him his comment was disgusting, he told me "don't flatter yourself".
This was when my friends got the most impressive. He was eloquently told sexual assault was not a compliment and it was these attitudes that perpetuated violence against women. He privately messaged me an apology the next day that seemed thoughtful and sincere (he had been deleted and could no longer comment on the post). I don't think he would have offered it if no one had stood up to him. Calling people out makes a difference.
One in five Australian women and one in 20 men have experienced sexual assault after the age of 15. One in three women and one in six men experienced it before. Of offences against both sexes, 93 per cent of perpetrators are male.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies has complied research on women's experiences of sexual and street harassment. It found they are "highly prevalent" and "common" experiences for women, yet are not taken seriously as harm and are often seen as welcome behaviour.
It said all forms of sexual violence are interconnected and all underpinned by the same social attitudes.
The normalisation and acceptance of relatively "minor" forms of sexual harassment contributes towards a broader culture that facilitates and excuses sexual assault and rape.
So, in other words, minimising and laughing at gropes on public transport makes some men feel it's okay to sexually assault a woman when they feel "horny".
Most interesting, the research found that men with a proclivity to perpetrate sexual violence were no more likely to harass women than other men when living in a society that rejects the behaviour.
This is great news: Standing up and speaking out against sexual harassment and violence in all forms can work to stop it.
It empowers victims to have a voice, supports them in the aftermath and tells perpetrators their behaviour is unacceptable.
Challenging rape jokes might not be popular at parties. I know I find it hard. But not to would be to allow a culture that says sexual assault isn't that bad.
It would be a disservice to the 18-year-old girls out there too fearful to speak up as I once was.