By Alison Andrew
11 February 2022
In January 2020, Grace Tame entered our lives as a collective symbol and a public figure, speaking into the space of sexual assault. She brought what has been hidden out into the light.
Because of the recognition Ms Tame received for campaigning to change Tasmanian laws, a public conversation began and is continuing. This is an answer to prayer for all people, as what was unspoken and ignored has now been brought into the public sphere.
Now go back four months before we knew Ms Tame. On 13 October 2020, my teenage daughter was brutally raped. As a mother, I jumped headfirst into researching Australia’s laws and issues of consent, and I discovered them to be lacking in both substance and application. I kept asking, “Why are we not talking about this?” And my prayer every night? It was continually, “Lord, we need to bring this issue out into the open, we need to talk about it”.
The more I researched, the more I realised that our laws around consent needed drastic change. In my heart I hoped we would not shy away from issue of sexual assault, because in all our communities we are surrounded by survivors who have been expected to be silent, so as not to disrupt others’ lives.
Then Ms Tame and Brittany Higgins entered onto the public stage. Thank goodness, someone had the courage to speak out. My prayer was answered.
Suddenly, the big silence around sexual assault in our communities, the silence that we have for so long tried to ignore, was up for discussion. All over Australia the conversation took a dramatic shift.
As Ms Tame met the Prime Minister as outgoing Australian of the Year, words like “spoilt child” swirled in the media, as did many suggestions on how she “should” have behaved. Too quickly, we all jumped on the bandwagon with an opinion: “Should she have respected the office if not the man? Should she have been thankful? Should she have responded differently?”
Even having these conversations made two erroneous assumptions. Firstly, Ms Tame is not the issue, sexual assault and endemic institutional sexual harassment and assault is the issue.
But secondly, and what I find perhaps the most compelling reason not debate how Ms Tame should or should not have behaved is this.
In debating her behaviour, we as a society are perpetuating the very abuse that Ms Tame has survived, where people felt they had a right to tell her what she should and should not do with her body. As she said after the meeting with the Prime Minister, abuse culture is dependent on “submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders”. We do not own Ms Tame, she is not our property.
Listening to both Ms Tame and Ms Higgins’ recent speeches to the Press Club, I was struck by how they both felt little had changed. I wanted to tell them that their voice and their courage had inspired people across this land to speak up. That their courage had inspired courage, their words set people free from the prison of silence. That it is not their job to fix the issue, their job was to start the conversation, which we continue and we will help lead to change.
In Victoria last November, the Victorian Law Reform Commission submitted a host of recommendation to the Attorney General in their 614 page report Improving the Justice System Response to Sexual Offences. This report drew on the submission of 71 survivors, and my daughter’s story was one of them. The law recommendations coming from that report are an answer to prayer. These laws, will protect the survivor in assaults, and bring a multitude more healing opportunities for survivors in Victoria.
So, what is our response as a church? As a faith community? What are we doing in this space?
Well, we are doing well to be compliant on paper and in words with our “Safe Ministry” training. But at a person-to-person level, in our faith communities, where is the change and what should the change be?
The reality is in any community with people, there are survivors of sexual assault. We have a privileged position as members of faith communities to lead change in this area. People need the church to be a place where they feel safe, a place to experience the love and grace of God. So my recommendation would be to start with something simple, the first step is to ask the question, “What do we do here? And what can we do to help people feel safe in this place?”
The Reverend Alison Andrew is available to talk at youth groups and churches on the issue of consent. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.