I am 16 years old when a boy tells me he will rape me. I have read this scene, watched it played on soapy cop dramas – always in alleyways as he looms over her in the shadow of a dim overhead light, they’re both intoxicated and the music from the club echoes in the background. I am not at a party. I haven’t been drinking. Nobody is looming over me. I sitting in class, talking with my friends and the bell is about to signal the end of the day. I shift in my seat; this situation feels like the wrong size on me. I haven’t tasted alcohol yet, I have excellent grades and I’ve only attended one high school party. I realise now that I had fallen for the fantasy that these lines only exist for certain 'types’ of women, that if my skirt is long and my shirt is buttoned, this won’t happen. At 16, this illusion is shattered. The world feels unsafe.
I run from class. I catch the tram home every day but today I find myself on a suburban street, sobbing in a gutter. I phone my Mum; she asks me to breathe. I try to stop the world from spinning and the churning of my stomach by clutching the cobbled edge of the pavement – if I can feel the ground then it can’t be shaking; if I can clench the cobblestones then my world can stop cracking open. I am dizzy and lightheaded as pain stabs at my gut like cramps, is this the final stage of womanhood?
I am 21 when I gather with thousands of others; we stand in a park on a mid-winter Monday night. I have plans to meet friends but the crowd is too large to find them. I stand alone, holding a candle and singing ‘Hallelujah’ with my city. In the hours before her death, Eurydice Dixon discusses her feminism in her weekly stand up routine. She describes her worries about the future, laid out with punch lines to soften her grim depiction of a robot-enslaved society, and the audience giggle. It’s cruel joke of fate.
When the vigil is over, I walk to my tram stop wrapped in a coat with the wind ripping at the exposed parts of me. Eurydice followed the rules that she thought would keep her safe: it was early in the evening, she was wearing pants, she wasn’t intoxicated, she texted her boyfriend. The media press the details of this case into new mould – embossed in the minds of women. New rules are implemented for yet another archetype to form. My mother tells me not to wear headphones when walking at night, as if hearing my attacker will bring me comfort. The lighting in parks is debated because if you are able to see your rapist, perhaps you can run faster. Clutch your keys tight on the way home because it is better to die knowing you left a mark.
I am 16 when I learn that most sexual assault happens in the home from a man that you probably know and trust. The media tells me it is unsafe to walk alone at night, but there are other, more subtle messages to be heard. The relentless reporting of Jill Meagher, Eurydice Dixon and Courtney Herron screams at women to rush indoors after the sun goes down where is it more likely they will be attacked by fathers, brothers, friends, partners. The underreporting of Qi Yu, Preethi Reddy, and Natalina Angok tell us that while we sing in parks for white women, women of colour will be buried in silence.
I am 16 when I sit in the Vice Principal's office as she tries to console me. My year level, mostly made up of white girls from Catholic families, sees my reporting of the incident as an overreaction. The comment was intended as a joke, but to me, that is the most frightening part. I know his words have no intent, they carry no threat and I couldn’t care less about his punishment. A boy thinks it is funny to say this to a girl and this terrifies me like no horror story can. There is an underpinning of our culture that leads a woman to die every week and I have caught my first glimpse before I have left high school.
I sit sobbing because it is abhorrent that this culture exists, that when discussing a play a week earlier, a girl the same age as me argued that blackmailing someone into sex wasn’t rape. My high school employs a man to teach us self-defence, he lectures us on how men will grab us and pin us down. The boys school across the road receives no such training. Through my tears, I tell the teacher that I am glad this has happened. It has awakened something in me and I am able to see the holes in our culture that can be filled and plastered with education. I am young and naive enough to think that a Catholic girls school will aid me when teachers still admonish me, ‘sit like a lady’, but I beat on against the current.
I am almost 23 years old. I walk in marches with my brothers and sisters. I learn about intersectionality. I write on the injustices I see in the world. I recognise my privilege and continue to check it. I heed the benefits of social media by spreading petitions. Walking at night is something I cherish. I love the stillness of the ocean in the moonlight, the shimmering of wet grass in overbearing lights, playlists featuring soft voices and the caress of an accompanying piano. In the darkness, I can feel the edges of the world fragmented, but I’m still striving forward with every step.
Sam McDonald likes hiking, nature, poetry, the beach and other clichés. She’s currently doing postgrad at the University of Melbourne, but between her classes she finds the time to pet the neighbourhood cats, watch copious amounts of television and continue her search for Melbourne’s best bagels.