Sexual Danger: Women’s Constant Emotional Lodger

20 / 06 / 2013

Jill Meagher’s rape and murder last year in the suburb of Brunswick, Melbourne, gripped the nation. Yesterday, her killer was sentenced. For this edition of Sheilas, writer Clementine Ford provides a powerful rundown of the events leading up to yesterday’s sentencing, and writes that it is time we radically shift the onus of responsibility in responding to men’s violence against women.

On June 19, 2013, Adrian Ernest Bayley was sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of Jill Meagher. Bayley will serve a minimum of 35 years before he becomes eligible for parole, meaning he’ll be at least 76 years old before he ever has the opportunity to walk the streets again as a semi-free man. It’s no doubt small solace for those who have lost their daughter, their lover and their friend. But it’s something.

It’s been nine months, but I remember that week well. It started with a Facebook page and ended with a community whose desolation matched the dreary grey weather that had descended on Melbourne. The now iconic image of a happy Meagher smiling as a poster declared her missing began doing the rounds shortly after her disappearance, quickly attracting thousands of people offering genuine hopes that she was okay. She was discussed in cafes and at tram stops. Whispers of ‘Did you hear about…?’ were met with solemn nods. ‘It’s terrible,’ everyone declared.

Over the next few days, a few more details emerged – a handbag found in a deserted alleyway and an unidentified man in a blue hoodie caught on CCTV who was later brought in for questioning. I remember sitting at home alone on the Thursday evening and crying as news broke that this same man, Adrian Bayley, had agreed to take detectives to where he had buried Meagher. I cried again the next morning when my partner woke me to tell me they’d found her body. Without realising it, I’d been holding out hope that they’d find her alive, even as all hope was lost.

Perhaps what gripped us about this case was how perfectly it conformed to our own nightmares. This was Stranger Danger writ large, the manifestation of female fears come to life before our eyes. And in the inevitable conclusion of that narrative, suddenly the question wasn’t whether or not something bad had happened to Jill Meagher but what she might have done to invite it.

Media commentators began scrutinising her short walk home, wondering why she’d declined the offer of an escort. Baldfaced questions were posed about why she’d been out without her husband, wearing heels and Drinking While Female. Talk of ‘evil monsters’ on the streets began to ramp up. Internet news forums were filled with people pleading for women to be more careful. ‘We’re not saying it’s fair girls, but there are bad people out there and you need to protect yourselves against them!’

Of course, it’s also verboten to assume that some of these ‘bad people’ might be men you either know or have just met. I can’t help but feel some of the blame for Meagher’s fate lays at the feet of a society which forces women to accept the unwanted attention of men with politeness, lest we hurt their feelings. We are told to beware the Evil Monsters, yet abused when we behave as if those monsters might walk among us. Is it any wonder we indulge conversations we don’t want to have, with men we don’t want to talk to? That we’ve learned to translate our disinterest not through assertive demands to be left alone, but language just lacklustre enough to be dismissive without being unkind?

Ladies, you have to start being more sensible.

The purveyors of this helpful advice seemed to forget, as they always do, that the spectre of potential sexual danger is our constant emotional lodger. It lurks in the shadows of our own minds, reminding us of our vulnerability, urging us to take the long way home because there’s better lighting, forcing us to look at the ground instead of the night sky, to listen out for footsteps instead of to the music of our own thoughts.

And the narrative of women’s responsibility also ignores, as it always does, the driving factor of sexual assault: that it occurs because of the perpetrator, not the victim. Even if Jill Meagher had done everything ‘right’ that night – remained sober, worn flat shoes, accepted a walk home from a friend, gone home straight after work to a waiting husband – it still wouldn’t have stopped Adrian Bayley from seeking a solution to the misogynist rage that fuelled much of his existence by raping and murdering a woman.

The best it might have done was stop him from doing it to her.

Now that Bayley has been sentenced for his crimes, it’s tempting to think that the story has been resolved. But Meagher’s is just one chapter in a never-ending anthology of gendered attacks. Adrian Bayley threw Jill Meagher in a hole and hoped she would slowly fade from the world’s memory. Countless other women have endured the same violation, are enduring it even as we speak and will endure it for as long as we allow it to happen.

The time for advice and preventative measures is well and truly over.