Jay Hanna: There is no such thing as the perfect victim

Headshot of Jay Hanna
Jay Hanna
The Nightly
There is no such thing as the perfect victim. Sometimes she is quiet and the ‘no’ comes out as a mere squeak. Sometimes she fights gallantly, scratching, screaming and hitting.
There is no such thing as the perfect victim. Sometimes she is quiet and the ‘no’ comes out as a mere squeak. Sometimes she fights gallantly, scratching, screaming and hitting. Credit: Naomi Craigs

There is no such thing as the perfect victim.

Sometimes she is quiet and meek and the “no” comes out as a mere squeak. Sometimes it catches in her throat.

Sometimes she can’t recall if she said the word at all. Maybe she just heard it in her head, “no”.

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Sometimes she is not even sure if it even happened. Was it a nightmare? A misunderstanding? Sometimes the memories are fuzzy because she had a few drinks but she didn’t ask for that.

Sometimes she remembers every moment. But sometimes she forgets. Sometimes it’s just the memory of locked doors, the futility of putting up a fight, the resignation.

Switching off, shutting down, surrendering herself, not to him but to numb oblivion.

Or maybe she fought gallantly, maybe she scratched, screamed, hit and bit.

Maybe she did those things but there’s still no such thing as the perfect victim.

Maybe she was left bloody and bruised but now she’s just bone weary and aware that it is what’s underneath that will never really heal.

Maybe afterwards she walked home and didn’t look crossing the road. She just forged ahead, across four lanes, turning neither left nor right. Not caring if a truck took her out. Maybe she doubted there would be much left for the truck to hit because in her mind she was just a ghost. Empty and hollow.

Sometimes she talks, telling everyone — police, nurses, lawyers, judges, juries. Letting them tear away more pieces of her in the pursuit of justice. Her trust, her faith, her sense of self, being ripped from her like bark from a tree.

Maybe they believed her, maybe it was worth it but often the price is too high and she’s left exposed and let down.

Sometimes she’s too busy picking up the broken pieces to allow more hands to touch her, more body invasions. So she says not a word. She locks it all away, for years, decades. She doesn’t even tell her mother, her friends, future boyfriends, the man she married.

It stays buried under a pile of shame. Even decades on it’s a wound too raw and painful to consider exposing. So, she pretends it happened to someone else. And after a while she even partly believes it until something brings it all flooding back.

There is no such thing as the perfect victim.

One that won’t let her rapist hold her afterwards, whispering sorry against her back, too weary to push him away. Too empty to cry.

One that won’t continue to smile and say hello to him at school, the gym, the office, across the dining table.

One who cannot contemplate pointing her finger and anointing blame when she is riddled with shame. And not even sure if it wasn’t her fault after all.

Was she asking for it, like everyone always says?

He believed Ms Higgins because he accepted and understood that trauma, fear and shame compels victims to do or say things others might think impossible.

Besides, how could she possibly contemplate calling herself a victim when she’s seen what happens to the brave women who dare claim that title. To the Brittany Higginses and Grace Tames of the world. She’s seen the way they’ve been demonised, doubted, accused.

“You were drunk”, “you were with a man you barely knew”, or simply, “you were alone with a man”. “How DARE you put yourself in that position”.

There is no such thing as the perfect victim.

Because just like the medical, legal and judicial systems the victim-survivors must crawl through and climb over, like the world’s harshest assault course, the ideal of the perfect victim was created, decided and decreed under a patriarchal system. Enshrined in books, files and manuals by men who don’t want to protect and defend victim-survivors but rather defend men, like themselves, who one day might stand accused by lying, cheating and swindling pretend victims.

The perfect victim doesn’t exist, while the victim-survivor must summon all her strength to go on living.

There is no denying we are in the grips of a devastating crisis of male violence, with 27 women killed at the hands of men in the 16 weeks since January 1. This week alone, two women have allegedly died as a result of gendered violence.

While it is hard to find hope in such grim circumstances, sexual assault victim-survivors have been buoyed by Federal Court judge Justice Michael Lee taking a blowtorch to the notion of the perfect victim at Bruce Lehrmann’s high profile defamation case against Network Ten and Lisa Wilkinson earlier this month.

Justice Lee told the nation that on the balance of probabilities he believed Mr Lehrmann did rape Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in 2019.

It is hoped Justice Lee’s findings might bring sweeping change to how the justice system handles sexual assault cases.

In his decision Justice Lee declared that “typical” or “genuine” victim behaviour does not exist.

He believed Ms Higgins because he accepted and understood that trauma, fear and shame compels victims to do or say things others might think impossible.

He also acknowledged that abused women deploy coping mechanisms to survive. That their brains will shut down, block out and blur memories just to stop them from falling apart.

Justice Lee understood that when a woman comes forward, it is because she cannot go back and doesn’t want anyone else to follow in her footsteps.

And by telling the whole country that the version of victimhood we’ve been sold is counterfeit, Justice Lee provided hope to the many thousands of imperfect victim-survivors who wanted someone to say you don’t have to be the perfect victim to be believed.

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