Sexual bullying was endemic at the Catholic high school Helena attended in the late 1980s, in an agricultural part of Victoria.
‘There just seemed to be this approach, which was, girls’ bodies were meant to be looked at, and we needed to do everything in our power to not grab any attention so that didn’t happen.’
The boys would harass the girls in various ways: sexualised comments, teasing about their developing bodies, lifting up their skirts to expose their underwear and peering down their shirts to see their breasts.
Although this behaviour often happened in front of the teachers, the boys were never reprimanded. If the girls complained they would be told ‘you just need to stand up, and just ignore it, they’ll stop teasing you and they’ll go away’.
Helena was in Year 9 when her classmate, Toby Blackwood, started making sexually suggestive comments. ‘I knew that if I reacted at that stage, that my feeling from what I’d been taught at school was, that if I reacted it would get worse.’
Blackwood sat in the seat in front of her. He would turn around and fondle her breasts, or lean back to touch her thighs. Helena tried to keep her legs tightly together, but a number of times he digitally penetrated her.
She was surprised the teacher never noticed. ‘I’d think, how is no one seeing this happen? ... Somebody must see this, somebody must know this is happening to me. And because I didn’t know what to call it, I didn’t even know what to say.’
Helena would tell Blackwood to stop, but not knowing how to speak about sexual abuse made it very hard. ‘I wish the culture at my school hadn’t been that way, because I think if it had been named, sexual harassment and that’s not okay ... I might have had a language that I felt like I could use. There was no language other than “Girls, you need to be quiet”.’
Because the boys’ behaviour was generally accepted, Helena was unsure how to frame what was happening: ‘Can you be molested by somebody who’s the same age as you? I’d only ever heard about it in the context of an adult’. She ‘knew what sexual harassment was, I just didn’t associate it with school’.
The girl who sat behind Helena would see Blackwood harassing her, and check if she was okay. She would tell the teacher ‘he is hassling Helena’, and sometimes he would be moved away for short periods.
Helena was never asked directly about what was going on with Blackwood. He stalked and intimidated her before school, touching her breasts or undoing her shirt. This abuse continued throughout the school year, then simply stopped without explanation.
The next year Blackwood told some other boys what he had done to Helena. Two of them started bullying her and calling her a slut. Again, teachers were present when this happened, but they did nothing to stop it.
Blackwood left the school, but one day these boys arranged for him to come back and hang around Helena’s locker. When she saw him she began crying and ran away. A friend asked her what was happening, and she disclosed Blackwood’s previous abuse.
They reported it to their year co-ordinator, who consulted the principal. The girls were told that their parents would not be informed, nor should the girls tell them, and Helena should focus on her studies rather than discussing it further.
She was shocked that she was being silenced, and started to question her own reactions to the abuse. ‘To be honest I thought I must have been over-reacting, maybe what happened wasn’t a big deal.’
Feeling she had to stay silent, she withdrew into herself and kept away from the boys. She studied hard, got good grades, and began university the next year.
Soon after, Helena broke down in a pub one night, after seeing a man who looked similar to Blackwood. Two older girls she knew sat with her and asked what was going on.
She told them what she had been through. They said, ‘You’ve been raped, you’ve been sexually assaulted. This is not okay, nobody should have told you to keep quiet. You need help. This is not your fault’.
Helena saw a university counsellor, and decided to tell her parents about the abuse. Her father was ‘amazing’. He told her it wasn’t her fault, and that they loved her.
‘It was a really distressing day, because my mum, with whom I was really close, just kept saying, “Why didn’t you tell me, how did I not know, what have I done wrong that I didn’t know this was happening to you?” It took us a long time to get to a point where we were okay again.’
Helena couldn’t face confronting the school a second time, so her parents made a complaint. Still, there was no investigation, and she was never contacted by the school or the Catholic Education Department.
‘At no point did the school say, “We’d like to apologise, make some sort of recognition of what happened”. There was no communication.’
Helena believes there were probably other girls sexually abused there, too. She knows that a program educating students about it has since been introduced, and believes the school’s treatment of sexual bullying has started to change.
The abuse, and the school’s failure to properly address it with Helena, had ongoing impacts. She became wary of authority figures, and experienced difficulties with physical intimacy. Her husband is very supportive, and she finds resilience in her faith and strong female friendships.
Helena has kids of her own now, and works with youth who are at risk. She tells them what she wishes she had known back then. ‘It’s not okay to bully, it’s not okay to touch other people without their permission. And if somebody’s doing that, and it just makes you feel uncomfortable, or it makes you feel yucky inside, you don’t have to know, you don’t have to have the words, just tell somebody.’