‘This stuff is so weird and so odd that it’s unbelievable. And that’s nice in some ways, that people think that that’s impossible, but it does make it pretty difficult to raise these things that are right out on the edge of oddness.’
Stuart’s experience of sexual abuse was ‘odd’ because the people who abused him didn’t fit the usual offender profile. They were 12-year-old girls.
At the time of the abuse, Stuart was an eight-year-old student at a small one-teacher school. The girls, who were also students at the school, set upon him one day and dragged him to a secluded spot behind the shed. There they stripped him naked, pinned him down and inserted a piece of stick into his penis.
‘It was painful,’ Stuart said. ‘It was humiliating and it was weird.’
Stuart didn’t really understand what had happened to him but he knew it felt wrong, so after school that day he mentioned the incident to his brother. His brother – who was the same age as the offenders and may well have been a complicit bystander for part of the incident – told Stuart to ‘never talk about this again, not even to the dog’.
Stuart took his brother’s advice to heart. He put his head down and kept quiet. Meekness became a coping strategy which then became an entrenched part of Stuart’s personality. The fears ignited by the abuse mingled with the fears he felt at home – ‘where my father was fairly dictatorial and corporal punishment was common’ – and as a result Stuart lost all his self-confidence.
‘I felt vulnerable and powerless and unimportant. So then my life has, unfortunately, since then has been a sort of a pattern of me being in bullied situations very easily.’
On the other hand, he said that his experience of being marginalised has helped him to understand the plight of people who are bullied and downtrodden and he’s applied that understanding to his work, helping to give voice to people in fringe communities.
In part, Stuart said, helping others was a way to avoid dealing with his own problems. He was too scared to talk openly about his past. He felt as though he would not be believed, or that his abuse would be minimised or treated as a joke. He feared that he would be blamed in some way, or told to ‘get over it’ – a fear that was exacerbated by his brother’s belief that the abuse was just a normal form of ‘experimentation’. Stuart also felt intense shame and embarrassment about what had occurred.
So the most he could do was make oblique references to the topic in the hope that someone would respond compassionately and invite further conversation. Sadly, this never happened.
‘I did, at various times during my adult life, raise the possibility of females being aggressors, and females doing sexual violence, with various people just in conversations if you like. And I guess what I was probably doing was floating, you know: “Would you believe something like this?” And in all cases it was disbelief, pooh-poohing it, the idea.’
The turning point came recently when Stuart was listening to the radio one day and heard an expert being interviewed about child sexual abuse. ‘She said that women can be sexual attackers as well, and that’s a crime. And I went to myself, turning around, I said, “Oh, this was a crime?” I didn’t know it was against the law.’
Up until that moment Stuart’s attitude had been that ‘this had happened and it was terrible but there’s nothing I can do about it. No one else thinks it’s a bad thing’. But after hearing the woman on the radio he realised that he’d been a victim of a crime and had to say something about it.
He still wasn’t ready to verbalise his experiences so instead he wrote them down in an email to the Royal Commission and then passed the email to his wife to read. He then spoke to a counsellor from the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA). That experience was ‘just fantastic’.
Stuart said that his conversations with the counsellor and with staff at the Royal Commission have reassured him that female offending is taken seriously by some sectors of the community. However, he believes that many people still don’t give it the attention it warrants. He’s read a lot of articles and academic papers on the subject and they always seem to convey the same message: ‘Because it’s a minority thing, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s deal with the majority.’
Stuart has taken it upon himself to do what he can to spread the word about the seriousness of female offending. He wants other survivors like him to feel that their experiences are just as significant as other forms of abuse.
‘For me, I had to hear someone say on the radio that it is wrong and that females can do this thing. Up to that point I just thought it was something that no one else would consider of interest.
‘So I’m guessing that other people might have that sort of feeling too, of suffering this sort of thing or at risk from it. So I guess my inclination with all of this is if I can do something to help prevent even this happening to one other person then it’s worth going through the pain of having to relive all of this.’