The act that would be called ‘rape’
Journalist and author Jane Gilmore has spent years fixing headlines.
In her new book Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media, out next month, Gilmore argues how journalists choose to report on sexual violence is important, as it shapes how readers make sense of what has occurred, including where readers assign blame and responsibility.
"Journalists and editors have a responsibility to the truth. Headlines that blame victims for the violence enacted against them is not journalism. It's deception," says Gilmore.
Gilmore has also taken aim at legal language that sanitises sexual violence against children, such as the Tasmanian charge of "maintaining a sexual relationship with a person under the age of 17".
"Children, by definition, cannot have sex with adults. It's not sex, it's rape," says Gilmore.
"And it's not a 'relationship': a relationship implies mutually consenting parties.
"Creating euphemisms for rape and abuse significantly softens the understanding of it and changes the way we think about raping children."
The expression "raping children" might be shocking to some people, but according to Gilmore, that's precisely the point.
"Yes, it is shocking but it should be shocking. It is a shocking crime and it should knock us back," she says.
When lawmakers crafted the "maintaining a sexual relationship with a child" offence, they no doubt did so with the best of intentions. They believed the softer language meant more offenders would plead guilty, saving children who had already been raped the trauma of having to give evidence at court.
But the sanitised language has dangerously distorted the public's understanding of the seriousness of the crime while warping their knowledge of the events themselves.
Crucially, it has also caused tremendous harm to sexual assault victims.
One of those victims is Grace Tame.
In 2010, Grace was groomed and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her 58-year-old high school teacher Nicolaas Bester at the elite St Michael's Collegiate girls' school in Tasmania. She was just 15 years old.
Bester was charged with "maintaining a sexual relationship with someone under the age of 17".
"This was not a relationship. This was an insidious and calculated crime committed by an evil man who spent months grooming me," says Grace.
Grace's mother Penny has also criticised the wording of the law. "The scars of self-harm on my daughter's body attest to persistent sexual abuse, not a sexual relationship. We must not sanitise what occurred."
Yet when Bester was found guilty in August 2011, the sentencing judge, Justice Helen Wood, stated that Bester was guilty of "maintaining a sexual relationship" having committed 20 to 30 acts of "intercourse".
Those are her words, not mine.
And it is important for the public to understand that legally, journalists are confined by the language of the crime that a person has been charged under, meaning that even though a 15-year-old girl cannot consent to any sexual act with a 58-year-old, journalists are obliged to use the word "relationship" as opposed to any other "r" word.
This has proved immensely frustrating for Grace, who says the word "relationship" romanticises Bester's violence and obscures the public's understanding of the "insidious grooming tactics" he used to isolate her and commit "heinous, calculated and vile crimes".
Politicians ought to also appreciate the complex chain reaction of other unintended consequences for victims because of the euphemistic language of the law. When Grace first disclosed at 16 and Bester was charged, the media reporting mirrored the language of the law he was charged under.
Headlines screamed this was a "relationship". Disgustingly, some went so far as to call it a "tryst" or even an "affair".
At school, Grace's peers then took their cue from the media, and Grace was mercilessly mocked and bullied.
In the playground she was called a "home-wrecker" (Bester was married at the time of the abuse), and a "sl*t". Around Hobart she would overhear others gossiping and sneering about her case.
In response, Grace, who had once been an A-grade student and scholarship holder, dropped out of school. She spiralled, becoming more anxious and withdrawn, also abusing alcohol and other drugs.
Tragically, instead of encircling this brave girl in love and support, she was merely shunned from the community as an ostracised social pariah.
Grace does not harbour any ill-will over this. She understands why her peers could not comprehend the situation because, at that age, they had not acquired the life experience or maturity to understand the inherent power imbalance in abuse.
She has also been moved beyond belief by the outpouring of love and support following her decision to go public last week.
We all have.
But politicians now have an opportunity to fix this law to prevent other victims from enduring similar unintended consequences.
In other Australian jurisdictions the equivalent law is the "persistent sexual abuse of a child", and today, End Rape On Campus Australia (which designed the #LetHerSpeak campaign) and Beyond Abuse again partner with Grace Tame and her family to call for the Tasmanian Government to promptly amend this law.
The Tasmanian Government in turn has praised Grace and has committed to working with her on this.
"It takes immense courage for survivors to speak about their experience, and I applaud the bravery shown by Grace Tame and her family," says Attorney-General Elise Archer.
"Ms Tame's experience is an example of why the Government has committed to investigating changes in this area both in terms of reform of section 194K and the crime of 'maintaining a sexual relationship with a young person'.
As Jane Gilmore says, "language matters".
It's time we #FixedIt.
Nina Funnell is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and a director of End Rape On Campus Australia