‘On Reckoning’: Amy Remeikis on systemic misogyny and female rage

Amy Remeikis’ On Reckoning is a blistering indictment of a critical moment in Australian politics and its enduring landscape of misogyny.

Warning: The following article contains a discussion of sexual assault and rape.

On Reckoning (Hachette) is far more than a retrospective account of the political storm that swept Australian politics early last year. Framing journalist Amy Remeikis’ experience as a survivor of a sexual assault against the Federal Government’s infuriating mess in responding to the Parliament House sexual misconduct allegations in 2021, the essay is a startling, searing liberation of female rage; one that has long been squashed under sexist double standards and a culture of misogyny.

Reverberating with passion, On Reckoning gives voice to the one in three women who have been sexually assaulted before the age of 15; it gives voice to the countless women who have borne the devastating brunt of trauma and must “wear the faces of other women” — sisters, wives, daughters — to be believed. The essay uses Remeikis’ unique position as a Federal politics reporter in the press gallery, as well as the integration of her personal experiences, to examine the temporal breadth of misogyny in Australia, and its inextricable, systemic link to sexual violence.

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Brittany Higgins’ watershed allegations, we sat down with Amy to discuss her extraordinary work and examine the fury of the world around us; one that you will find “in almost every household, workplace, street or cafe.” 

on reckoning march 4 justice
Brittany Higgins at the 2021 March 4 Justice in Canberra. (Photo: Getty)

HAPPY: Before we get into the discussion, I wanted to take a moment to say that I was so moved by On Reckoning. It’s so powerful. As a woman, and a journalist, I’m so grateful that there are voices like yours that are being uplifted in both publishing and the media.

AMY: Thank you so much. I wanted to be able to say something important, so I’m really glad that it resonated.

HAPPY: On Reckoning, while deeply passionate, does blend the personal and the political, combining anecdotal experience with things like statistical evidence, which really elevated the piece to more than just an A to B account of the events of last year [2021 Australian Parliament House sexual misconduct allegations].

AMY: Yeah, I think [On Reckoning] needed some context, because none of these things happen in a vacuum. I am a bit nervous about it coming out in the world, so that makes me feel better.

HAPPY: While I can definitely understand the nerves from a writers’ standpoint, and while it was a difficult read, the most important conversations are always difficult. But in the end, they’re always worth it. The same goes for On Reckoning, at least for me.

AMY: Thank you.

HAPPY: Was there a particular moment during the chaos of early 2021 that was the catalyst for writing this piece?

AMY: I think it was in the back of my mind the entire time. Everything that was happening during that period, we were just reacting to. Every day seemed to bring more trauma and disbelief, as well as more anger and more rage. I was watching it grow, not just within myself, but in the people around me — particularly, the women. It affected people outside of the gallery, everyday people. I would be in supermarkets and people would approach me to say “I’ve seen what you’ve been writing on this, I’m just so angry at what the government’s doing, and their response. I’ve never paid much attention to politics before, but I just want to do something.”

That was happening fairly regularly, and then I realised that there was a rage growing in a lot of people. And it wasn’t just because of what was happening in Parliament; while it did become a focal point, it was because of what had happened to so many people across their lives. Obviously, Brittany Higgins’ story is her own and she owns that, but there are so many other people that have similar stories and have felt that alone-ness. The feeling of being ignored, and that you won’t be believed. That fear really swept across the nation. And so, I was taking stock of that and wanted to write something that encapsulated that feeling, something longer than I could do at my day-to-day job at The Guardian. At the same time, I believe that there is definitely a thing such as “too much rage,” and I didn’t want to overwhelm people.

on reckoning
Photo: Hachette

HAPPY: Definitely. Going back to that time last year, when Brittany Higgins came out with her story, there was a term that took hold, not just in the press, but with people in their everyday lives: culture of misogyny.

AMY: Yeah.

HAPPY: It really came to mind when I was reading a section of your essay where you write, “We all know someone who has been sexually assaulted, or know of someone who has been, but we never seem to know the perpetrators. And yet, that’s statistically impossible. There is every chance that someone in your life is someone else’s monster. But we don’t want to address that because we only know nice guys. Good guys.” From my reading, this section delves into [misogyny] as a social structure that has been built to protect men. What are your thoughts on that interpretation? Would you agree?

AMY: I would say that it’s accurate. We do tend to protect men, at least their feelings. We see that with “not all men” trending quite frequently whenever we bring up issues like sexual assault. You always seem to need to add a qualifier when you talk about this topic. And it is, by in large, men who carry out these attacks. We know that from statistics. But you often find when people talk about this, that people have to say “not all men.”

And of course, it’s not all men. Just like it’s not all women that are sexually assaulted. But it does strike me, that when we talk about this issue, everyone has a story of someone that they know, if not themselves, who has been sexually assaulted. But I have never once heard someone say that they’ve known someone who has been arrested or faced court for sexual assault. We never hear that side of things.

I was also a court reporter for some time and would often cover sexual assault cases. There would always be character references, which inevitably — when coming from bosses, families, and friends — said that this type of behaviour was out of character. That is was “regrettable,” or a “moment in time,” or “drunk” — all these excuses for why this man carried out this act. For much of the time, this then went to decreasing the sentence. Many of these character references talk about how a conviction would ruin a young man’s life. While they are in the favour of the person that you love, these character references never seem to take into account that the victim has had their life derailed by the perpetrator’s spontaneous, “out of character” moment in time. That [the victim’s] life will never be the same, and their life could potentially be ruined.

We seem to focus on how to absolve the guilt of the perpetrator unless it is the worst of the worst attacks, which we saw with the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein in the United States, where countless women had to come forward with the same terrifying stories for something to be done. Unless we are talking about something of that magnitude, we very rarely see accountability. And I think that there is something that runs through society, where we try to find a reason why a man might have done this. Often, that reason comes down to the woman: “what was she wearing? Did she lead him on? Why was she so drunk?” We don’t see that with the proceedings of any other crime.

If your house is robbed, we don’t have people transferring blame onto victims, and dismissing the crime, using excuses like “why did you buy a fancy soundsystem? Why did you leave your doors unlocked? You deserved it.” We only see this rhetoric with crimes against women. It really spoke to me that during [February 2021], the focus was on women survivors having to relive their pain. The conversation didn’t turn to the way that men were behaving, but rather to how women could address the issue. In my opinion, I think that women have done their part.

HAPPY: I agree.

AMY: We’ve said enough. It’s time for the men to step up and discuss how they’re going to address this because they have a huge role to play in it.

HAPPY: Everything you’ve just said really does rest at the heart of the conversations I’ve had with even just the women in my life, over and over again, and the statistics that we read, over and over again. On that point, is there a way that you keep hope for change?

AMY: Change comes up in this conversation quite frequently. It’s so rare because we require such a systemic change and shift of power structures. Powerful people don’t tend to give up power, usually. We see that in all sorts of issues, when it comes to Indigenous affairs or issues involving people of colour, or any minority or vulnerable group. Personally, I am not confident that change is going to come. We saw the ultimate power structure, the Federal Government, do everything it could to avoid talking about this. To avoid any real change. Even now, they’ve only allowed two weeks of consultation on a Women’s Action Plan, which is unheard of when it comes to government policy. The Integrity Commission that they promised years ago is still under consultation, and yet when it comes to an issue that is affecting people’s lives, they think that two weeks will be enough.

So, I am not confident of change and there are two main reasons for that. The first is those power structures I spoke of, and it’s not just the men. I’m sure all of us know of — what I call “crumb maidens” — people who directly or indirectly benefit from those power structures and work to uphold them. They excuse and ignore the behaviour that they see, and essentially undermine the people who are trying to address it.

And then there’s also what’s happening in society, where we don’t seem to want to address the issue of sexual assault. Where no one wants to see their husband, father, brother, uncle, or even the nice guy at the cafe, as being capable of doing it. So we find excuses for them. It’s definitely an uncomfortable conversation. No one wants to think about a woman being raped, or that there are very unsafe places for women, trans women, and women of colour. So you don’t, and you don’t have those conversations because change is hard. It requires a change in mindset, and it requires action.

So often, people don’t address issues like this until it does happen to someone close to them. Suddenly, they start seeing their daughter’s face and going “oh God. What would I do if this was my daughter?” And if we have to imagine another woman’s face in place of a victim, then that just says that we are nowhere near ready to make the changes that we need to.

HAPPY: That reminds me of a report I read recently, the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces led by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins. It revealed that approximately a third of staffers had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the Parliamentary workplace.

AMY: Oh, yes.

HAPPY: And yet, nothing has been done. To bring it back to your essay — the word “reckoning” suggests that we have the opportunity to move closer to justice, and climb over this mountain. While I know it’s a big question because the issue is so complex and systemic, and I agree with you that women have more than enough borne the burden of re-living our trauma to get the message across, what else is there that can be done?

AMY: Well, I suppose there’s no simple answer to that. In the case of the Jenkins report, I don’t think there was a single woman in the country who was surprised at the results, because I don’t think there have been many women who have escaped sexual harassment at work. For a long time, it was considered a part of the workplace culture. So, the first thing that needs to happen is acknowledgment. Those little jokes, the boozy lunches, the microaggressions by male colleagues, all of that needs to be acknowledged as harassment. Not just “a bit of fun” or just something that women should be expected to sweep under the carpet.

Then, I think there needs to be accountability. We certainly didn’t see it from the Federal Government last year when the conversation was thrust into the spotlight.

HAPPY: Definitely. And, it’s been almost a year now.

AMY: Yeah, it’s a year next month. And we still haven’t seen accountability from the Federal Government. What we have seen is delays, diversions, and having to drag the Prime Minister to do the little that he has done. If the leader of the country is behaving like that, it sends a message to the public that the issue is excusable. Until we get acknowledgment and accountability, we cannot begin on change. They talk about action, but where is it?

HAPPY: Yeah. At this point, it does feel like empty words.

AMY: Yeah. I mean, the Prime Minister addressed an International Women’s Day breakfast where he talked about the need to respect and protect women. But we didn’t see that in the government’s responses. And if I recall correctly, at the same event in previous years, he talked about how we need to raise women up “but not at the expense of men.” So, if we’ve still got the leader of the country saying that we need to improve the situation for women, but not if it makes men uncomfortable. This is the attitude he had before Brittany Higgins came forward with her story, so it’s unsurprising that we’ve seen so little action, at least in my opinion.

HAPPY: All in all, I do want to bring it back to your essay which really did have such a big impact on me. In light of the highest offices invalidating women’s experiences and their trauma, to have a voice as powerful and strong as yours is so liberating.

AMY: Thank you so much. On Reckoning‘s purpose was to elevate other voices in this conversation. People have had their real lives impacted by this issue. It’s not a game, it’s not politics. It’s not something that you can win a focus poll over. This is something that derails lives, and it’s been going on for centuries. People have been screaming about the issue for decades, and no one has been listening. It’s not something that you can launch an inquiry, develop a report on, and then expect to go away. It’s still happening to people.

Even as we speak, there is somebody else waking up this morning as a different person. We really need to address this, address the attitudes across society where we can, at least, reduce the number of people that are waking up feeling like this. It changes you as a person, and it stays with you forever. You’ll never be the person that you were, or the person you could have been, because of an action that was perpetrated against you. The fact that we don’t take that seriously, and don’t acknowledge the rage that lives within people as a result of it, is really damaging and says a lot about our society.

On Reckoning is out now via Hachette.

Sexual assault support services

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

Ph: 1800 272 831

NSW Rape Crisis Centre
Ph: (02) 9819 6565 or 1800 424 017 (outside Sydney)

Domestic Violence Line
Department of Community Services
Ph: 1800 656 463 (24 hours)