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'Grace was 15 when her teacher groomed her.' The sexual assault story a victim wasn't allowed to share.

I first met Grace Tame in 2017.

She had contacted me in my role as a journalist and wanted my help to report her story.

At age 15, she had been groomed and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her 58-year-old high school maths teacher, Nicolaas Bester, at the elite St Michael’s Collegiate Girls’ school in Hobart.

At age 16 Grace had found the courage to report him, first to the school, then the police and finally through the courts.

By age 22, she had made the decision that she wished to waive her right to anonymity and speak out publicly, hoping that her story might educate others on the warning signs of grooming, and prevent other children from being targeted by predators.

But we quickly discovered that the story would not be possible – at least not the way she wanted it done.

In Tasmania and the Northern Territory it is a crime for any journalist to name a sexual assault survivor, regardless of their consent.

If I did name Grace – as she wished – I could face serious prosecution and potential fines. Similarly, the way the law stands in the NT, if I were to name a survivor there (with their consent) I could face up to six months jail.

Watch part of Grace Tame’s interview on ABC’s 7.30. Post continues after video.

Video via ABC

As a journalist I find these laws shocking. But as a sexual assault survivor myself, I find them absolutely outrageous and disempowering.

Following my own assault in NSW in 2007, I chose to speak out publicly about my experience to help educate others on the impacts of trauma and victim-blaming attitudes. That was a turning point in my recovery as I was able to use a fundamentally disempowering experience to help educate others, thereby rewriting the significance that awful event had in my life. It was how I took my power back.

Since then I’ve been able to use my experience to campaign for the rights of other sexual assault survivors, and other reforms such as improved consent education.

So learning Grace Tame couldn’t tell her story didn’t only offend my journalistic sensibilities: it also cut to the core of what had been important in my own recovery.

In response, lawyers and I began researching and we discovered that the only way Grace could speak to me using her real name is if we took her fight to the Supreme Court.

At the time, only three other victims in Tasmania had ever done this and won. We decided to pursue this option but as we did, it quickly became apparent that the process would be protracted, expensive and distressing. As part of it, Grace was forced to make a case as to why her story was “in the public interest”. That is, she had to prove to someone else that her voice and her case mattered.

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The nature of sexual violence is that it robs a person of power and control. To then be robbed of one’s own name and voice is a further degradation and form of silencing.

To have to then request permission from the State to use your own name is yet another degradation, particularly since in Grace’s case the perpetrator could speak out as he pleased.

And he did.

In 2015 he bragged on social media that the abuse of Grace was “awesome” and that other men were “envious”.

Then in 2017, he did an interview with Bettina Arndt where he claimed that he was the true victim, saying:

“I lost everything, I lost my home … I lost my job, I lost my status in the community. I lost absolutely everything. It was a devastating time [for me]”.

nicolaas
Nicolaas Bester and Bettina Arndt. Image via Youtube.

In that video Arndt describes Grace’s behaviour as “sexually provocative” and laughs as she references Bester’s second offence of creating child exploitation material saying “I can imagine how easily this happens”.

In a further insult to Grace, Arndt also states that teen girls “use their seductive powers to ruin the lives of men”.

Throughout these ordeals Grace couldn’t respond. She couldn’t defend herself. And nor could her parents, without that ‘outing’ who their daughter was (which would also have been against the law).

It was clear that we needed to win Grace’s case in the Supreme Court, and we needed to do so soon. But it was also becoming abundantly clear to me that we needed to change the law itself.

Which is why in November 2018, I designed and launched the #LetHerSpeak campaign in solidarity with Grace.

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I began by interviewing 14 sexual assault survivors from other jurisdictions where gag laws don’t exist to understand why being able to speak had mattered to them - including Saxon Mullins, Bri Lee and Tara Moss.

Over 5000 people then signed the #LetHerSpeak petition and celebrities (including John Cleese, Sarah Monahan and Alyssa Milano) soon joined the campaign - making photos holding up signs saying #LetHerSpeak.

In response Tasmania’s Attorney General Elise Archer announced a review of the gag law (that review is under way but the law hasn’t changed).

And then the big day came and it was announced that Grace had won her fight in the Supreme Court.

It was an emotional day all round.

Now finally, after a two year ordeal, Grace Tame has become the fourth survivor in Tasmania to be able to speak out publicly having won her right to do so.

She is using her voice to educate others on the red flags of grooming as she wants to prevent other children from being abused.

It’s a huge achievement, but Grace and I both know there is more work ahead.

We are currently working with other survivors in both Tasmania and the NT, who as of right now, are still gagged. Those survivors are delighted that Grace can speak, but the moment is bitter-sweet, as they can’t even post their congratulations on Facebook as fellow-survivor, without breaking the law themselves.

We are currently fundraising to help those individuals take their matters to the Supreme Court, with the ultimate aim of applying enough public pressure that we change the law itself.

The fight is not over, but we are hopeful that others in the Australian community, will now join with us in this fight.

Nina Funnell is a Walkley award winning journalist and the creator of the #LetHerSpeak campaign. Nina is also a director of End Rape On Campus Australia who have supported the campaign with Marque Lawyers and News Corp. You can donate to the #LetHerSpeak go fund me for legal funds here. 

Grace Tame's interview on the ABC's 7.30 is available for streaming on ABC iView.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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