‘Eat my fear’: Australian of the Year Grace Tame on surviving child sex abuse

Grace Tame has a tattoo on the back of her hand that sums up her survival from the trauma of child sexual abuse.

“Eat my fear,” it says. Ms Tame, this year’s Australian of the Year, says the message is about speaking up against abusers and learning the lessons from survivors.

Grace Tame campaigned to change Tasmania’s laws to talk about the man who groomed and sexually abused her.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It’s about swallowing the terror and moving forward regardless,” she says.

“That’s what predators weaponise – they weaponise our fear. That’s the foundation of their psychological manipulation, which is a huge element of prolonged sexual abuse.

“In fact, I would say it’s the main component of prolonged sexual abuse – the cycle of psychological manipulation, as opposed to the physical, criminal behaviour. And predators want us to feel that fear.

“I say, no, let’s transfer it back into their hearts, where it belongs.”

Ms Tame, 26, had the tattoo when she was 19 and wanted to be heard about her experience at school, where she was groomed and abused by a 58-year-old maths teacher. The abuse began when she had just turned 15.

The perpetrator was jailed but it took years for Tame and other members of a broad coalition, including journalist Nina Funnell, the founder of the #LetHerSpeak campaign, to overturn Section 194k of Tasmania’s Evidence Act, which prevented survivors being identified.

Ms Tame, who was named Tasmania’s Australian of the Year last November for using her voice to push for law reform, says one of the fundamental messages is that there is no shame in being a survivor.

“The shame sits at the feet of perpetrators of child sexual abuse,” she says.

“We have to eradicate these cultures of victim-blaming and denial and dismissal, because there are so many structures in our society, both in terms of social attitudes and institutions, that enable predatory behaviour.

Australian of the Year Grace Tame and Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a morning tea on Monday before her win was announced.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I’m really determined to encourage and normalise the act of speaking out, because lived experience informs structural change and social change.”

That means hearing the stories of the survivors and ensuring the shame lies with the perpetrators.

“A lot of people, I think, are deterred from taking action on heavy issues like this because they are so heavy and they don’t know what to say,” she says.

“I am really keen to get the message out there that it’s OK to not know what to do and it’s OK to not know what to say, and it’s OK to be overwhelmed.”

Ms Tame was named the 2021 Australian of the Year alongside three other women who took out the other major awards. Senior Australian of the Year is 73-year-old Aboriginal activist, educator and artist Dr Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr Baumann from the Northern Territory, the Young Australian of the Year is 22-year-old social entrepreneur Isobel Marshall of South Australia, and Australia’s Local Hero is 60-year-old advocate for migrant and refugee women, Rosemary Kariuki of NSW.

Ms Tame, a marathon runner, wants to use her position as Australian of the Year to pursue change. She believes federal and state governments should do more to make their laws consistent, even on simple things such as the definitions of consent.

“That lack of consistency undermines progress and it undermines our understanding of what these issues actually are. So it is very important to work towards getting a common, established consensus on what these issues are and how we respond.”

One initiative, she says, could be a permanent task force to make sure all Australians are more informed about the reality of child sexual abuse, even though the subject is uncomfortable for many. Ms Tame thinks this is something the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse could not do.

“A key part of our response needs to be education as a means of primary prevention,” she tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“When we focus too heavily on responses, it fuels the unconscious belief that child sexual abuse is just a fact of life that we have to accept in our society. And I believe otherwise.

Australian of the Year Grace Tame wants governments to do more to standardise definitions of consent and other laws.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“I believe that if we continue working together as a community, educating through conversation through survivor informed education models, we can actually stop it from happening in first place.”

Ms Tame now has a platform to continue the work that overturned Tasmanian law and could help survivors be heard nationally. But she says there is no simple rule on whether men and women should speak up about the abuse they have suffered.

“I think everybody has to deal with it in their own way,” she says.

“But it’s so important to speak up, because it’s in the real stories of survival that we find the truth. And the truth brings us closer to progress. Understanding is the foundation to progress.

“Speaking out and actually having those conversations – that breathes empathy, and it fills the gaps of those lost connections that predators are trying to constantly perpetuate with their behaviour.

“Predators thrive when we lose focus on their behaviour and start fighting amongst ourselves, and accusing bystanders of not doing things. I like to try to remind people that predators don’t just groom the individual target: predators groom everyone around them to serve their ends.”

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