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The young girl who became just a ‘thing’ in death

A crowdfunding page raised more than $15,000 for Ms Beilby’s funeral, with her family pledging the funds to support vulnerable teenagers.

Photo: GoFundMe

There was no nationwide vigil, attended by tens of thousands of people, for Larissa Beilby. There was no national outcry or dozens of feminist opinion pieces about her murder. Her death made headlines all over the country, but it wasn’t called the “Larissa Beilby murder”. She was “the barrel murder” and referred to as a “body in the barrel”.

A 16-year-old girl is dead and in death, she became a thing, not a person.

At least one woman is killed in Australia every week. Three women were killed just this weekend, three men are in police custody and none of them are likely to attract the universal grief we saw in response to the horrific murders of Jill Meagher and Eurydice Dixon. The reason for this seems to be encapsulated in one phrase common to all those other murders: “the alleged male killer was known to the victim”.

www.crimefiles.net

It’s not that people don’t care about women who are killed by men who are “known to them”. Obviously, they do. There are thousands of people in Australia dedicating their lives to helping women hurt by men “known to them”. But the public response is very different when a woman is killed by a man she didn’t know. We have a visceral reaction when the monster myth comes to fruition and a woman is taken off the street by a stranger. This is the fear everyone understands, and our reactions are both very simple and very complex.

Simple, because it’s an immediately identifiable fear. The monster on the street has no emotional complexities. He’s the antagonist of countless television shows and movies, so we instantly recognise him as an object of terror. He has no family or friends in common with the victim and no history with her to humanise him. He is a safe object of revulsion for other men because almost all of them do firmly and truthfully say they couldn’t even ever comprehend doing such a thing.

It’s also simple because there appears to be an easy way to prevent it. If we don’t walk home alone at night, we’ll be safe. If men ask their wives, sisters, daughters and girlfriends to call them for a lift or find an escort home, they’ll be safe. The monster in the dark is terrifying but avoidable.

The complexity comes from the world women have been walking through their entire lives, where such monsters are not avoidable.

I remember catching an almost empty tram home after a late practice at school one night. A man got on, came over and sat directly opposite me and stared at me. He didn’t say anything or do anything, he just sat too close. And stared. I was too scared to get off the tram in case he followed me and too scared to stay on the tram under that malevolent gaze. Eventually, I couldn’t cope and started to cry. He laughed softly and got off at the next stop. I was miles from home and ended up staying on the tram until it got to the terminus and came all the way back to my stop. I was 13 years old.

What I know now is that the man on the tram wasn’t staring at me. He was staring at my fear. Rubbing himself against the raw power of reducing a girl-child to shivering tears with nothing more than a mere look.

After Eurydice’s murder, I sat with a group of people in their 30s and 40s, watching men, good men, struggling to understand as women told them stories like this. Told them it wasn’t just one terrifying incident but a lifetime of them. Men leering on trams and trains, groping in bars, cafes and workplaces.

Threatening responses to placatory attempts to say no to unwanted conversations. Taxi drivers, bar staff, police, tram conductors, men driving by in cars, waiting at bus stops, standing in ticket queues, walking their dogs, standing outside for a cigarette. All the women I was listening to had not just one but dozens of stories and all of them commenced before they were women. Men creating and staring at their fear. They were 11,12,13 years old the first time it happened. Women of colour, women with disabilities, women who are, as Hannah Gadsby said with such devastating truth, the “not normals” had even more gut-wrenching reminders of all the reasons they have to be afraid.

This is the fear and the lived experience of being a woman in the world and it’s not just those women, it’s about all women. Nearly nine out of ten Australian women report their first experience of street harassment occurred before they were 17 years old. Almost 70 per cent say it happened before they were 15 and almost three quarters have had one or more men follow them in a fashion that made them feel unsafe.

We can tell women their fears are irrational, that they are far more likely to be killed by a man “known to them” than a stranger on the street, that they are 73 times more likely to die in a car accident than to be killed by a man they don’t know and NOT ALL MEN and stop demonising men because that just makes things worse and maybe all these things are true but they are utterly meaningless in the face of fears deliberately created and nurtured by men who stride unchecked through our world.

What happened to Larissa Beilby, allegedly at the hands of a man known well to her, doesn’t strike sparks off the same fears as what happened to Eurydice Dixon or Jill Meagher.

Larissa Beilby’s Murder

Even if some of the men we know may hurt us, most of them will not. We don’t see the reflection of the men who kill women they know in the eyes of every man we work with or drink with or watch football with or keep company with.

Eurydice and Jill’s murders were quite different. They felt like the inevitable reality of all those implied & inferred threats, which why our reaction was so visceral.

Henry Sapiecha