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Please note that this post discusses brutal violence against a young woman.

I want to tell you about when I learned the meaning of the word cunt.

I was in one of many drama classes, and we were discussing Nick Enright’s play A Property of the Clan. It’s about the aftermath of the beating, rape, and murder of a teenage girl. It’s about how a community caught up in an aggressive, male-centered beachside culture can rally around rapists and murderers to protect them in the name of misogynistic mateship. It was turned into a film called Blackrock, which was controversial, not least because it was based on a real story without the consent of the victim’s family. (Enright said that his play was about how this could happen in any group, not about this case in particular, which does hold to an extent; however, his play, the film, and the case fade into each other in the popular Australian consciousness.)

It’s the story of that real life victim, Leigh Leigh of Stockton, which we were looking into in my class. We were reading a newspaper article featuring quotes from people who had been involved the night she died, and one of them was quoted as calling her a ‘c**t’. Our instructor asked if we knew what the stars stood for – we stayed quiet – and told us that they stood for cunt, which meant vagina, but some people used it as an insult against women. This insult from someone who knew that Leigh Leigh had died with a caved in head and damage to her internal organs and genitals, who had been a part of it. To justify what she’d been through. Twisting what should be a good word into that. I had a physical reaction every time I heard the term cunt for a good long while.

That’s not the kind of reaction a young woman should have to hearing about a word for her genitals.

Leigh Leigh died before I was born, and I’m no Stockton girl, but you’d better believe that the story of her last night on Earth still reverberates up and down this coast. It doesn’t seem extraordinary that someone might have raped her and, when she went to seek assistance, no one would help her. It doesn’t seem extraordinary that the people who should have helped her went on to kick and scream and throw things at this fourteen-year-old, and no witness would say a word. It doesn’t seem extraordinary that, when she left, someone – Matthew Webster – followed her, raped her, and killed her. It doesn’t seem extraordinary that the police handled the case so badly, including taking a long time to identify perpetrators, that some of them were fired or faced disciplinary action. Because that’s what happens in a society like this one. For some of us, mateship is a terrifying idea. You value male camaraderie above all else and women become property of the clan. Cunts become cunts, and women become them. Rallying around the boys becomes more important than the cries of a fourteen-year-old who needs the hospital, the cops, home, to be okay; becomes more important than her life.

That’s what misogyny does: it tears beauty from words, children from their families, flesh from bones and lives from bodies. And no girl on the New South Wales coast is going to forget it.

(Marking 2012, twenty years since A Property of the Clan in its first form, and twenty-three years of which Leigh Leigh was robbed.)