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"My daughter was featured on the 'Slut of the Year' Instagram. She didn't even know what 'slut' meant."

A few weeks ago I had a conversation about misogyny with my cousin. She had written an article about Eddie McGuire that had gone viral and we were both unpacking his words and their impact on society. Both of us have daughters and up until that time, to our knowledge, they had yet to be confronted by any sort of objectification because of their gender.

As a woman I was appalled by Eddie McGuire’s comments, but still I was a spectator looking in from the outside. However, two weeks later I found myself in the eye of the storm.

Some young men from the local boys school, Brighton Grammar, photographed my daughter in her school uniform and uploaded her photo to an Instagram account. The apparent purpose of the account was simple; to humiliate young girls as the followers of the account were encouraged to vote for “Young Slut of the Year”.

The photo was brought to our attention by a brave young girl who had become outraged that grade six students at her school had been targeted. My daughter didn’t even know what the word slut meant, let alone any of the other vulgarity that accompanied her photo. When confronted with what was posted about my daughter, my body automatically jolted into fight or flight mode, a biochemical response to an urgent need to protect her. I gained access to the site, took screen shots of the photos and those involved. I sent urgent emails to the school principals and wrote a Facebook post to my community alerting them without naming the school or those involved.

And then I waited.

Melanie Sheppard. Image: Supplied

Despite the hundreds of phone calls and messages that arrived as a result of my Facebook post, I knew this was a fight I would ultimately face alone and I needed to be prepared. I knew if I reported it to the police I'd be both celebrated and vilified for doing so. I knew my children’s lives would be impacted and I needed to make sure we were ready for the onslaught.

At 5pm the next day, with the support of my family and daughters, I made a statement to the police.

For the following few days I barely left the house, with the exception of driving my daughter to and from school. I was an emotional wreck as my mind started to dance around the “what ifs”. What if that photo hadn't been brought to my attention? What if there was a pedophile on the site that could now identify my daughters’ school and her year level?

I had spent her entire life protecting her, and now she had been made vulnerable as she innocently walked to meet me after school.

Something happens to a person when their life has been shattered; when their foundation has been ripped from beneath them forcing them to fall to the ground. We start to mend. We put each piece back, bit by bit, and while we are never the same again we are stronger, bigger and wiser. After three days of tears, anger and confusion I emerged with more determination and strength than I knew was possible. Through the cracks shone a light from inside me that was blinding to those who attempted to diminish the severity of this wrong or ridicule my response to it.

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Brighton Grammar. Image: Street View.
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While in the minority, there have been those who have condemned me for taking the strong action I did to protect my daughter. I've heard comments such as “boys will be boys” or “they just made a silly mistake and she needs to let it go”.

Herein lies the greater problem: parents minimising the severity of what has been done.

Perhaps they find it confronting as they are forced to look at themselves in the mirror and at their own parenting style. Perhaps they have turned a blind eye to sexist remarks from their own sons, or maybe they have allowed themselves to be objectified for being a woman without understanding the gravity of such remarks. Whatever their rationale is, what they fail to acknowledge is that the systematic objectification of women dehumanises us. It creates a mindset that suggests that a woman’s agency is a tool for the sexual gratification for men

There was no consent given to the young men involved. They had no right to photograph my daughter or any girl without their permission. They had no right to then share that photo among their peers so they could be judged, ridiculed and humiliated.

Rather than be a victim, I have tried to use this platform to educate and empower girls everywhere, including my own daughters. My daughters fully understand that at no stage ever in their life is a person permitted to objectify, sexualise or harass them in any way.

So what is the lesson in all of this?

For my daughters, they will never question their self worth, nor will they ever tolerate anyone attempting to do so.

For those involved, I hope they grow to become responsible fathers and leaders in their communities, understanding that for a society to be in harmony there must be equality and respect for both men and women.

And for the wider community, this is no doubt a conversation that must remain at the forefront. We need our men to stand up and become part of the fight to abolish the binary between the sexes and we need our women to show them the way.

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