real life

At 13, Harrison's stepmother coerced him into thinking they were in a 'relationship'.

Content warning: This story includes descriptions of child sexual abuse and suicidal ideation that may be distressing to some readers.

Harrison James was just 10 when his parents split up. It was a "very difficult divorce" and Harrison lost touch with his father for three years. 

During this time, his dad met and married a woman from the Philippines who was in her mid 20s.

Aged 13, with hopes of having a supportive male figure in his life, Harrison reconnected with his dad and made the decision to move in with him and his new stepmother.

"Once I moved in little did I know the decision would introduce me to a new figure in my life, my stepmother. Initially, she appeared to be a supportive presence, amidst the chaos of our fractured family. I finally felt seen and heard, listened to," he tells Mamamia.

In reality, Harrison was being groomed.

Harrison aged 13. Image: Supplied/Instagram @itsharrijames.


Grooming is a complex and insidious process. It's often characterised by subtle manipulation and exploitation. Harrison says he felt like he was being loved, but really he was been showered in inappropriate attention. Then it escalated into sexual abuse. 

"She saw an opportunity to prey on me. It gradually escalated into more displays of control and coercion, it was like a gradual sort of erosion of my boundaries and autonomy. I was a 13-year-old kid going through puberty with hormones rising, and as twisted as it sounds, my stepmother led me to believe we were engaging in a regular relationship. With hindsight I now obviously view it as a total abuse of power. It was a corruption of my childhood."

Harrison alleges he was molested "every day, before and after school". It occurred from the age of 13 to the day of his 16th birthday when the abuse ended. 

During the ordeal, Harrison didn't tell a single soul what was going on behind closed doors. 

"I would go to school and just carry the weight of the secret, and it felt like a backpack full of bricks. It was just devastating. There was fear, threats, manipulation. She would say, 'Nobody can find out' and 'If you say anything, we could both go to jail'. She would even suggest that I was 'the man in this relationship'. I was a child."


When Harrison was 15, his stepmother gave birth to a girl. 

"My daughter was born when I was 15. I had to pretend she was my sister, as my father was actually quite physically abusive. To me growing up, I had a sense of fear when I imagined what his reaction would be if he found out, worried that I'd be killed," he tells Mamamia.

"My father had undergone a vasectomy years prior. He was in denial, thinking my daughter was his."

After the alleged abuse ended at 16, the coercion from Harrison's stepmother didn't simply vanish. It lingered like a shadow, shaping every interaction and decision. Despite the sexual and physical aspects of the abuse ceasing, the psychological hold remained strong.

"I was trapped in a web of manipulation and fear, where even the thought of speaking out felt like a betrayal to my stepmother. The coercion drove me to protect her, as it was the only response I knew at the time, ingrained in my very being," he says.

"It's difficult to convey the depth of the coercion I felt, how every action seemed dictated by a sense of obligation and dread. Breaking free from this cycle was an arduous journey. Not to mention that my number one priority was to shield my daughter from harm. Every decision I made was with her safety in mind, knowing that any misstep could jeopardise her wellbeing. It was a heavy burden to carry at such a young age."


When Harrison was 19, his stepmother fled the country with their daughter, Harrison saying his stepmother's relationship with his father wasn't working. The stepmother remains overseas. No charges have been laid against her. 

In a bid to deflect from her leaving, Harrison's stepmother falsely accused him of rape in an email to his father — it couldn't have been further from the truth, says Harrison.

It forced him to disclose what had really happened. 

"I was like, 'No this is what really happened'. I disclosed for the first time to my mother, and also said my 'little sister' is actually my daughter. That choice to come forward was taken from me, it wasn't made on my own terms. My father still doesn't believe me to this day. My family is completely split in two."

Harrison at 15 with his newborn daughter. Image: Supplied/Instagram @itsharrijames.


Following the disclosure, Harrison was in a dark place mentally. Aged 20, he checked into a mental health facility.

"I had got to a point where I wanted to take my own life. I was 20, my daughter had been taken from me, I was falsely accused of rape, I had the memories of what had happened to me as a child. That's a lot for someone to take on board. I got to the point where I just couldn't handle it," he explains. 

"So I decided to seek help, and it helped me start healing. I had seen other men in the media come forward about their experiences once they reached the ages of 40, 50 or even 60. I wanted to get on the front foot of my trauma at 20 years old."

For two months, Harrison received the care he needed and learned the tools he needed to navigate his circumstances.

It was also during this time and with the assistance of professionals that Harrison was able to recognise that he had not been in a 'relationship' with his abuser — it had really been a gross violation of trust and power. He had been a victim of child sexual abuse. 


Once Harrison was in a better place, he decided to share his story by uploading a video to social media, in an attempt to reclaim his voice. 

"I was consumed by a weird sort of mix of fear and determination. I worried about the unknown, the potential backlash. But I was determined to break the silence that had consumed me for almost a decade," he tells Mamamia.

Thankfully, the reaction was one of overwhelming support.

Now two years on, the 24-year-old is an award-winning activist, speaker and the Co-Founder of the #YourReferenceAintRelevant Campaign alongside fellow survivor advocate Jarad Grice.

The Campaign aims to remove the provision of good character references from cases of child sexual abuse.

"Perpetrators of child sexual abuse, by definition of their crimes, do not have good character. They are predatory by instinct, and so their so called 'good' character cannot be separated from the evil they perpetrate," notes Harrison.

The Campaign's petition has been represented in NSW Parliament and law reform is anticipated and hoped for. Reform directly related to the Campaign is also expected to be passed in the ACT too. 

"The prospect of reform is both exhilarating and humbling. Every day we postpone reform is another day where survivors have to endure the agony of seeing their abuser portrayed as a virtuous individual in court, which only invalidates and undermines the trauma we've faced."

Ultimately and sadly, Harrison is far from the only victim-survivor. One in three girls and one in five boys have been sexually abused before their 18th birthday here in Australia. It's harrowing. That's why it's crucial that our elected officials get on the front foot decisively and unapologetically when it comes to the protection of our kids, and the use of good character references for paedophiles, says Harrison.


"Sharing my story is a real act of liberation and a reclaiming of my voice and agency in the face of trauma. It's cathartic. While my journey has been marked by pain and heartache, this advocacy work has been a beacon of light for me in the darkest of times."

Since 2019, Harrison has had no contact with his abuser or his daughter who remains overseas.

"She's just turned eight. I wake up every morning fighting the urge to get on the first plane there and bring her back home. I know as a parent that would be extremely selfish. That country is now all she knows, and imagine being an eight-year-old girl and coming to the realisation that who you've been told is your brother is actually your father and how that occurred. My childhood has already been corrupted, we don't need a second one.

"The separation from my daughter has been the most painful and heartbreaking consequence of my abuse. If she's anything like me, there will be a day where she'll be asking questions and wanting to figure it out when she's older. We'll just have to cross that bridge when we get there," he says.

"I really hope there's one day where my daughter and I can reunite. That longing for her presence in my life remains ever present."


Harrison's recovery from trauma has not been a linear journey, but rather a process that doesn't necessarily have a final destination. 

It's marked by ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. There are days he feels progress is tangible, and days where the weight of the past looms. 

But amid it all, he still feels an enormous amount of hope, empowerment and passion.

"To my fellow victim-survivors, I want to offer my words of solidarity. Our voices and stories matter, as does healing. We shouldn't have to choose between our wellbeing and the pursuit of justice, nor should we be defined by our past," he says. 

"We're defined by our resilience, courage and unwavering spirit. To stand on two feet after facing such adversity is such a commendable thing to do. We must feel proud."

For more from Harrison James you can follow him on Instagram here, and for updates on the #YourReferenceAintRelevant Campaign, you can visit Harrison's website here.

If this brings up any issues for you, contact Bravehearts, an organisation dedicated to the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, on 1800 272 831.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Supplied.