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MIA: "I met Rolf Harris when I was about 8 or 9."

Rolf Harris has been found guilty of 12 charges of indecent assault.

Trigger warning : This post deals with sexual abuse of minors and may be distressing for some readers. 

Arrogant. Entitled. Opportunistic. Sleazy. For anyone who’d ever crossed paths with Rolf Harris, the guilty verdict was no surprise.

I met Rolf Harris once when I was about 8 or 9. My Mum and I were at a BBQ and Harris was there; he’d been working on a film with some close family friends.

When it was time to go home, he followed my Mum out to our car. My father was away on business and I remember very clearly sitting behind her in the backseat as he leaned far into the driver’s side window to talk to her while she tried to start the engine. In those days you would have called it “chatting her up”.

It was the 70s and she was wearing a long flowy skirt that she would pull up just past her knees when she drove.

Being so young, I had no word for sleazy. No context for it. I just knew I felt intensely uncomfortable as Rolf Harris made lecherous comments about my mum’s legs in front of me and asked her to go out with him on a date. I remember being confused because he was famous and I was in awe of that. But he was married and he knew she was married and I knew that was wrong. I was sitting right there. He was that brash. That confident. That persistent. She brushed him off politely as women did in  those days and totally forgot about the incident until I reminded her of it last year.

Recently, an Australian TV executive told me that whenever Rolf Harris came in for an interview, they’d have to keep all the young make-up artists far away for their own protection because “he was always so grabby” in the make-up chair. 

 Neither of these anecdotes constitutes a crime or even abuse. But both paint a picture of a man who felt very entitled in his dealings with women. And he’s not the only one.

Today we learned that Rolf Harris is guilty of 12 charges of child sex abuse. Earlier this year, Hey Dad! star Robert Hughes was convicted of 10 charges of sexual and indecent assault.

Both men believed it was their right to sexually molest young girls and both seemed truly shocked to discover that their heinous behaviour was in fact criminal. 

Hey Dad! star Robert Hughes who was convicted of 10 charges of sexual and indecent assault

In court, their defences against child sex abuse charges were disturbingly similar. The accusations of their victims were baseless, they spluttered, motivated purely by money or a desire for fame. Neither Rolf Harris nor Robert Hughes could explain how numerous victims could give almost identical evidence against them despite not knowing each other.

By doing so, of course, these brave women helped prosecutors corroborate a deviant and criminal pattern of behaviour by both men.

Rolf Harris is 84 and Robert Hughes is 65. The individual crimes for which they were found guilty occurred from the 1960s to the 1990s, a time when many men  believed touching the bodies of women and children was their right. Especially if they had wealth or power. No big deal. Certainly nothing that could get them arrested or impact on their careers. It was just something they did. They were “touchy feely” as Rolf Harris sickeningly described himself without irony. 

Every woman over the age of 25 has a ‘touchy feely’ man story. Most were not children and it wasn’t nearly as serious as the crimes committed by Harris and Hughes. But there are similarities. In virtually every case, the man controlled the power. Her boss. Her customer. A celebrity. An older relative. Someone who held a position of status or authority.

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Rolf Harris at the beginning of his long career.

I was only 19. Working as a waitress. One of our regulars was an older wealthy man who worked nearby. He was famous in his industry and would occasionally appear in the media.

Every time he came into the restaurant, we’d roll our eyes and brace ourselves for the touching.It was your bum he’d pinch, mostly, as you walked pass his table or pats on the bottom as you took his order. Other times he’d grab you by the arm and pull you lecherously close to him while he asked questions about the specials, his face level with your breasts.

It was 1990 and there was no name for this kind of behaviour beyond ‘sleazy’. It didn’t occur to any of us that it was a crime or that we had a right to do our job without being groped by a disgusting stranger. We never considered telling our boss or telling this man to stop.

It’s only in the past few years that I’ve looked back on what he did through the prism of a society that now recognises the rights of women and children over their own bodies; the rights of all individuals not to be groped or touched or abused.  

Things have changed. Thank god. 

I saw him a few months ago at the local takeaway chicken shop when I was standing in line with my eldest son. “Ugh,” I said quietly, gesturing at the man as a slow wave of anger prickling my skin. “You know, back when I was only a couple of years older than you, that guy used to pinch my arse.”

It sounded almost absurd to say it out loud. He looked as pathetic and powerless as Rolf Harris and he’s about the same age.My son knows me as a forthright feminist who doesn’t tolerate sexism let alone strangers grabbing my arse. He and his generation have been thankfully born into a world where the idea of touching a woman against her will is deemed abhorrent. Obviously. I’ve never had to tell him not to do it. Just like I’ve never had to tell him not to wee in his own mouth.

Robert Hughes during the Hey Dad! years.

Things were very different 20 years ago. At my next waitressing job, the same thing happened except this time it was my boss who groped me. He’d try to corner me in the kitchen and say sexually explicit things in Italian – which I understood – while pushing his body up against me every time I walked past with plates of food. After several months, fearful that it was escalating, I quit.

Unlike the victims of Rolf Harris and Robert Hughes, I was not a child when I was grabbed and groped, nor were my experiences anywhere near the level of abuse their multiple victims endured. But I reckon there are a lot of men of a certain age who once enjoyed status and power who are currently feeling very nervous. You see, they’ve only recently learnt that there are other names for “touchy feely” behaviour towards women and children. Names like sexual abuse and sexual harassment. And that it was never their right to molest children or women. It was – and remains – a crime.

Do you have a story of a ‘touchy feely man’?

Rolf Harris – who we now know was committing crimes against children during the years many of these photos were taken. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, you can contact Bravehearts (an organisation providing support to victims of child abuse) here.

If you are concerned about the welfare of a child, you can get advice from the Child Abuse Protection Hotline by calling 1800 688 009, or visiting their website. You can also call the 24-hour Child Abuse Report Line (131 478).