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Go with your gut, but use your head

**TRIGGER WARNING: Content contains references to bullying, harassment and abuse, including that of a sexual nature**

Welcome back to the Stay U blog! I can't believe it has been a month already. It's Kate here, the Stay U Counsellor and Career Coach, and as promised in our May blog, this month's topic is Personal Safety. This may be a triggering or upsetting topic for some of you, so let me start by giving a few details of services that can help if you need to speak to someone now, or after reading this blog.

  • Beyond Blue - 1300 22 4636

  • Lifeline - 13 11 14

  • QLife - 1800 184 527

  • 1800RESPECT - 1800 737 732


What does Personal Safety mean to you?

Personal Safety is a very broad term, but one definition I found recently explained it clearly for the type of personal safety I want to talk about in this blog:

"...the sense of feeling secured from any sort of potential danger can be considered as Personal Safety. From a broader perspective, Personal Safety should be related to a state of freedom against physical, emotional or psychological incident which turns out to be an undesirable event towards any individual..."

For people living with mental illness, or disability, or who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, Personal Safety is a little different to those who are neurotypical or from the "straight" community. When we are thinking about our Personal Safety we need to take into consideration situations that do not exacerbate our depression, anxiety, and daily functioning, and match with our ideals and identities. As individuals who often fear more, suspect more, question more, and avoid more, we are less likely to put ourselves in harm's way in the traditional sense. On the other hand, we also trust more, love more, and do more for the acceptance of others, which can lead us into situations where our safety can be compromised.

When you get the "feeling" something is wrong...

Before I start with the main content of this blog - which will be factual information, based on research, experience and laws, about Personal Safety - let's just chat about that built-in instinct that we all have - or your "gut feeling", as it's often called. Sometimes we just know in our "gut" that we aren't safe in certain situations. It's like walking down a dark alley at night, and your gut tells your brain, "I don't think so. Turn around".

Gut feelings can evoke a range of sensations that are similar to the physical feelings associated with anxiety. That is why it is important to listen to your head (logic, reasoning and experiences) when your gut tells you something.

Early warning signs that serve as indicators that we might be at risk, or that our risk is increasing, include:

  • heart pounding

  • dry mouth

  • hands sweating

  • legs trembling or feeling frozen

  • butterflies in the stomach

  • feeling sick

  • wanting to go to the toilet

This is also known as the Fight/Flight/Freeze response when our primitive brain stem is activated. It goes all the way back to caveman times when we felt the presence of danger. A dinosaur isn't going to pop out from behind a building (I hope), but the instincts are still there, just to a lesser degree.

When our gut, or instincts, are sending us these warning signs, it is often a good idea to take a step back and assess the situation - taking into account our mental health state, and any lived experiences we have that may exaggerate our views.

Two very common lived experiences that would fall under the title of "undesirable event", as mentioned in the description above, are bullying and harassment.

Bullying and harassment can lead to a multitude of situations where we feel unsafe physically, emotionally and psychologically. Before talking about how we can keep ourselves safe in these situations, it's important to note the difference between bullying and harassment:

Bullying and harassment are two distinct forms of negative behaviour. Harassment is defined as any unwelcome, hostile or offensive behaviour that a reasonable person would consider to be offensive, intimidating, humiliating or threatening because of a certain (protected) characteristic of the individual. While bullying is defined as a repeated or sustained pattern of behaviour that seeks to intimidate, control or undermine another person. Bullying is not punishable by law, whereas harassment is an offence under the law.

I'm sure that most of you are familiar with what bullying is. If you are different, creative, unusual, stand out, or original in any way, someone has felt intimidated or confused by you, which makes you a target for bullying. The sad truth is, most bullies are victims of bullying themselves, and are questioning their place in society. This does not excuse their behaviour, but it does give it a bit of perspective.

If bullying is not challenged and stopped, it can contribute to a culture where bullying is tolerated. If this occurs, everyone feels powerless to stop it, especially the person being bullied. It's important to try your best to stay focused on finding a solution, such as talking to a person you trust for advice and help, taking someone you trust with you to confront the bully, or seeking help from your school, employer, or a person in authority.

Remember - this is not your fault!

If bullying is violent or threatening, call triple zero (000) and ask for the police.

Harassment can be against the law when a person is treated less favourably on the basis of certain personal characteristics, such as race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status. Some limited exemptions and exceptions apply.

Harassment can include behaviour such as:

  • telling insulting jokes about particular racial groups

  • sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails or text messages

  • displaying racially offensive or pornographic posters or screen savers

  • making derogatory comments or taunts about someone’s race

  • asking intrusive questions about someone’s personal life, including his/her/their sex life.

The law also has specific provisions relating to certain types of harassment.

  • Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It has nothing to do with mutual attraction or consensual behaviour.

  • Harassment linked to the disability of a person, or their associate is against the law.

  • Offensive behaviour based on racial hatred is against the law. Racial hatred is defined as something done in public that offends, insults, humiliates or intimidates a person or group of people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

Even a one-off incident can constitute harassment.

If you want to know more about the laws protecting us from these types of harassment, have a look at:

If we take bullying and harassment one step further, we move into the territory of abuse.

I briefly mentioned above that as people who suffer from mental illness, or disability, or who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community, we tend to do more for the acceptance of others, which can lead us into situations where our safety can be compromised. Everyone wants to be loved, cared for, and treated as an equal. The ultimate show of affection is sex. When we are young, we sometimes do it to feel loved (but not necessarily when we are "in love"), accepted, and equal to our peers. If you are in a trusting, mutually beneficial, and openly communicated relationship or "special friendship", then the safety and treatment of your body and emotions are not usually an issue for concern. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. So, when does sex become sexual abuse?

Sexual Abuse refers to:

  • any unwanted sexual contact by another person (male or female).

  • inappropriate touching.

  • having someone show you explicit images.

  • being forced to engage in sexual behaviour with another person.

It can occur at school, at work or in a social situation (out at a club, party, etc). It is not the fault of the person being abused. Most importantly, it is against the law.

Consent, sex and the Law:

Consent must be free and voluntary. It cannot be given if you are intoxicated, asleep or not aware of what’s happening. It cannot involve force, threats, intimidation, deceit or fraud. If the victim withdraws consent it is against the law to continue.

FACT: It is an offence in most states in Australia for an adult to have sex with someone who is under 16 years of age (under 17 in Tasmania & South Australia), even if they agree as the law says that he/she/they cannot legally consent. The person can be charged with a serious criminal offence, jailed and placed on the sex offender register. That's serious stuff!

What is the difference between consent and coercion? Consent is when a person agrees to engage in sexual behaviour without any threats or being forced or bribed or tricked. Even if you said yes but you felt you had no choice, it is not consent. Coercion is when a person keeps pushing some things when you do not want to engage in sexual activity. It can involve physical force or threats or emotional manipulation (such as guilt).

FACT: It is against the law to coerce someone into sexual behaviour.

We have covered some pretty heavy, but very important, topics in this blog. We all have a right to feel safe and respected. If this blog has brought up some strong feelings, triggered emotions, or made you realise that your personal safety has been compromised, please speak to your family, friends, or someone you trust. The following helplines can also help:

  • Beyond Blue - 1300 224 636

  • Lifeline - 13 11 14

  • QLife - 1800 184 527

  • 1800RESPECT - 1800 737 732

Next month's blog topic will continue from this one and will focus on Cyber Safety & Dating apps. In the meantime, please take care, stay safe, be strong, and remember: a problem shared is a problem halved.

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