Brittany Higgins says that she was raped in Congress. Her case is now in court.
The #MeToo movement will be a big part of the background for the trial of the Australian man who is accused of sexually assaulting Brittany Higgins.
It was a charge that made everyone in the country pay attention and sent shock waves through the political system.
Brittany Higgins, who used to work as an aide in Australia's federal Parliament House, said in 2019 that a colleague had raped her. After she went public with her claim early last year, other women came forward with stories of harassment in what they called a boys-club culture in the nation's capital. After that, there was a wave of anger, which helped get rid of the conservative coalition in power in national elections five months ago.
Ms. Higgins' claim was put to its first test in court on Tuesday, when Bruce Lehrmann, the man she says sexually assaulted her, went on trial in Canberra. This was one of Australia's most watched court cases in years.
On the first day of the trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks, Ms. Higgins told the jury how, after a night of heavy drinking, she woke up on a couch in the defense minister's office to find Mr. Lehrmann on top of her. In a police interview that was played in court, she said, "I said no at least six times." "He did not stop; he kept going."
Mr. Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty and has always and strongly denied that he and Ms. Higgins did anything sexual on the night in question. In his opening statement, his lawyer, Steven Whybrow, said that inconsistencies in Ms. Higgins's story were hidden by a change in how the country talks about violence against women.
He said that the case was a perfect example of what Mark Twain meant when he said, "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." He also said, "This was a story whose time had come."
With the national and global #MeToo movement, which Mr. Whybrow mentioned, as a backdrop, the legal system will now look at behavior inside Australia's closed and often unaccountable halls of power. The prosecution is likely to call a number of current and former government ministers and parliamentary staff as witnesses.
A law professor at the University of Wollongong, Julia Quilter, said that the trial was pretty simple from a legal point of view. The judge in charge of the case has said that it is a "word against word" trial.
But, Ms. Quilter said, "because Brittany Higgins has come to represent a sense of justice for female complainants in general, there's a lot at stake in how the case turns out in a symbolic sense."
Several sitting members of Parliament were accused of sexual misconduct in the days and weeks after Ms. Higgins's claim became public. Women and men who had worked for both major parties came forward to talk about being sexually assaulted or harassed on the job. Tens of thousands of women went out into the streets to ask to be safe and treated with respect.
A political science professor at the University of New South Wales, Louise Chappell, said, "The momentum kept building, and sexual assault claims in Parliament came out quickly one after the other."
She called it a "electoral gender-quake," and there was a lot of anger at the time's prime minister, Scott Morrison, who said it was a success that protesters weren't "met with bullets" like they would have been in other countries.
In its opening statement on Tuesday, the prosecution said that it would argue that Ms. Higgins wasn't aware when Mr. Lehrmann started having sexual relations with her, so she couldn't give consent.
The prosecutor, Shane Drumgold, said that Ms. Higgins was "extremely drunk" after her night out with coworkers. Mr. Drumgold said that Mr. Lehrmann had suggested that he and Ms. Higgins share a cab home, but they stopped at Parliament House instead. He also said that Ms. Higgins remembered walking into the office of Linda Reynolds, the defense minister, where she and Mr. Lehrmann both worked.
In an interview with the police in 2021, Ms. Higgins said that she remembered falling asleep and waking up because Mr. Lehrmann's knee was digging into her thigh. This was shown to the jury. She said that when she woke up, Mr. Lehrmann was on top of her.
She told him no, but he didn't stop. "When he was done," she said in the video, "he looked at me, and then he left." "I cried pretty much the whole time," she said.
The prosecution said that even though she talked to the police about what had happened, she did not file a formal complaint because she was afraid for her job. Mr. Drumgold read out loud a text message from Ms. Higgins to a friend. It said, "I can't talk about it if I want to keep my job."
Ms. Higgins told the police about a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in Parliament House during her interview with the police. "This culture of silence was already so much a part of me," she said.
Ms. Reynolds has said that her office did not put any pressure on Ms. Higgins to drop her case, but she did apologize that Ms. Higgins "felt unsupported." Mr. Morrison also told Ms. Higgins he was sorry for the "terrible things" she had been through.
Last year, Ms. Higgins decided to ask the police to look into her case again. She also quit her job. She told the public about her claims at the same time.
In August 2021, Mr. Lehrmann, who is 27, was charged with one count of sexual contact without consent. The charge could get you up to 12 years in prison.
On Tuesday, his defense team asked the jury to think about how credible and reliable Ms. Higgins was. In interviews with the police, she talked about what happened in broad terms because, as she told the police, she doesn't really remember what happened, Mr. Whybrow said.
He also said that the jury should think about why Ms. Higgins gave a TV interview before giving a formal evidence interview with the police.
Sarah Maddison, a political science professor and the director of the Australian Center at the University of Melbourne, said that in cases of sexual assault, it is often the complainant whose behavior is put on trial and who is heavily questioned by the other side.
"I think people will be paying close attention to this case to see if the same thing is happening again," she said.
Both Mr. Lehrmann's lawyers and the judge in charge of the trial will have to work hard to separate Ms. Higgins's claim from the global #MeToo movement.
The judge in charge, Justice Lucy McCallum, told the jury on Tuesday that the trial had become a "cause célèbre" and that "it has a momentum of its own." She asked jurors who couldn't think about the case without bias to think about getting off the jury.
In his opening statement, Mr. Whybrow said that when Ms. Higgins went to the media, "this unstoppable snowball started to roll down the mountain, picking up speed and becoming an avalanche that could not be stopped by something as simple or inconvenient as, in this case, the fact that the allegations were not true."
He told the jury that the new national conversation about violence against women is important, but that the verdict has nothing to do with the conversation, the reforms, the discussions, or the focus that is finally and rightly being put on these issues.