Nude Yoga

Performing yoga in the nude does unkind things to the male body. The human scrotum looks miserable enough at the best of times, but I’ve never seen mine look as demoralised as right now. Our instructor – also naked – has told us to stretch our right leg tightly over our left, before twisting our torsos to flex out our spines. If I was wearing underwear, this would be easy. But because I’m nude, this scissored, clamp-legged position just bunches my equipment together and mashes everything upwards, until it resembles some sort of angry offal bouquet. And I thought yoga was supposed to be beautiful.

I’ve come to my first Naked Yoga Sydney class to suss out its appeal. Considering these classes requires everyone getting buck naked in a group to stretch in every conceivable position, surely it can’t just be about the yoga, can it? Sessions run on the second floor of a warehouse in St Peters three times a week and, on average, attract around 15 men every session. No women are allowed. Nude co-ed yoga classes are taking off in the US and UK, but in Australia, only all-male classes exist.

Naked Yoga Sydney’s instructor and founder, Steve Gee – who started his classes nine years ago – tried reaching out to women in the early days, but found there just wasn’t the demand. “I’ve had a few enquiries from women, looking for either women-only classes or mixed classes,” Gee says, “but not enough interest to justify running a full-time class.”

Nude Yoga USA in Arizona, which runs co-ed naked yoga classes three times a week, has some theories as to why women might be more shy. In their classes, men can outnumber women four to one. “Personally, I think females just aren’t as interested in nudity as men,” says co-founder and assistant instructor Lori Leatherman. “Guys just want to see something naked – they don’t care! Plus, women are afraid to be judged. Women tell me, ‘Oh, I’m just not comfortable with my body.’ Even women who go to the hot springs nude still say, ‘I don’t know if I could do nude yoga.’ They’re afraid of the postures. Guys are afraid of getting an erection in class. Women are afraid of someone seeing everything. No woman wants to do downward dog with someone behind them.” This is why Nude Yoga USA conducts its classes in an inward-facing circle.

Does this mean most of the guys at Sydney Naked Yoga are gay? Founder Steve Gee says he doesn’t ask students about their sexuality, but suspects there are more gay guys than straight. Ultimately, though, he suspects most students are like him – nudists who just happen to enjoy a bit of downward dogging.

When I step inside the class, I baulk - not because everyone is naked (at least, not yet), but because there are floor-to-ceiling mirrors lining the front wall. Immediately, I lay out my yoga mat in the back corner, closest to the exit and as far as possible from my own reflection. This isn’t out of shyness. Travelling in Japan and using traditional bathhouses demolished any problems I have with public nudity. I just don’t want to inflict the image of my naked form bent over in cow position to a room full of strangers. It seems like bad manners.

Before the class starts, I ask Gee – a warmly spoken, strapping-fit bald man – the obvious question. What happens if you get an erection in class? It’s the most common thing first-timers ask him. “From time to time, someone will get an erection,” he says. “My take is, ‘We’re all guys, we’re all healthy males, erections are a part of being guys. If it happens, just keep going with the yoga.’ What you’ll find is very quickly, the erection will subside. But it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ve never run anyone out of the class for getting an erection.”

But surely, some people just come to perve, right? Gee says he filters people like that out. “Firstly, I make it quite clear what the aims and objectives of the class are. Secondly, I have a nudity-mandatory policy. No one who wants to leave their underwear on is allowed in – everybody must be on a level playing field.”

Gee says he’s been running the classes long enough to suss out any ulterior motives. “It’s in the types of questions they ask. Like, ‘Do I have to take my clothes off?’ ‘Can I come along and just watch the class, rather than participate?’ ‘Is there any touching?’ ” If men ask those questions, he tells them gently, “I don’t think this is the type of class you’re after.”

In the warehouse, heaters have been turned on to combat both the cold and potential embarrassment, and the room is candle-lit. It can’t be all that pervy, I figure – we’d have to squint hard during class to cop a decent eyeful. More men stream in – there are roughly 20 of us now – and we stretch out casually, still clothed, on our yoga mats. Guys in their 40s discuss their home renovations. A trim-looking man in his 20s keeps to himself and stares at the floor, while chatty seniors nearby discuss recent injuries and back pain.

“People ring me or email me and say, ‘Look, I’m a middle-aged guy carrying a few pounds around the middle, and I’m not all that flexible. Am I going to be the odd man out?’ ” says Gee. “And the answer is, ‘No.’ If you walk down George Street in Sydney and look at every bloke you pass, it’s a fair indication of the type of guy who comes to naked yoga.”

Finally, Gee shuts the door. That’s the cue. Before I can register what’s even happening, everyone around me quietly takes off their clothes and returns to their yoga mats, completely naked. Not wanting to be left behind, I hurriedly strip off, cast my eyes downward and sit back down, too. And we begin.

It’s likely that no other form of exercise has been subjected to as many bold experiments in cross-breeding as yoga. Besides yoga’s traditional forms – Iyengar; hatha; ashtanga; vinyasa – there are common modern variations, like yoga performed in artificially hot rooms (bikram) and yoga fused with Pilates (yogalates). Around the world, there are other bizarre hybrids, some of which sound like a recipe for spinal-cord injury (horseback yoga; surfboard yoga), and ones that make no sense at all (yoga raves; yoga pole-dancing). There are yoga classes for dogs, yoga classes for mothers with newborn babies, and one class in Los Angeles that encourages students to arrive high on marijuana.

“People try to blend everything with yoga,” says Leigh Blashki, president of Yoga Australia. “Acro-yoga, this yoga, that yoga.” But, he adds, “We’re not exclusionary. We like to include any possibility.”

Does that include nude yoga? Blashki laughs. “Well, it’s not something that’s drawing me in, and that’s not from prudishness. But yoga emphasises steadiness and comfort, and if a person feels they can be steady and comfortable doing it naked, without being distracted by their own sense of self or other people’s looks … personally, I’d find that difficult, but in theory it’s possible. I’ve taken my clothes off in my private yoga studio to see whether I could practise.”

What happened? “I felt … uncontained. Like, ‘I better be careful here, because I might squash something!’ And then there are other issues.” He pauses. “Hygiene issues.”

For what it’s worth, Gee encourages students to bring their own towels and yoga mats to his Sydney class. But at Melbourne’s Gay Men’s Yoga, however, our instructor has told me to bring nothing to their monthly clothes-optional class in Collingwood. As a result, I’m using a yoga mat I’m pretty sure has been used several times over. By the time class starts, I really regret not bringing my own towel.

The Melbourne naked yoga class isn’t that different to the Sydney one, except it’s slightly colder and the men have more tattoos and facial hair. Plus, the explicit “gay” focus means the classes also feel a little bit … well, gayer. “Keep holding that breath,” our instructor quips, “or I’ll come over and smack you with a bamboo stick!”

Personally, I’m happy to hold my breath: the man behind me is emitting some breathtaking BO.

“And be mindful of the person next to you,” he adds, “unless you want to reach out and touch somebody.”

“Like Diana Ross!” someone says. Everyone laughs. Then we assume a position where we lie on our backs, hold onto our toes and stretch our thighs out wide. I feel like a dead chicken about to be stuffed.

“Let go of the things inside you,” our instructor says. “Let go of people … situations … stresses … foods …”

“Dear god,” I think, hoping the others can read my mind. “Can we please make a pact not to let go of our foods?”

Personally, this is possibly the least erotic position I’ve ever assumed in my life. Still, one young man in the room can barely disguise his semi-erection throughout the class. Given the nudity, it’s difficult to deny there isn’t some sort of low-level sexual buzz in the room. Naked-yoga instructors insist their classes aren’t about sex, but search “naked yoga” online, and interspersed between all the legitimate classes are a slew of porn websites, and others that veer close enough. Hot Nude Yoga, the US brand that first made naked yoga into a big business, sells videos with titles like Getting Undressed with Hot Nude Yoga, Double Your Pleasure and The Beginners Class – Virgin. One DVD cover features a toned yoga instructor correcting a student’s position suggestively from behind.

At the same time, nude yoga – a completely modern invention – also feels like a salute back to a more innocent time when naked male group exercise wasn’t particularly odd. In the ancient Olympics, between 776BC and 394AD, male athletes performed naked. From the late 1800s to the 1960s, swimming without bathers was required at YMCA pools in the US, because stray wool from thick bathing suits clogged the primitive filtration systems. It only takes a few minutes before it feels completely … well, natural.

Towards the end of my Sydney class, Steve Gee looks down to correct one of my postures. He does what every good yoga instructor does: straightens my back, changes the angle of my arms. The only difference is his penis is hovering over my head. After a warm-down and meditation, just like that, the clothes are back on. It’s namaste and we’re out.

“That wasn’t so bad,” I think, rolling up my mat. At least I didn’t have to buy a new outfit.

The Business of Pleasure | Male Escorts

Some jobs you never see advertised. Think Hollywood actor, astronaut, adventurer. They’re also the kind of professions people fantasise about, but if we sat down and realistically thought through what would be required to do them, most of us would conclude they’re beyond our skill set. Male escorting is similar. Imagine that occupation listed in the classified ads: “WANTED: men willing to have robust intercourse with numerous women. Meet interesting people. Excellent pay, flexible hours, immediate start.”

Excelling at male sex work, say those in the know, isn’t just about the sexual gymnastics. Unlike female escorts – who tend to charge by the hour – a standard booking for a male escort generally involves a minimum of two hours. This is because most female clients don’t just want sex, but conversation and affection, too. So yes, you will need to be a god in bed, but you’ll also be required to play counsellor and friend.

To be a good male escort, you’ll need to be a good listener and able to understand your clients’ needs. To be a great one, you’ll need to know and understand their stories.

Sandra Davies* met her husband at 16, married him at 21 and had their first child at 24. Now 55, she sees the marriage for what it’s become: an arrangement of circumstances and assets, devoid of romance and affection. Over the years she’s endured her husband’s affairs (two), lies (countless) and a period where he rented a place with another woman, insisting she was just a “flatmate”.

Davies knows she should have left her husband years ago, but the reality of divorce – dissolving their joint mortgage, disentangling their finances – meant staying in the marriage was the more practical option. Last year, Davies decided to put herself first. She started going out more. She went to a rock concert and screamed her lungs out like a teenager. She hired a personal trainer and lost 10 kilograms. When she looks in the mirror now, she sees someone who looks at least a decade younger. Meanwhile, her husband scolds her and says she’s going wild.

The unfairness of his affairs gnawed at Davies: why did he get to sleep with other women when he was the only man she’d ever slept with? She confronted him one night: “If I had a one-night stand, would I get the same chances I’ve given you over the years?” Her husband stared at her. “That was in the past,” he said.

Pleasure principle ... Ryan James says to be a successful escort you need to get enjoyment from pleasing others.

Pleasure principle … Ryan James says to be a successful escort you need to get enjoyment from pleasing others. Photo: Tim Bauer

Later, when Davies joked with a friend that she might as well just hire someone for sex, her friend’s response – “Well, what’s stopping you?” – caught her off-guard.

She ran some online searches and came across a Sydney-based escort with the professional name Ryan James; a blond, clean-cut calendar boy. Her main concerns were cost, discretion and health risks. “Obviously, I thought about disease,” she says. “But his website said he gets tested every two months and that he’d use condoms. Just looking at the physical appearance of the guy – and the fact that he’s a personal trainer – made me feel more confident.” Also, she read he was a porn actor and she’d heard they take care of themselves: they can’t work if they’re not healthy.

Several emails and text messages later, Davies flew from her Queensland home to meet James in the foyer of a Sydney hotel. After heading up to her room together, James asked for his money and then asked Davies to take a shower. After the shower, they moved to the couch, where he started to undress her. It was the first time Davies had taken off her clothes in front of a man other than her husband or her doctor. It felt exhilarating.

Presentation skills ... Adria says he spends time making himself look good and expects the same from clients.
Presentation skills … Adria says he spends time making himself look good and expects the same from clients. Photo: Tim Bauer

“It was just the self-satisfaction of thinking, ‘Wow, there’s another bloke looking at my body,’ ” Davies says. She knew this was a job for James – just work, nothing more – but says there was still a thrill in knowing that having sex with her wasn’t going to be a chore for him.

All Davies will divulge of the experience are the comments, “Believe me, it was good. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.”

And if she could rate the experience out of five? “Oh … six,” she says, laughing.

Ryan James looks exactly as he does in his online photos: clean-cut, blond and gym-toned – like someone who should be putting out fires and rescuing kittens from trees. In a good month, when his diary is full, James might earn about $3000 from escorting, another $2000 from his personal training job and another $2000 to $3000 from acting. For seven years, he had a brain-corroding desk job in finance. “I was a nine-to-five office drone – mindless, repetitive computer spreadsheet work,” he says. “Now I set my own hours. It is a job, but it’s a very enjoyable job.”

There are a few things James wants to clarify about his profession. First, he’s not in this job because he has an unusually high libido.

“I wouldn’t say my sex drive is any higher than anyone else’s,” he says. “Guys with really high sex drives all want to be escorts and they make terrible escorts. As soon as they’re with a client they’re not particularly attracted to, they fail.” What do escorts need to have then, if not a high sex drive? James thinks for a minute. “The ability to get enjoyment from pleasing someone else.”

Second, he says, no one is forcing him to do this. In fact, he’s never heard of any heterosexual male escort who’s been forced into the profession – they choose to be there. “They don’t do it because they’re desperate for money or are drug addicts,” he says. “There might be men who are sleazy or creepy trying to get into it for the wrong reasons but, simply put, they won’t get any work.”

Finally, says James, there’s nothing wrong or damaged about him, or anyone else he knows who works in his field. I read him a quote by writer, Fairfax columnist and anti-pornography crusader Melinda Tankard Reist: “Buying and selling male or female bodies for sex will always be reducing them to a means to an end; a denial of their full humanity.” James grins boyishly, like a kid who’s been told something ridiculous. “Everyone I know in this industry is very smart and intelligent. Some are doctors, lawyers or psychologists, but they prefer not to do that as they find this work more rewarding.”

After her session with James, Davies felt renewed. She sent him a text message that said, “Thank you so much – I’ve had the experience of a lifetime. You’re an amazing person that’s [sic] made me very happy.”

As she tells me this, Davies starts to cry. “I’m getting emotional,” she says apologetically.

I ask why she’s crying.

“Oh, just the sheer pleasure. It was a moment of feeling self-worth and feeling special, feeling like I was someone … who mattered,” she says. It had been a long time, “a hell of a long time, probably the majority of my marriage, to be quite honest” – since anyone had made Davies feel that way.

“Ryan didn’t know me, but he gave me emotional satisfaction. He is lovely to me, he makes me feel like a woman. It’s business, but I still feel very desirable with him.”

Davies is now a semi-regular client of James. When he comes to the hotel room, she now knows to leave the money on the side table before they start. She also feels her time with him has helped clarify her relationship with her husband, settled old scores about his affairs – at least in her mind – and made her reconsider the potential for other men in her life. “It’s made me think that there’s got to be guys out there who can give me what I get from Ryan,” she says.

It’s impossible to determine how many male escorts work in Australia, but agencies and workers will tell you there are more female sex workers than male, and definitely more male-for-male sex workers than male-for-female. Exclusively heterosexual male escort work is still a niche industry in Australia. The market is so new that Cameron Cox, of Sydney’s Sex Workers’ Outreach Project, says that five years ago one Sydney escort agency even approached gay male sex workers to do “straight for pay”.

But every straight male escort I spoke to said business had only picked up since they started working. The industry may be boutique, but if you’re good, your client base will grow. Over the past year, James may only have had 30 clients, but many are repeat customers who book him every fortnight. “There’s no typical customer,” James says. “When you think of people who pay for sex, you probably think of lonely, middle-aged people – husbands who are cheating on their wives, that sort of demographic.”

Women like Davies – caught in unhappy relationships – form part of James’s clientele, but he is also hired by businesswomen who need a date, young women, married couples and men who want to watch him having sex with their wives. Similarly, there’s no such thing as a “typical escort”. If you’re interested in escorting and don’t resemble a muscled, waxed calendar boy, you needn’t despair. In the US, there is an escort named Sugar Weasel who will, upon request, arrive at your home or hotel dressed as a white-bodied clown. Another male escort named Vincent splits time between Washington DC and Toronto and describes himself as an “adult entertainment entrepreneur”. Vincent is in his 70s. Apparently, both are popular.

John Oh, 41, is a 188cm, Sydney-based male escort with pale skin, prematurely grey hair and big hands. He looks like a handsome naturopath. Most of his clients are older women who have teenage or grown-up children and the idea of having sex with someone in their 20s gives them the creeps.

“Mostly, my clients are aged about 47,” Oh says. Forty-seven is a very specific age, I say.

“At 47, your children are self-sufficient,” he says. “You’ve probably also reached a point in your relationship where it’s either going to work for the rest of your life or it’s not. A lot of women get to 47 and find themselves single again.”

Oh’s one-bedroom Sydney apartment, which he rents exclusively for sex work, is a slick, modern affair that resembles a hotel suite. There’s a stainless-steel kitchen, a large flat-screen TV hooked up to music, and an acoustic guitar on a stand. The mattress on the bedroom floor doesn’t have a base and still has crumpled sheets, most likely from his last booking, which only finished an hour before we meet.

When a client visits Oh, he’ll buzz her in and then they’ll share a cup of tea or a glass of wine. They’ll then talk. It’s all rather wholesome. “You spend half an hour sitting around talking, touching, connecting – just being normal people – before you do anything else,” Oh says. His next step is always to offer a massage so he can initiate more physical contact without the client having to request it. “Then it progresses from there,” he says. “Clients are mainly looking for someone to help them rebuild their self-confidence. They’ve come out of a relationship – a marriage of 20 or 30 years – so they may have had very few partners in their lives. The prospect of getting back into dating is hugely intimidating. What they’re looking for is a soft beginning. So to speak.”

Nine months ago, Abby Ward* found she was seeking not so much a soft landing as a gentle re-entry. Her seven-year relationship with a woman had ended and she wanted to ease herself back into the world of men without resorting to the bar and club scene. Ward is a likeable, energetic 42-year-old, based in Sydney, who works as a cosmetic surgery nurse – “Botox, fillers, that sort of thing” – and has an infectious toucan squawk of a laugh. She wears sequinned, body-hugging clothes and has bold magenta streaks in her hair. You get the sense she’d have no problems picking up anyone of either sex.

“But I didn’t want some drunken idiot picking me up,” she says. “I also wanted to make sure I still liked men, because it’d been so long.”

Ward also felt self-conscious about her weight at the time. She is athletic and healthy-looking when we meet, but weighed more than 100 kilograms when she broke up with her partner. As a bigger woman, she didn’t like the prospect of going to a bar by herself. After searching online for escorts, Ward found a Sydney-based escort with the moniker of Adriá and was immediately smitten. “I’m into pretty boys, and he’s a pretty boy,” she says.

She made the booking, had her hair and make-up done, took the day off work and booked a hotel in Potts Point. Adriá knocked on her door. When Ward opened it, she threw Adriá against the wall, unzipped his pants and said happily, “Haven’t seen one of these for a while.”

Adriá, for his part, looks every bit the Spanish Romeo. Wearing a double-denim ensemble, he has tanned skin, dark shiny hair, calf-like brown eyes and a stud in his left ear.

At 27, he is already a veteran of the industry. The first time he was paid for sex, he was 21. It wasn’t planned. Adriá was working as a concierge in a Sydney hotel, and one guest – a corporate woman in her mid-40s – kept requesting that he bring various items to her room over the course of one evening. All of these items were minor – a phone charger or a bottle opener – but each time, she gave him a disproportionately large tip of $50. Finally, she asked him what time he finished his shift, adding, “Since I paid you for your services, can you return the favour?”

Lots of things went through Adriá’s mind at the time. He figured he’d earned a lot of money in a short period of time, and that hospitality wages weren’t great. He also found the woman attractive. “I felt flattered,” he says. “I was 21, my hormones were going nuts and I was getting paid. It was a sexy scenario.” All up, he earned more than $300 that night. “And my wage [at the time] was $500 a week.”

Emboldened, Adriá sought out more sex work. At first, he signed with an agency, but didn’t get any work for six months. So he took matters into his own hands, got some professional photos taken and started his own website. On a good week, Adriá will have anywhere up to four bookings.

“For guys in this business, that’s really busy,” he says. “Women like to book longer sessions: two to three hours at a time.” Unlike men hiring female escorts, women hiring males usually expect conversation, he says. “If I’m charging $280 an hour, it adds up.”

Adriá says it truly doesn’t matter how clients look. Most of the time he can get and maintain an erection naturally, though he adds, “If my head space is not there, I’m stressed or I’ve got other stuff going on in my personal life …” He trails off, sheepishly. “I mean, it has happened.”

The last time “it” happened – or, to be more precise, didn’t happen – was a job he turned down last year that involved a heterosexual couple who booked him for a threesome: “They weren’t … hygienically acceptable.”

While Adriá tries to remain flexible, there are other requests he’s also had to turn down. He’s never slept with a man, despite it being a popular request. “[I'm asked] plenty of times,” he says. “But I just say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that. I’m not physically attracted … I just can’t.’ ” He’ll kiss on the mouth but says it has to feel natural, not forced. “Oral, I’ll do,” he says. “I’ll do that a lot. But extreme fetishes – peeing and pooping – no.

“I spend a lot of effort making myself look good and being presentable and I expect my clients to do the same as well; to at least shower and look after themselves.” Most of the time, Adriá says he can get an erection by finding something genuinely attractive about every client. John Oh agrees, adding that finding yourself being desired is a huge turn-on in itself.

Christian is the most expensive escort I meet. His rate is $1000 an hour – Adriá’s is $280, James’s is $300 and Oh’s is $320. Instinctively, I understand why: Christian is in his mid-30s, tall and toned, with insanely white teeth. He looks like a Brazilian underwear model.

But there’s another reason Christian warrants such a high price: his name. Christian settled on his escort monicker 10 years ago – long before the erotic romance novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, was published. But ever since that book took off and made purchasing S&M erotica from department stores a mainstream transaction, the requests for Christian to simulate the role play in that book have been non-stop.

“It’s like they wrote the book about me,” Christian says, laughing, before admitting that he hasn’t actually read it. “Sometimes, I’m the dinner date and handbag, while other nights, I’ll have my bag of goodies – chains, whips, the whole thing – and I’m Dominant Christian.” He won’t do serious sadism – no pain or blood are his rules – but will happily tie clients up and blindfold them.

“Fifty Shades of Grey has created a revolution in women wanting to try taboo things,” Christian’s boss Missy says. A former escort herself and a dead ringer for the Australian actor Essie Davis, Missy adds that there are a lot more females nowadays demanding the Christian Grey experience. When clients call Missy and enquire about Christian, they’ll often ask whether specific passages – taken line for line from the book – can be re-created during the booking.

Christian works through Missy’s agency, Platinum X, and benefits from her rigorous screening of potential clients. Over the phone and on email, Missy assesses each potential client’s needs and matches them to the most suitable escort on her books. She’s also there to protect her escorts, ensuring clients don’t become too emotionally attached to any particular one.

“Female clients have been like, ‘Oh, Christian. Where is he and what’s he doing today?’ ” she says. “As a female, you can read them. I politely cut them off and say, ‘Christian is on other bookings.’ You have to give them a bit of a reality check. He’s doing his job. You are his job.”

It’s not uncommon to become the victim of a stalker’s obsession if you’re a male escort. Some clients do become overly attached, says Adriá. “But if someone keeps asking for you all the time – weekly – you tell them, ‘Try to space it out, maybe once a month.’ That’s a healthier arrangement.” The initial impulse is to take on all offers for the money, Adriá says, “but then the stalking happens, or they have your phone number and they call you and they’re drunk. ‘Oh, I got money,’ they’ll say. But just because you’ve got money doesn’t mean I’m going to come out at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Drawing boundaries between professional and personal relationships is a constant challenge. Christian avoids forming serious relationships with women while escorting, though he always balances sex work with personal training, teaching kickboxing and modelling. His last proper relationship lasted a year, then he was back on the job. “While I’m working, I’m absolutely single,” he says. “I’ve had a partner before, but I specifically stopped escorting out of respect for her.”

Anthony – a 32-year-old Melbourne-based escort who works with an agency called Aphrodisiac – found a novel way around these conundrums: he started dating a female escort. Prior to this, he’d avoided dating altogether. “If I started seeing somebody, and then said, ‘Look, I’ve got something to tell you,’ either they’d be really receptive or they wouldn’t,” he says. “Or they’d know my secret, and I’d be uncomfortable with knowing how they might use it.”

Dating another escort meant all these concerns evaporated. Anthony would meet with his partner after work and says he never felt any jealousy towards her clients, nor she towards his.

“It’s really funny,” he says. “The only time I felt jealousy was when she was telling me about her personal trainer: ‘Darren was brilliant today; he’s so fit.’ But escorting? It’s work. Then, you go back to your normal relationship at night, where you keep something for your partner.

“Some female escorts don’t allow themselves to be kissed on the lips – only their partners can do that. For us, it is more about openness and how deeply you share yourself with somebody.” Emotional connection, honesty and vulnerability are for each other only.

Of all the escorts I spoke to, only John Oh has been in a long-term relationship for the entire time he’s been an escort. “What I do has never been a problem for [my partner], and she’s always been very supportive,” he says.

The biggest issue for them as a couple is that Oh is away for work so often – they live together in northern NSW, and his Sydney apartment is rented purely for his sex work. However, while clients becoming too emotionally attached is an ongoing pitfall, Oh says another danger involves becoming too close to clients. “Sometimes you meet really nice, attractive, interesting people,” he says. “That can be hard. It has caused difficulty for my partner and me on some occasions, but we’ve always survived; there’s been nothing we haven’t been able to manage.”

For some clients, the thing that keeps their emotional attachment in check is the moment of financial transaction, which usually happens at the start of each booking. “I know it’s a service; I know it’s not emotional, that it’s non-connecting,” Sandra Davies says of her time with Ryan James.

But she still feels a small sting at that moment of transaction. “There’s a tiny little thing in me that says, ‘Yeah, it is only business, isn’t it?’ It’s a weird feeling. You think, ‘It’s still going to be empty after he walks out.’ But it’s just a tiny feeling,” she says. “Nothing major.”

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

The Other Faces of Meth

The use of crystal meth has shot up dramatically in Australia since it arrived here in the 1990s. as Benjamin Law explains, the long-term effects of the drug remain unknown.

If you had to guess Anna Toohey’s* profession, you might wager she works in PR or sales. Toohey is 33 and dresses the part, sporting manicured nails and excellent clothes – a designer wooden necklace, a clearly expensive kaftan – and talks with the assured confidence of a person with something to sell, which, in a loosely interpreted way, is true. Until recently, Toohey was one of Victoria’s most successful distributors of crystal meth, the diabolically addictive illicit drug also known as “ice”.

“I used to joke about it, saying, ‘I’m taking over this area. Bayside is going to be mine,’ ” she says. Toohey didn’t intend to become good at dealing crystal meth. She just happened to have access to a quality product at a very competitive price.

Toohey meets me in a public park south of Melbourne’s Yarra River. Teenagers skate in the afternoon sun while young families sit in the soft grass. It’s the kind of park in which Toohey used to regularly lay back to smoke crystal meth herself, completely undetected.

“There’s no smell, nothing like that,” she says. “So I’ve laid in a million parks on a blanket, just …” She mimes puffing. “And nobody has any idea. You can smoke it in the bathroom at work, you can smoke it in a public toilet. You can just duck down in the car. People wouldn’t see. You get a small pipe and people have no idea.”

Years ago, when Toohey worked for a federal government department, a colleague she had worked alongside for 18 months asked her whether she wanted to try crystal meth at a Christmas party. Toohey laughs about it now. “I’d been high every day next to him and he had no idea. He’d been high as well, and I had no idea.”

Toohey doesn’t look like a typical recovering crystal meth addict. In my mind, addicts are the people you see on Faces of Meth, the infamous website of before-and-after mugshots collected by an Oregon county sheriff’s office. The people featured on the site are practically decomposing: teeth are missing; faces are scab-ridden and sunken like badly cooked cakes; skin has the complexion of worn lino. Toohey says people like that are in the minority: injecting users in deep withdrawal. Still, I can’t imagine that regularly taking in so much junk could be good for your body.

“Nah, but it bounces back, I reckon,” Toohey says. “You just need to sleep for a couple of days.” After all, Toohey says, she used crystal meth every day for 13 years. “And I’m not too bad,” she says.

Crystal meth use in Australia has shot up drastically since its introduction to this country in the 1990s. In 2012, the Global Drug Survey found that over a quarter of 6000-plus surveyed Australians had tried methamphetamines – the most common form being crystal meth – at least once in their lives. Meth-related harm has also increased sharply. Between 2010 and 2012, Melbourne ambulance crews saw a 109 per cent jump in the number of call-outs from assaults, accidents and psychotic episodes related to methamphetamine use. According to Turning Point Alcohol & Drug Centre, the number of meth-related call-outs has increased again since.

This is how crystal meth works: after you smoke, inject, snort, ingest or anally insert the tiny, salt-like shards into your body, your brain is flooded with dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure. You are sent into a dizzying state of euphoria. Your sex drive becomes supercharged. Inhibitions disappear. There’s no need to sleep, which means you can have athletic sex for hours on end.

White-collar professionals tell me they take it to boost concentration. Sex workers take it to work longer hours and to emotionally detach themselves from clients. Tradies and truck drivers take puffs to stay alert and focused.

“For women, it’s a brilliant drug,” Toohey says. “You don’t have to eat and you can still do all the things you have to do. Room’s messy? Have a pipe, and zhooom - clean to within an inch of its life. All the paperwork you’ve ever needed to do. Bang out that assignment. Pack your bags for the weekend. You can do it all.”

Lacking confidence and energy? Want to lose weight? It’s as though crystal meth were custom-made to cure all 21st century malaises.

Then come the side-effects. To stave off the comedown, you need to use crystal meth again. As your tolerance for the drug strengthens, you need more of it to get high. With repeated use, your dopamine receptors begin to corrode, impairing your ability to feel any kind of pleasure unless you get another hit of crystal meth. During withdrawal, feelings of intense paranoia, anxiety and depression creep in, and it’s common for people to experience episodes similar to paranoid schizophrenia.

Alarmed, Victoria’s state government has launched a year-long parliamentary inquiry to investigate the use and distribution of methamphetamine. One of the things it will discover is that production has skyrocketed. Unlike heroin and cocaine, the proliferation of which depends heavily on overseas availability, crystal meth can be easily manufactured almost anywhere, which means a more even spread of the drug across metropolitan, regional and rural Australia. A Google search will reveal recipes showing how the precursor chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine can be processed into crystal meth: mix ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with red phosphorus and hydriodic acid; filter out the phosphorus, neutralise the acid with lye, drain the liquid meth, add hydrogen chloride gas, filter, dry – and bam!

The proliferation of meth labs is the reason pharmacists started demanding your driver’s licence in the mid-2000s when purchasing cold and flu tablets containing pseudoephedrine. Some Australian real estate agents have been schooled in how to spot clandestine laboratories during rental inspections. In the past year, a record 809 clandestine laboratories were detected in Australia. By October, Victorian police had already seized 113 clandestine meth laboratories this year. Recently, Melbourne officers discovered people cooking crystal meth and selling it from a van in a park, as if it were an ice-cream truck.

One driving premise of television’s Breaking Bad is that the most unlikely people can end up cooking and selling meth. For her part, Anna Toohey was raised in a comfortable upper-middle-class home just outside of Melbourne. She went to a private Catholic school, trained to be an elite athlete and was an active member of the local pony club. When she was 20, she had several sporting accidents and lost her confidence and nerve. Then, at a party one night, she was offered crystal meth and loved the energy and self-assurance it gave her. For Toohey, crystal meth was like “this secret elixir to life that nobody knew about. I could stay up longer, I could work 90 hours a week.” She finished two university degrees and got excellent marks, assisted by the almost superhero-like concentration levels crystal meth gave her. “I’d learn the entire subject in three days, and bang: I’d get an HD [high distinction] for my exams.”

When asked about comedowns, Toohey grins. “I never really came down,” she says. Her approach was simple: stay high and you won’t experience the lows. By the time she was 25 and working in banking, Toohey couldn’t even drive to work without stopping the car up to four times just to get high. By the time she was 30, she was smoking roughly $10,000 worth of meth a week, sucking on her pipe between 10 and 15 times a day. But it wasn’t until she started selling crystal meth herself “that it got out of control”, she says.

There were a few reasons she started selling. After one meth-related arrest, Toohey lost her job. Her addiction was cripplingly expensive. It was only after another arrest that she decided to stop taking and selling the drugs altogether. She was held in police custody and endured torturous withdrawal symptoms for days. “You get shaky, you don’t want to really eat, and you’re so tired, but really uncomfortable. All your bones are aching. Your throat starts to close over.”

She was still detained on her father’s 60th birthday. He had no idea about her crystal meth habit and dealing, and Toohey had to wish him a happy birthday from the lock-up. “It was heavy. Every time I think about wanting to use again, I just think, ‘I wasn’t brought up to go to jail.’ ”

Toohey tells me one more thing: when she was still distributing crystal meth, she got a small town named Neerim, in West Gippsland, hooked on meth. “I got that whole town addicted,” she says matter-of-factly.

For a moment, I’m astounded. “You know,” I say, after a while, “people hate people like you.”

“Probably,” she says. “But you don’t give that much free stuff out. Only a little bit, and only to drug dealers.”

With the intention of getting people addicted?

“The town is already addicted,” Toohey says. “The town is already smoking bullshit stuff that isn’t even ice, and they’re paying huge amounts of money for it.”

You can hear it in her voice. She was basically doing the town a favour. I write down “Neerim” in my notebook. I’m curious. What happens after you hook a town on crystal meth, anyway?

Victoria Police’s acting deputy commissioner, Stephen Fontana, says that in his 38 years of service, he’s never seen a drug quite like crystal meth. “We’re strug-gling,” he admits. Fontana tells me that police have had to deal with meth users so aggressive, it’s taken a can of mace and eight officers to hold them down. Paramedics and drug management workers tell me other horror stories: the woman who picked her face to pieces because she thought she had bugs in her skin; the man who took a machete to someone else’s arms; people who went crazy and jumped off buildings, shattering their spines.

But these are extreme cases. Police and ambulance officers agree that alcohol-related crimes and injuries are far more common and problematic than those brought on by crystal meth. Turning Point’s Belinda Lloyd says as with most drugs, there are plenty of casual crystal meth users who never need medical assistance or encounter problems with the law. “A lot of people will use the drug recreationally and never come into contact with any service,” she says.

Like Toohey, Jack McAllister* doesn’t look like a recovering crystal meth addict. At 33, he sports the fit body of someone who takes exercise and dietary supplements seriously. When he first encountered crystal meth, at a Sydney dance party in 1997, all he’d heard was that gay men in the US were going wild for it. He ingested it with water at first. It didn’t do much. It was only when he travelled to New York soon after that he unlocked the drug’s appeal. Over there, everyone was smoking it.

“It was a cool thing, to have a pipe with a hot guy who’d say, ‘Come into the toilet cubicle with me.’ You’d go in there, share it and it made you feel really sexy.” He kept taking it regularly, often to enhance sex, and didn’t encounter any ill-effects besides the comedowns, at first.

Then, in 2000, McAllister was on a flight from New York to London when he had a full-blown crystal meth-induced psychotic episode. McAllister was flying American Airlines that day, and upon seeing the airlines initials – AA – his paranoid, meth-addled brain convinced him that the airline was part of a conspiracy to force him into an Alcoholics Anonymous boot camp, where he would be killed on arrival. It made sense at the time, he says.

McAllister’s psychotic episode may have started on the AA plane, but it stretched on for days. Upon landing in Heathrow, he rang an ex-boyfriend and urgently told him, “People are trying to kill me.” Days later, still rambling and paranoid, McAllister phoned his parents in Australia and told them he was in trouble. Alarmed, they booked a ticket for him to fly home.

“The strange thing is, as soon as I got on that flight, I came out of psychosis,” he says. “ ’Buckle your seatbelts, we’re taking off’ and I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘What the f… have I done?’ ” In the course of his mental fug, McAllister had left most of his possessions behind in New York and London.

By the time he returned to Australia and settled in Sydney, crystal meth use was blossoming in every state and territory – police seizures of crystal meth went from 971 grams nationwide in 2001 to 305 kilograms in 2002. McAllister kept hoping that crystal meth would be fun again, but says it never was. Over the next two years, he was scoring lots of unsafe sex while wired, but come-downs now lasted anywhere up to eight weeks.

He contracted sexually transmitted diseases, developed shigella – a nasty digestive infection – and was eventually diagnosed as HIV-positive. (In 2013, 33.7 per cent of surveyed HIV-positive men in Sydney’s gay community had used crystal meth in the past six months – far higher than in HIV-negative men – which some argue hints at a relationship between the sexual risk-taking facilitated by meth use and the spread of HIV.)

In any case, McAllister had other problems. His psychotic episodes became more frequent. He was working as a schoolteacher then, and during one school swimming carnival, became convinced the students wanted to murder him. Later, when smoking with a sex partner, he sliced open his hand on a shattered meth pipe, got stitches and spiralled into another psychotic episode that lasted a fortnight. Police in Surry Hills detained him before transferring him to a psych ward. Then they called McAllister’s parents. “It was as horrendous as you could imagine,” he says.

McAllister had a 10-month stint in rehab and has been clean for a decade now. He considers himself one of the lucky ones. There is a man in Sydney who McAllister used to know, roughly the same age as him, who got hooked on crystal meth around the same time. They used to be friends, sleep with the same people, dabble in sex work together. “This guy was hot … everyone’s fantasy, pretty much,” McAllister says. “Now he’s the kind of guy who will use crystal meth until he just kills himself. He would be a bit younger than me but he looks like an 80-year-old. He looks grey, withered – he’s just a shell of what he was.”

Mcallister now operates Australia’s first 12-step support group for people with crystal meth addiction. About a dozen men and women stream in quietly as the sun goes down. By the end of the meeting, numbers swell to near 30.

Most of them look all right. Sitting opposite me is a sleekly dressed 20-something woman who could be a professional dancer. There’s also a cheery man in his 30s with the word “DREAM” splashed colourfully across his shirt. Even so, there are a couple of people who look noticeably messed up. One long-haired, bespectacled woman in her 50s wears a haunted expression the entire time, as if she’s stumbled upon her own funeral.

A 20-something, athletic-looking ocker bloke in Nike trainers speaks first. He started using crystal meth at 17, spiralling quickly into psychosis. He’s had some periods of being clean, but has been in and out of courts and lock-ups since 2006 and is now estranged from his family. “And I came from a good family,” he adds. “But crystal meth is a drug that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t care where you come from.”

The man in the DREAM shirt says that at the peak of his addiction, he spent over $50,000 on crystal meth over two months, “sticking a needle up my arm and just getting more and insane”. He says he smelled revolting during this period, breaking out in meth sweats. “I’d just stink of this toxic fume.”

Another man tell us how his addiction left him with a swollen colon (“Really healthy”, he says drily), while the young woman next to me got to the point where she had to smoke meth before getting groceries. One bright young woman, who worked as an electrician, remembers the times she handled wiring that could have electrocuted her “totally off my head”. She says, “I was working on electricity in people’s houses – and on my own. I now look back and see how ridiculous it is, but I thought I was in a really good frame of mind.” Only in her early 20s, she had been using crystal meth every day for four years.

One quiet woman has a neat fringe and sunny face. She could be your local dental receptionist. She looks like someone’s mum. She tells the group that since coming off crystal meth, her mood swings have been so staggeringly painful, so emotionally bruising, that she spontaneously bursts into tears at both work and home. “I’m really struggling and yearning at the moment,” she says. “I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Someone to say, ‘You’re going the right way’. Reassurances. Maybe that’s what I’ve been missing from my life.”

When the group is asked whether this is anyone’s first meeting, a young girl in her early 20s raises her hand. She’s pretty, resembling a young Britney Spears – but is a living portrait of human misery. Barely able to speak, she cradles her head in her hands as though it might fall off her neck at any moment. She lives in regional Victoria and has driven nearly 200 kilometres to Melbourne to get clean. Today is her fourth day meth-free, she says. We applaud but that just makes her cry. The girl next to her pats her on the back softly.

“Every single person I know is on it heavily there,” she says of her home town. “Huge, copious amounts. It’s scary. I thought it would get hold of other people, but not me.” The tears come again. “I don’t like who I am when I’m on it. And I don’t want to live like this. Watching people I love …cook and stuff. I left on Saturday night … with a pipe and two points for the drive.”

She shakes her head, appalled at herself. Everyone laughs kindly. “But I can’t stop,” she says. “I’m dreaming about it. I don’t know if I can stop. I want to, but … I just don’t know.”

The main street of Neerim is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair. There is a petrol station, hardware store, school, FoodWorks, bakery, butcher and cafe. Only 1451 people live here and generally they don’t earn too much: $515 a week on average.

Eighteen months ago, Toohey sent one of her drug runners here to start selling crystal meth to the locals. Runners would give dealers a sample of the crystal meth and offered competitive rates. Towns like Neerim are vulnerable to a boom in trade, Toohey tells me: anywhere with a large population of tradies or the unemployed will go for the stuff. They’re the ones who’ll buy smaller amounts more frequently, and at a higher price.

Neerim’s tiny police station is closed when I visit, so I drive 20 minutes to nearby Warragul and meet Kevin McLaren, Victoria Police’s Youth Resource Officer for the shire. McLaren knows a lot of young local people on crystal meth, and not just through his work. One addict used to play basketball with his son. A meth runner who was bringing in $8000 worth of crystal meth a week to town was a girl’s date at the local debutante ball.

“Most schools I go into, at least half of the kids put their hands up and say they know someone who’s using ice,” he says. “Everyone knows someone who’s using.” When McLaren helped to

organise the community’s first forum on crystal meth in September, 300 people came, filling the community college hall to capacity. Since then, McLaren has conducted these forums wherever there’s a demand. Curiously, the next one he’ll present will be in Neerim.

“Crystal meth is always presented as a big-city problem,” says John Ryan, chief executive of Anex, a leading drug harm-reduction organisation. “Bullshit. Methamphetamine use is right across the city and country. The line I’ve heard so many times is, ‘It’s killing our community.’ I’ve heard that line in [suburban] Northcote, but also in Sunraysia and Warrnambool.”

The long-term effects of crystal meth use are far from uniform. For many, the brain’s ability to produce or use dopamine might become stunted. Or the saliva glands will dry out, allowing acids to eat away at tooth enamel, causing dental problems. Or tissue and blood vessels might decay, meaning the body’s ability to repair itself is compromised. That’s the type of thing you see on the Faces of Meth site. That won’t happen to all users and addicts, though.

“You almost need a generation [of users] to get a sense of what effect this is having on people,” says Turning Point’s Matthew Frei. “The assumption has been: ‘You abstain, you get better.’ But we don’t know. Is there some threshold you cross where there is irreversible damage to your neurochemistry? It’s a hard thing to measure.” He shrugs. “But that message – that we don’t know the long-term effects of methamphetamine yet – that’s scary enough.”

*Names have been changed.

Master of Mellow | Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson

His detractors say he’s bland and the man himself describes his music as “three star”, yet fans can’t get enough of surfer turned singer Jack Johnson.

You cannot escape Jack Johnson. As the unofficial Sunday afternoon soundtrack to the developed world, it’s his music you will hear in the grocery store, in the taxi, in your lover’s bedroom. One friend confided to me that she lost her virginity while listening to him. The Hawaiian beach bum turned unlikely summer festival chart monster has commanded global sales of more than 15 million albums. With each release, he tops the charts in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Brazil – any major country with a coastline, really.

Johnson laughs when I tell him about my friend. He’s actually heard it before. Women also have come up to him cheerily disclosing they’ve given birth to his songs. (Imagine Johnson’s laid-back summer melodies as the backing track to the guttural screams of labour.) Couples have chosen his songs for the first dance at their wedding. Parents tell him that they put their kids to sleep with his tunes. “I’m not sure if I should take that one as a compliment or a diss,” he says, only half-grinning now.

We’re on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where Johnson grew up as a kid and now raises a family. Considering the scale of Johnson’s celebrity, the fact he gets away with living in Oahu is remarkable. Oahu is tiny. From Honolulu Airport at the island’s most southern end, my drive past palm trees, red dirt and sugarcane fields to Johnson’s headquarters in the north only takes an hour.

Today his kids go back to school, so Johnson has the entire day to show me the sights. First, though, we need breakfast. Johnson’s at that stage of fatherhood where a significant part of his diet is his kids’ scraps – “So far, I’ve eaten a quarter of a banana, half a bagel and some spoonfuls of cereal” – but he’s ready for a proper meal, so we get into his zero-emissions electric Nissan Leaf (truly zero emissions: he charges it with solar panels on the roof of his house and studio). Behind the wheel, Johnson points out landmarks like a friendly tour guide: there’s the local post office; here is the best beach to see turtles; this is the bridge where they shot Magnum, P.I., the ’80s television series.

Johnson resembles a cross between tanned surfer and lion. Lately, he’s been growing out his hair: long, wild brown curls made scrunchy with saltwater (“My disguise,” he says, smiling). Up close, it resembles a wig you could tug clean off to reveal the shorn-headed Jack Johnson from his early music videos and album covers. Right now, he’s enjoying the anonymity his hairdo grants him. “There’s a time in your life where you think you want fame,” he says, “but when you’re 38 and have kids, not getting recognised is a beautiful thing.”

We park at a little roadside cafe. Johnson’s outfit today – navy-blue T-shirt, boardshorts, brown thongs, green latex charity bracelet – is pretty much what you’d find him wearing on stage, in front of a crowd of thousands. Weirdly, he says he doesn’t get stopped much wearing what he usually wears, especially on Oahu. His slouchy dress sense is a calculated decision, he says, ever since one of his first gigs in Paris, where he found himself getting self-conscious about how he looked to people.

“I started to wear a button-up shirt thinking,

‘I got to dress up,’” he says. “I even started putting on shoes.” Johnson says the word “shoes” the way a Catholic priest might say “condom”.

“You don’t wear shoes?”

“Most people from Hawaii don’t wear shoes,” he says, shrugging.

At the Paris gig, Johnson’s friend J.P. Plunier – who produced Johnson’s debut 2001 record Brushfire Fairytales - was appalled with Johnson’s get-up. ” ‘What’s the go with your outfit?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t even look like you. You’re going to get stuck having to wear that stuff all the time, you know. Next time, just wear your slippers [thongs] and your shirt. It doesn’t matter where you are – Japan, Germany – you wear the slippers! You’re summertime.’ ” Nowadays, even if Johnson is playing Germany in winter, he figures the venues will have decent heating.

Wardrobe considerations are easy. What Johnson gets anxious about, he says, swigging back his third refill of percolated coffee, is the effect his fame might have on his family. Johnson has two sons – aged 9 and 7 – and a three-year-old daughter, and he wonders: is he normalising mega-fame to his children? Is he revealing too much about his family in his songwriting?

Johnson’s new album, From Here to Now to You, which his record company has sent me here to discuss, focuses on the daily rhythms of life as a husband and father. But still he asks himself, “How do I tell that story without making it a reality TV show or something, where I’m letting people into my story?”

It’s a gentler album than his previous two, 2008′s Sleep Through the Static and 2010′s To the Sea, a period when, he says, “I was losing people really close to me.” Johnson’s father Jeff died of cancer, and Danny Riley – Johnson’s good friend, and his wife Kim’s cousin – died of brain cancer, aged 19.

Johnson first met Kim at the University of California in Santa Barbara, one week after they moved there for college. “She didn’t have anywhere else to sit,” Johnson says, “so I got lucky.” They bonded over soul music. She introduced him to beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and bands like Pixies and Sublime.

“Do your kids see the shows?” I ask.

“That’s almost bedtime for them, anyway, so they do miss the shows a lot,” he says. “But I struggle with whether or not to let them see Daddy in front of all those people.”

One time while touring Australia, where he’ll be returning in December, a bunch of teenage girls mobbed him, squealing, “Oh my god, I love you, I love you!” demanding the usual signatures and photographs. Normally Johnson wouldn’t have minded, but this time he had one of his sons with him.

“When they walked away, my kid was saying, ‘Why were they saying I love you?’ He was really confused. I had to explain, ‘Those girls don’t even know me. They might think they love Daddy, but they just like my music a lot. Those people are just … confused.’” He doesn’t want his kids to think his love is spread too thin.

His protectiveness extends to his security on tour, as Johnson usually takes his whole family with him. “Despite my whole laid-back persona, we’re actually pretty locked-down backstage,” he says. “The bass player has two kids, and the piano player’s got two kids. We’re all on the same page in the band: we want sanity backstage.” His tour rider has nothing to do with ostentatious food. Instead, he channels environment superhero Captain Planet, requesting the venue or festival has comprehensive recycling stations, refillable water stations to avoid excessive single-use plastic, and energy-efficient light bulbs.

It’s the opposite of sex, drugs and rock’n'roll, I point out.

“It is!” Johnson says enthusiastically. “It’s very boring. There have been times where I’ve literally walked off stage and I’ve gone to changing a diaper within five minutes.”

Snorkels strapped to our heads, Jack Johnson and I submerge ourselves in a sunny swimming spot with the slightly sinister name of Shark Cove. Underwater, Shark Cove is a thriving marine petting zoo. Like an excited marine biology teacher, Johnson points out the schools of manini, several vivid-neon parrotfish, black rock crabs and the Hawaiian national fish, the humuhumu nukunuku apua’a, which translates to “pig-like nose fish”.

When he was a teenager, Johnson and his friends would peer pressure each other into holding their breaths to swim under the natural rock formations without drowning. When I try now, I feel my body involuntarily floating upwards underwater, and I nearly smash my head on the rocks above me. From the other side, Johnson protectively guides my head through the rocks and I come up for air gasping. Horrified, Johnson asks whether I’m okay. I give him a spluttering thumbs up.

Johnson might be in love with the ocean, but he’s also intimate with its dangers. Aged 17, Johnson was on the path to becoming a pro-surfer when the accident that resulted in the long scar curving around the left side of his nose nearly left him dead. As a teenager, he had just made the finals of the Pipeline Masters Trial. “It’s everything when you’re a kid here,” he says. “It seems like the biggest thing in the world.” Before the finals, he went out into the surf with his friend, the now pro-surfer Kelly Slater. Like most young surfers, the boys liked to egg each other on.

“The most dangerous spot is the hesitation,” Johnson says of catching a wave. “You’ve got to fully commit. It’s a way of helping a friend to commit to say, ‘You won’t go.’ Kelly said that to me on this wave as I was paddling: ‘You won’t go.’” (Slater has apparently regretted this moment ever since.)

Launching himself up onto the board, Johnson made the drop and found himself charging down through the tube easily. Then something went wrong. “Sometimes you realise you’re not going to make it, so you jump off, punch through the wave and body surf through back,” he says. However, this wave curled back into itself and exploded out its own back, pushed down on Johnson and smashed his face into razor-sharp coral.

“I was almost knocked unconscious,” he says, “but was still there enough to think to myself, ‘Ooooh, you just really got hurt. This is probably the worst you’ve gotten hurt in your life.’”

When he eventually made it to shore, Johnson’s face was bleeding freely. The coral had shredded his gums and nearly sliced his upper lip right off, which now hung off his face in a raw, gruesome flap. A paramedic on the scene advised Johnson not to look in the mirror. Johnson insisted. “I looked and I almost passed out. This part, right here,” he says, pointing to a faded cross-shaped scar on his forehead, “doesn’t look that bad any more, but this was like a bullet hole in my head. A big, round hole, all the way down to the skull.”

Johnson needed roughly 150 stitches to put his face back together. “These are fake teeth,” he says, tapping his three upper front teeth. One very white fake is drilled right into his jaw; the other two cover the spot where two teeth were broken in half. One of his kids recently asked him, “Dad, how come you only have one white tooth?”

Johnson says the accident’s significance gets exaggerated in the press, that because of his horrible injuries, his burgeoning professional surfing career was ruined, but hark! During recovery, Jack Johnson discovered music! It’s a convenient half-truth, he says. By the time of the accident, Johnson had already been accepted into university and decided not to pursue surfing professionally.

In the several months the injury took to heal, Johnson focused on music. Not only had he missed the Pipeline finals, but he had to stay clear of the water completely during the Hawaiian winter, which is when the surf is world-class. It was depressing. He had already been playing guitar – had already started a band, in fact – but now he absorbed himself even further into his music, mainly to distract himself.

Years later, when Johnson was producing and directing surf documentaries, he started writing his own tunes for the soundtracks.

A four-track demo of his music caught the attention of Plunier, producer of American singer-songwriter Ben Harper, who then offered to produce Johnson’s debut.

Johnson still vividly remembers how sales of Brushfire Tales went throughout the year. To begin with, he was stoked to sell 200 units a week. “I could actually picture the number of people in a room buying our record.” Soon enough, they had sold 20,000 records. Then the debut single, Flake, scored radio airplay. Within weeks, the record was gold. Soon it was platinum – one million record sales in the US alone.

“It was so nuts,” he says. “I couldn’t picture that many people in a room any more.”

“It’s probably a small island nation,” I offer.

“Exactly!” he says.

“Actually, what’s the population of Hawaii?” I ask.

“It’s about a million,” he says, soberly.

Johnson’s solar-powered music studio in north Oahu resembles an organic co-op. Lacinato kale, basil, mint, rosemary, sugar cane and taro grows in every spare patch of the wide property. Chickens lay eggs happily and lazily in a large hutch, while at the far end of the grounds, Johnson and his brother are in the middle of building a greenhouse for new seedlings. This is also the site of Jack and Kim Johnson’s Kokua Hawai’i Foundation, which supports environmental education in schools.

An annual fundraiser, the Kokua Festival, invites musicians like Willie Nelson, Ben Harper, Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne and Dave Matthews onto the island. On top of that, Johnson donates 100 per cent of his profits from touring to the Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, which hands out grants around the world to organisations focused on the environment, art and music education.

In an era when album sales are haemorrhaging worldwide, it’s testament to Johnson’s ability to shift records that he can afford to give away so much money. Sitting under the giant monkey pod tree that grows outside the recording studio, he shrugs at the thought. His cost of living is pretty modest, he figures.

Doesn’t he have any vices, though? Grand expenses? Indulgences?

“Probably surfing gear,” he says.

“What’s the most expensive piece of surf equipment you own?” I ask.

“Mine would be a twin-fin Pyzel,” he says. “It rides really well, and probably cost me … well, he gave it to me cost [price], like, $300.”

Still, for a guy so wholesome and generous, people can be blisteringly savage about Jack Johnson. Music critics happily brutalise his albums. “Oh, how it drags,” wrote UK magazine Q of 2003′s On and On. For 2005′s In Between Dreams, the same magazine served a brutal back-handed compliment. “His best work to date,” they wrote, “because, at last, he actually sounds awake.”

“The first time I got a two-star review, I was a little offended,” Johnson says. “Rolling Stone wasn’t kind to me for my first couple of albums. I don’t think anything I do is that special, but it’s respectable. Home-made songs, not just pop crap the industry’s putting out. I always felt I deserved three-star reviews.”

Most musicians would shrivel with embarrassment if someone labelled them a “three-star musician” – the title seems synonymous with mediocrity. However, Johnson is pragmatic.

“You look at [someone] like Bob Dylan or John Lennon. Those guys were artists, first and foremost. For me, this stuff feels like a hobby.”

So if people have lost their virginity and given birth to his music, what does Jack Johnson think is the best way to listen to his songs?

“Barbecues,” he says, without a hint of irony.

If you told other songwriters their music was perfect for barbecues, I say, they’d probably take that as an insult, too.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “Some bands I love, but I wouldn’t necessarily put them on for barbecues. Like Radiohead.”

“It would make for a pretty anxious barbecue,” I say.

“A lot of ups and downs; a lot of trips to the volume knob,” he says, then grins. “Not all music is perfect for barbecues.”

Comeback Trail | On the Road with Pauline Hanson

Undaunted by repeated electoral failure, Pauline Hanson is to again fly the One Nation flag in an attempt to woo voters. Benjamin Law goes on the hustings with “The Redhead You Can Trust”. Photos by Jacky Ghossein.

Into the melting pot … Pauline Hanson at the Sydney home of her friend Bev Wallice. 

Pauline Hanson’s campaign slogan may be “The Redhead You Can Trust”, but another phrase she keeps bringing up would serve just as well: “I’ll be Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare.”

This coming federal election is personal for Hanson. After all, Abbott was instrumental in putting her in jail a decade ago on a conviction that was eventually overturned. If Hanson can score a Senate seat, she could be in the delicious position of being someone the prime ministerial hopeful Abbott has to call upon if he doesn’t want his party’s policies obstructed.

To help propel her into the upper house, Hanson has discovered unlikely supporters. “She’s huge among the ethnics,” says her campaign manager Brian Burston, an affable, white-haired former councillor turned political comeback strategist.

Out there … Hanson on the campaign trail at Westfield Parramatta.

We’re at Westfield Parramatta, a shopping mall in Sydney’s greater west. Most Parramatta residents – 64 per cent – come from families where both parents were born overseas, mainly in China, India and Lebanon. Labor holds the surrounding federal seat of Parramatta by the slimmest of margins. Burston says the ALP will lose it at this election. “Good,” Pauline Hanson says. “Before they destroy the entire country.”

“HELLO!” an excited gnome-like man says, appearing out of nowhere. He shakes Hanson’s hand warmly. “I was from Sri Lanka!” he says. “I love you, because you love this country!”

Hosts of people swarm around Hanson to get photos. Women in hijabs shake Hanson’s hand; an Indian woman in a sari wishes Hanson the best. Lebanese men, Anglo teens, Chinese women, they all approach Hanson with smiles and smartphones. Someone offers her a free blow-dry.

Part of me suspects some of these shoppers are only posing with Hanson for the same reason they’d pose with Queensland’s Big Pineapple – it’s there – but it’s obvious many of them adore Hanson and her politics.

“So much for being racist, eh?” Burston says. What am I supposed to say to that?

When I leave Parramatta, my cab driver, a Lebanese Muslim, asks about my day. I say I’ve spent it with Pauline Hanson. Perplexed, he looks at me in the rear-view mirror, perhaps to double-check I am, in fact, an Asian-Australian.

“You have an opinion on Pauline Hanson?” I ask. He nods slowly. “She doesn’t like … us,” he says, probably wondering whether he needs to spell it out.

On the day I first meet Pauline Hanson, it doesn’t get off to a great start. We’re in Charlestown Square, a shopping centre in Newcastle, NSW. She addresses a small cluster of reporters outsider Myer wearing patent-leather alligator pumps, a black scoop top, a gold bow brooch and a skirt the colour of spilled blood. Flame-haired and feline, she hasn’t aged a dot.

Once we start walking – Hanson out the front, reporters trailing like bad sitcom spies – no shoppers seem interested in saying hello. People keep their distance. I catch murmurs as they walk past.

“The lady from …”

“… fish’n'chip shop …”

“… meant to be in Queensland?”

Irritated, Pauline Hanson turns to us. “See, this is what scares people off.” Part of me wants to roll my eyes – politicians can’t just call on media when it suits them – but I also sympathise. In the mid-1990s, when Hanson went door-knocking, residents would close their doors upon seeing the scrum of reporters behind her. Journalists then published sensational stories about how people kept slamming their doors in Hanson’s face.

Finally a bespectacled young man named Martin comes up and asks for a photo. Hanson immediately brightens. Martin says he’s not interested in politics and just wants a photo, really. But he somehow changes the chemistry. Now a steady tide of people approach Hanson. Middle-aged women feel especially comfortable in her orbit. In the food court, Joan Raper, 47, greets Hanson like an old friend. “What are you doing here?” she exclaims.

“She’s portrayed as this racist person,” Raper says, “but what she’s actually saying is, ‘If you want to live here freely and happily, and abide by our rules and culture and society, you’re more than welcome. But if you don’t – go away! Take your war back to the country you came from.’ ”

Another Hanson fan says she’ll vote for her, but begins by saying, “I’m not a racist, sweetheart.”

Nearly every One Nation voter seems to start with the same disclaimer: they support Hanson, but they’re not racist, sweetie. Whether Hanson likes it or not, her brand – and One Nation’s – is still synonymous with racial bigotry. Even her supporters recognise that.

When the other reporters leave, Hanson, Burston and I sit at a muffin shop to discuss the ins and outs of social media. Hanson may have only just discovered Facebook, but already she’s taken to it with the enthusiasm of a teenager, posting multiple times a day on her fan page. She suspects social media will be a game-changer for her in this election – finally, a way to communicate directly with supporters without the meddling media.

Emboldened, she has bought her first smartphone (Sony Xperia, running on Android), but is still getting used to the digital age vernacular. Several days ago on FM radio, she made a gaffe by referring to young people using tablet devices as “fingering a pad” (she laughs about it now). It has been a steep learning curve. After all, she’s campaigning with a skeleton crew, doesn’t have a background in journalism and …

“Do you want to come and work for me?” she says, interrupting herself. “I’m actually looking for someone who could put out press releases.” I chuckle, pointing out a possible conflict of interest. Hanson grins.

“As long as you’re on side with me,” she says. “If you’re not on side with me, don’t!”

God knows what my Chinese-Australian parents will make of this. Later, when I tell my dad I’ve been interviewing Hanson, he laughs darkly.

“This is a terrible woman,” he says.

Pauline Hanson has an appalling track record for getting elected. This will be her eighth stab at a parliamentary seat in 17 years. She has won only once: the Queensland lower house seat of Oxley in 1996, in the federal election that saw John Howard become prime minister. Hanson was 41 then; she’s 59 now. If John Howard was Lazarus with a triple bypass, Hanson is someone who can miraculously resurrect herself on a regular basis, without ever finding a way out of the tomb.

Still, to dismiss Hanson would be naive. At the height of One Nation’s popularity, it secured almost 23 per cent of the vote at Queensland’s 1998 state election, winning 11 seats on National Party preferences. When Hanson guns for parliamentary seats now, she often scores highly enough on primary votes to secure electoral funding from the Australian Electoral Commission. The only reason Hanson hasn’t secured any seats outright is because major parties are so loathe to preference her, they’ll preference each other first. It speaks volumes of their disregard for her.

On June 3, Hanson announced she would run for a NSW Senate seat in federal parliament under the One Nation banner, more than a decade after their political divorce. Election analysts say complex Senate preference deals – and the fact Hanson is back with One Nation, consolidating brand recognition – makes her first ever Senate seat a possibility.

To outsiders, her return to One Nation this year is surprising. From the start, the party was marred by mismanagement, savage infighting, highly publicised court cases and elected members turning their backs on the party. In 2002, One Nation forced Hanson out of her own party. “One Nation was destroyed from within,” she says. “That hurt. We could have been a major political party in this country. But it’s reinventing now I’m back. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

One week later, Pauline Hanson and Brian Burston drive to Sydney from northern NSW for a 48-hour itinerary of meet and greets. First, the Western Sydney Careers Expo at the former Olympic Games site in Homebush. Year 12 students arrive in uniform. Lebanese girls in hijabs lock arms; Asian nerds play video games with their Anglo counterparts; African and Asian girls play Uno together on the cement. Born in the mid-1990s, they’re not old enough to remember Hanson as a political force to be reckoned with. If they know her at all, it’s from Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice.

When I was their age, in Queensland, schoolmates’ parents drove cars plastered with One Nation stickers. We’d tape Pauline Pantsdown’s devastating vocal mash-up Backdoor Man on to cassette, before a court injunction ruled ABC youth radio station Triple J couldn’t broadcast it any more. Sometimes it felt Hanson didn’t even need to be parodied, like the time she recorded a video that began, “Fellow Australians, if you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered.”

It wasn’t all laughs. It was during this time that a Chinese-Australian relative of mine was bashed in a petrol station by angry white racists and hospitalised. Strangers drove past me calling out “chink”, “gook” and “f…ing Asian”. If you were on the receiving end of these attacks, you didn’t have to draw a line between them and the rise of One Nation. You just knew.

Hanson arrives at the expo in black and turquoise. Burston assures me this stopover isn’t about courting first-time voters, but about One Nation’s keen interest in apprenticeships. Hanson’s proposed policy – that the government pays 75 per cent of all apprenticeship costs in the first year, 50 per cent in the second and 25 per cent in the third – gets the thumbs up from Deb at the apprenticeships marquee. Validated, Hanson beams.

Burston, meanwhile, has been dealing with prank calls. Facebook may be a blessing for them but it’s also attracted trolling. Pauline Pantsdown, the drag queen responsible for Backdoor Man, has re-emerged on Facebook and has somehow gotten hold of Burston’s mobile number. He has bombed Facebook with it, encouraging everyone to pester and protest.

Out of nowhere, a solidly built 17-year-old named Jason confronts Hanson, arms crossed. “What’s the way you think about Asian immigration? Have your views changed?”

Hanson is gentle but firm. “Yes, they have, because that was 15, 16, 17 years ago. Have you read my maiden speech?”

“No, I haven’t,” Jason admits.

“I think you should read my maiden speech,” Hanson says. “When I made that comment in parliament, it was because we had a huge number of immigrants coming to Australia who were of a … ” She stops herself. “And we had to take control of it,” she finishes.

Unlike Jason, I’m familiar with Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, a blistering bit of oration most Australians over 30 vividly remember. “We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians,” Hanson said, “by those who promote political correctness, and those who control the various taxpayer-funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society, servicing Aboriginals [sic], multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups.”

Horrified, my family watched on the evening news as Hanson said, “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” She was talking about Asians.

Still, for every Australian who heard Hanson’s speech and felt a new dimension of bigotry entering the political discourse, there were just as many who found her arguments – that Aborigines receive more benefits than non-Aborigines; that multiculturalism should be abolished; that Australian youth undergo mandatory 12-month national service; that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” – refreshing and galvanising.

I remind Hanson of how she singled out Asians in her maiden speech. Surely it’s one reason why people still think she’s racist.

“Look, I think so,” she says, sighing, as if expecting this from me. “It’s the words that I used. But I had to have the impact to tell the government, ‘Have a look at the figures.’ Most of the figures we were getting, in people migrating to Australia, were actually … Asian. So there was going to be imbalance in years to come.”

Hanson is right when she says Australia’s migration patterns are changing. Australia’s last census, in 2011, will probably be the last to show that Europeans account for the majority of new arrivals. By the 2016 census, it is anticipated that most of Australia’s migrants will come from Asia. Does Hanson see that as a problem?

“You’ve got to have a balance, otherwise you have a dominating culture. I suppose I’m a proud Australian! I don’t want to see my culture gone. Does anyone? Would Asians like me to go over [there] with heaps of our people and take over?”

How does she propose “a balance” be enforced? Some form of racial capping?

“Look, it’s not about ca-,” she says, breaking off, as if that notion is preposterous. “Australians have never been asked. We’ve never had a discussion on immigration or multiculturalism.”

The next morning, Pauline Hanson waits for me on the driveway of a home in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters. It is the home of Bev Wallice, one of Hanson’s closest friends. The two met in 1999. Wallice’s husband had been diagnosed with cancer and they sought Hanson in Queensland to ask her to examine the inadequacies of private health insurance in covering cancer treatment. Since Bev’s husband died, Hanson often stays in Wallice’s home when she’s in town.

Bev Wallice is 76, sports jaffa-red fingernails and is full of fizz. She reminisces on how she and Hanson secured their friendship. “A couple of chardies and that was it,” she says. “She’s the nicest friend, and I have a lot.” Wallice cracks up at her own joke. “She’s not racist in any single way,” she adds reassuringly.

Wallice’s home bar is lined with framed photos. One is a signed portrait of Alan Jones. Next to it is the well-known photograph of Hanson draped in the Australian flag.

At the dining table, Hanson and I talk about her kids, all of them adults now – Tony, 42, Steven, 38, Adam, 32, and Lee, 29. Hanson is a grandmother now to Lee’s boy, Rielly. Her fish’n'chip days are long behind her and she now splits time with her partner Tony Nyquist – who works in real estate – between properties in Ipswich and the north coast of NSW.

I ask about money. It seems staggering that Hanson would keep putting herself forward after so many back-to-back defeats. Earlier, Hanson told me she puts her own money into campaigning, as One Nation has no backers, big donations or significant membership base. “In the last federal election, it cost me just over $100,000.”

Electoral funding helps. When Hanson ran as an independent for an upper house seat for Queensland in the 2004 federal election, she received $199,886 in electoral funding. In 2007, her Pauline’s United Australia Party received $213,095. This election, if One Nation obtains at least 4 per cent of first preference votes in NSW, the party will receive a fraction over $2.48 for every vote counted. Later, when I phone Hanson to confirm those figures, she is livid.

“Ben! That is garbage,” she shouts. “Do you ask Tony Abbott how much electoral funding he’s going to get? Do you ask Kevin Rudd? Wayne Swan? Barnaby Joyce? I am frickin’ sick and tired of this! I am not getting electoral funding. I stand with the party. Nothing goes directly to me.”

It’s a sore spot. In August 2003, Hanson and One Nation’s co-founder David Ettridge were sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of fraudulently registering One Nation in Queensland. In November that year, their convictions were overturned and the charges dismissed. But by then, Hanson had already served time in jail.

The person who established the trust fund to pursue court cases against One Nation was Tony Abbott. Hanson not only loathes discussing electoral funding, she loathes the existence of electoral funding itself. She has publicly campaigned to have it abolished. Still, it’s a system that has aided her political longevity. And her fury at journalists for asking her about it far outstrips her anger at the system itself.

ABC election analyst Antony Green has bad news for Hanson: she won’t win. “Oh, she gets a significant vote,” he says, in a don’t-get-me-wrong voice. “When she stood for the Senate [representing Queensland] on an independent’s ticket in 2004, she got a higher number of below-the-line votes than any other candidate in the history of the ticket voting system.” But preferences will work against her, he says.

When I tell Hanson this, she is angry. No one, she says, has insider knowledge that the Coalition parties won’t preference One Nation this year.

I point out they haven’t in the past. “They haven’t,” she says. “But Tony Abbott wants to consider who would be the best choice in the Senate. I’d like to know where he bloody well stands on this, because if he doesn’t flow [preferences] to me, he’s nothing but a bloody hypocrite. I’m against the carbon tax. I’m against the illegal boats.”

It’s true. Many of her platforms square up with the Coalition. It’s why Hanson doesn’t strike me as an extreme figure any more. Burston agrees: One Nation isn’t a fringe party, because Labor and Liberal have caught up to it. Hanson nods and says that has been validating.

But doesn’t that diminish One Nation’s appeal? Reshaping Australia’s politics might be Pauline Hanson’s legacy, but coming into an election, it is also her key strategic weakness. When the major parties blunt your competitive edge, why would anyone vote for Pauline Hanson now?

Indecent Obsession | Sibling Sex Abuse

Sibling sex abuse is now recognised as the most common form of intra-familial sexual abuse. Benjamin Law talks to victims and perpetrators. 

“It doesn’t go away” … Carmen Burnet says she was intimidated by her much older brother, who sexually abused her when she was aged between seven and 10.
“It doesn’t go away” … Carmen Burnet says she was intimidated by her much older brother, who sexually abused her when she was aged between seven and 10. Photo: Noel Mclaughlin

 

We know who to suspect. Or, at least, we think we do. It’s why we teach kids about “stranger danger” and inappropriate touching, to be wary of the overly affectionate priest, the weirdo teacher, the touchy-feely coach. Still, we’re not that naive. Solemnly, we acknowledge sexual abuse happens in families, too – all those nightmare horror-stories of older relatives and parents sneaking into kids’ bedrooms at night. Yet there’s another form of sexual abuse, one that only seems to be discussed in inverse proportion to how often it happens. Greatly under-reported, sibling sex abuse, researchers agree, is the most common form of intra-familial sexual abuse, a scenario far more common than fathers abusing daughters.

Carmen Burnet was four when her brother Samuel,* eight years her senior, started molesting her. Samuel, as the eldest of the five siblings raised by their mother (their father left when Carmen was two), was the only one to have a bedroom to himself. “If he invited one of the younger kids to his bedroom, that was like you were the special one,” Carmen says. “Occasionally, he would let one of us go into his room and look at his toy soldiers or whatever, things we couldn’t normally touch or look at. What I remember happening was me going into his room on that sort of pretext. Then it turned into something different: him getting me to take my underpants off and looking at me, and maybe touching me a bit. Then the day just went on as normal, as if nothing had happened.”

Looking back on it now, Carmen says that it started out as “not a very bad thing”. The sort of thing, she says, that was hard to pin down as definitely being wrong or weird. When the family moved from Sydney to Canberra in 1987, what Samuel did escalated in frequency and intensity. Samuel openly loathed having to move to Canberra, and Carmen now looks back and suspects she became an outlet for his frustration, adding that he was abusing the other siblings verbally and physically, too. “He got more forceful,” she says. “The sorts of things he was doing definitely felt much more full-on.” Quietly, she explains the abuse began to involve full penetration.

Carmen was 12 when she finally told her mother that Samuel had repeatedly abused and raped her between the ages of seven and 10. Unlike many other parents who are told one of their children is sexually abusing another, Carmen’s mother believed her immediately. After all, Samuel had been six-foot tall for as long as anyone could remember, with muscles and a tremendous capacity for violence. “The times that police got called to our house for domestic violence were because he’d beaten up our mum so badly that she was unconscious,” Carmen says. “He was a pretty dangerous sort of person.”

Carmen’s mother responded to the news the only way she knew how: she went out and confronted Samuel about the sexual abuse. “She came back with him, we all went inside and she then immediately wanted everything to be all right,” Carmen says. “She didn’t want there to be ‘any dramas’ and she wanted us to be friends. Immediately, there was this pressure on me to be fine and conciliatory and not be mad at him.” The message was clear: it was up to Carmen whether this family could move forward or not. Carmen now sees her mother’s strategy as completely inappropriate, but adds that “I think she felt out of her depth”.

Afterwards, Carmen’s mother booked the two siblings into counselling at a family health centre in Canberra. “Which was not what I wanted,” Carmen says. Here she was, trapped in a room with a complete stranger and the brother who had sexually abused her so violently that on one occasion she had to see a doctor to ensure permanent damage hadn’t been done to her genitals and internal organs. “It just made me feel worse,” she says of counselling with Samuel. “I was speechless. I couldn’t manage to say anything. I was totally intimidated by him. He was really smarmy and wanting me to forgive and forget, be friends, leave all that in the past. Mum thought it was fine for him to try to hug me, try to talk to me. I wanted to avoid him as much as possible.”

Dr Gary Foster from Living Well – a Queensland-based organisation that supports male survivors of sexual abuse – points out that young people who experience sibling sexual abuse often don’t know how they want their parents or guardians to respond. When considering disclosure, ghastly possibilities and questions race through their minds. “For instance, ‘Are they going to kick him out?’ ‘What’s going to change?’ Or, ‘They might never kick him out, so then I have to live in the same family.’ ” Often, Foster says, abuse victims opt to keep the peace instead. “They think, ‘It would be too distressing and upsetting for my parents. And I’m kind of managing it. Maybe I can just push through, block it out.’ ”

It’s the attitude and approach adopted by Zach, another victim of sibling child abuse. For Zach, however, it meant he found himself being forced to invite his older brother Billy – who groomed Zach to repeatedly masturbate and perform oral sex and analingus on him – to be groomsman at his wedding. To this day, Zach, now 25, still hasn’t told a single member of his family what Billy did to him. By the time Zach’s wedding came around, no one except Zach and his fiancée knew his brother had molested him. His fiancée was horrified by the prospect of Billy even attending the wedding and implored Zach to confront his brother.

“But I was uncomfortable doing that,” Zach says. “I guess I came to a place where I thought, ‘My life has really turned out all right.’ I was almost halfway through my uni degree, I was moving towards a pretty great career, and I was getting married to someone I loved deeply. In that respect, I thought, ‘Well, this hasn’t screwed me up too much; I’ve overcome it. We can move forward, he can be a groomsman and we don’t have to worry about what happened in the past – we can have a great future.”

When he reflects on the wedding itself now, Zach struggles to find the words. “It was the best day of my life, but it was also …” He trails off. This is the thing about sibling sexual abuse: as much as you want it all to remain in the past, it’s impossible to shake off. And as much as you might want these people out of your orbit, family is still family.

Jack lives just outside Sydney. He’s 51, but good skin and a lean body means he looks a decade younger. Wearing a black muscle shirt and metal scorpion pendant, Jack also looks tough, like someone who could beat the living snot out of you if it came to that. But it’s clear that Jack is gentle: a husband who married his childhood sweetheart; a dad who still kisses his adult kids goodbye. In his spare time, he writes poetry. The only time Jack seems to get angry or upset is when he talks about his childhood – in particular, his older brother Dennis. “Forgiveness didn’t work for me,” he says.

Of the sprawling bunch of kids who grew together in Sydney’s west, Jack was the youngest. Dennis was six years older. Jack was intelligent and bookish, while Dennis was the family’s golden-haired child and clearly their dad’s favourite. Dennis was also – in Jack’s words – a bastard. “He’d tie grasshoppers to skyrockets; crucify lizards on the back fence. He used to take me for a ride on a billy cart or pushbike and we’d get a certain distance from home, then he’d give me a belting and leave me to walk home crying.”

Every night around 5pm, their dad would call Jack for his bath. One evening, Dennis came in the bathroom while Jack was getting dressed and produced a $1 note. To a kid in 1968, that represented a lot of money. If Jack wanted the money, all he had to do was what Dennis asked. “What he did,” Jack says, staring dead ahead, “was he sat down on the chair that was in the bathroom and got me to sit on his lap. He proceeded to stick his penis up my backside, which hurt and felt very wrong. I cried. He was hissing at me: ‘Shut the f… up’, ‘Open up your arse’ – that type of thing.” Jack was seven; Dennis was 13.

This happened four or five times – Jack can’t be sure – except that on subsequent occasions Dennis no longer bribed Jack with money. If Jack didn’t co-operate, Dennis belted him hard instead: bit him, punched him, slapped him around. Jack only escaped his brother’s rapes once, when he reached between his legs, twisted Dennis’s balls with a clamp-like fist and refused to let go until Dennis released him. Jack shakes his head thinking about it now. “With me crying and trying to basically fight Dennis off, I look back now and I wonder why nobody heard, why nobody intervened. The only thing I can think of is they were just used to him being a prick to me.”

When Jack started waking up with Dennis in bed beside him – either raping him or attempting to – he demanded to know how Dennis even got there. Dennis said their father put him in the same bed so the brothers could share warmth on cold nights; Jack confronted their father and told him to stop it. When their father asked why, Jack came out with it: that Dennis was “doing things to my bottom”. Jack says he will never forget the expression on his father’s face when he told him. “He looked at me with utter disgust. It could be argued that he was disgusted with my brother, but I felt then, and I still feel now, that his disgust and contempt was for me. His reaction was, ‘What do you want me to do? Beat him up?’ I was lost for words. Of course I wanted him beaten up; of course I wanted him punished. But it never happened.”

For a while though, the abuse stopped. Eight years later, Jack was 15 and had just met the girl whom he’d eventually marry. Out of nowhere, Dennis – still living at home – started raping Jack again. “I had no chance fighting against him,” Jack says. “A 15-year-old against a 22-year-old? It’s not going to happen. To my eternal shame I got to the point where I thought, ‘Let him get on with it.’ I didn’t see any point in going to Dad.”

To Jack, it seemed no one would ever believe him, anyway. It would be years later – decades, in fact – when he figured maybe the police would.

How frequently sex abuse occurs between siblings in Australia is impossible to gauge. Dr Daryl Higgins, a child-abuse expert from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, says the statistics just aren’t available. One 2011 US study, however, estimated half of all adolescent-perpetrated sexual offences involved a sibling, while a 2012 UK study concluded sibling incest was the most common form of family sex abuse – at least five times more common than parent-child incest. In Australia, the New Street Adolescent Service – a NSW program addressing under-18s who have sexually abused people – consistently finds that roughly 50 per cent of their clients’ victims are siblings. Still, Higgins says it’s difficult to get exact numbers or estimates in this country. “Small-scale studies tell us what issues [victims] face,” he says, “but it doesn’t tell us about how prevalent it is.”

Complicating matters is the question of how to define sibling sexual abuse. At what point does normal childhood sexual experimentation become molestation and rape? Do kids and teenagers even know what they’re doing is wrong? In the 1980s, researchers defined sexual behaviour between siblings as abuse when there was an age gap of five years or more. While most cases of sibling sexual abuse do fall into that range (a 2010 study of 17 female victim-survivors showed a median age gap of 4.18 years), many researchers nowadays point out that using age as a criteria ignores cases involving slightly older siblings, twins, and younger siblings who might be physically stronger or use coercion.

Helen Kambouridis, a senior psychologist at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital who has worked with young victims of sexual abuse for 15 years, says because there are so many grey zones, it is also unhelpful to label minors who abuse their siblings as “perpetrators” or “offenders”. “We don’t use that language,” she says. “Effectively, they’re kids. And they’re kids who – for the most part – have been victims of some sort of trauma of their own, possibly sexual abuse. Part of the difficulty we face is [asking], ‘What’s underneath this? What’s motivating a kid to engage in behaviour like this?’ What we do find is kids who have been exposed to a sort of trauma that has basically screwed with their template for relating with people.”

This isn’t always the case, however. Talia looks back on her childhood and says she can’t explain what she did to her two younger sisters. The eldest of three girls, Talia – now 25 – is five years older than her middle sister and six years older than the youngest. When Talia was nine, she would play games with them, usually one at a time, re-enacting scenes from the film Grease. “It started as just childish games,” she says, “like playing doctors and nurses. Then it … stopped being games.” Soon, their play involved genital touching and coerced oral sex. “There was trickery involved. I never threatened them but it was, ‘Make sure Mum doesn’t find out. Make sure we don’t tell her.’ ”

Talia visibly shakes talking about it now, looking ashen with regret. “If it had ended at doctors and nurses – being naked around each other, looking and touching at bits and pieces – I think I could justify that and be okay. And while I’ve got all the symptoms of someone who has been sexually abused – highly sexualised behaviours; abusing others – I’m pretty sure that never happened. I kind of wish it had, because then I could explain my behaviour. Not to get excused, but there would be a reason as to why I did it.”

Strangely, neither of Talia’s sisters seems to recall any of this happening. Talia has never broached it directly with them, but says that whenever sexual jokes or stories come up, she watches them closely for anything in their response to confirm they know what Talia knows. They’ve never reacted. It is possible they were too young, or simply don’t regard the incidents in the same way Talia does. Either way, Talia has decided never to broach the subject with them. In fact, she’s never told anyone what she did between the ages of nine and 11, except for her psychologist and Good Weekend. Not even her husband knows. “The thing that hurts me the most is they’re the two people I love most in the world, and they’re the ones I’ve hurt most.”

In early 2012, Talia had a nervous breakdown, set off by work pressures but fuelled by the roaring tide of guilt over what she did to her younger sisters years ago. Drinking heavily, Talia violently cut herself repeatedly and had to be admitted to emergency. Later, her psychologist suggested to Talia that what happened with her sisters wasn’t abuse, but “sexual play that went too far”. Talia disagrees. “I’ve decided to see it as abuse and deal with it that way.” After all, Talia works in psychology herself and has read the literature. She can’t let herself off the hook. “My main reason for thinking it’s abuse is because there’s a five-year age gap,” she says. “I should have known better.”

“I should have known better.” it’s a thought that ricochets in parents’ minds, too, after they discover one child has been abusing another. “I don’t think people, one, think it’s possible, and two, would even want to think it was possible,” Kambouridis says. “I can’t think of a worse position for a parent to be in. You’ve raised two kids in the same way, and one of them did this to the other? How did that happen?”

Often, parents respond with blanket denial or they downplay its severity. When Sofia emails Good Weekend, she says her story seems minor compared to other stories she’s heard. “In the scheme of things, I’m not terribly damaged by it,” she writes. When she later tells her story to me in person though, it’s clear what happened to her in childhood still deeply affects her. “My cousin and my brother …” she begins, then catches herself, gulping. “Sorry,” she says, blinking tears. She tries to start again. Much of the pain Sofia now feels, she explains, is that her mother didn’t believe that what her cousin and brother did was sexual abuse.

Sofia was seven when her mother, older brother and extended family all stayed together in a beach house one summer. A male cousin – five years her senior – and Sofia’s brother told her they wanted to show her “what grown-ups did”. They took her into a private room, started kissing her on the mouth, then undressed her and touched her with their genitals. Sofia had no vocabulary to express what was going on. “I was seven,” she says. “I had no idea of sexuality.” The incident repeated itself several times over the summer. School reports from before that summer described Sofia as outgoing, happy and confident. Afterwards, she was described as quiet, shy and not interacting so much with the class.

Some years later, while still in primary school, Sofia’s friend Raelene confided to her that her father had sexually molested her. Horrified, Sofia told her mother, who responded by saying, “That can’t be right. She must be lying. Kids lie.” After counselling in her 20s, Sofia understood that what her brother and cousin did to her was sexual abuse, too. She rang her mother. All she wanted, looking back, was recognition and acknowledgement that it happened. “They were just experimenting,” her mother said. “They didn’t mean any harm.” Just like that, the conversation was over. “I was extremely disappointed,” Sofia says. (Later, when Sofia told an online friend that her brother had molested her, she went outside, bent over and nearly threw up.)

“How would anyone react?” Kambouridis says of parents being told of sibling sexual abuse. “There’s clearly no kind of guidebook – not least because there’s not a lot of awareness of this sort of stuff. I don’t know that there could be anything more difficult than to open yourself up to that.”

Jack was 21 when he realised he could kill his brother. Both Jack and Dennis had children by now. They were at their mother’s place, horsing around with their kids under the garden hose, when Jack lifted Dennis right off the ground. For the first time, Jack realised he was now the stronger brother. It would take nothing, he thought, to smash open his brother’s skull and spill his brains all over the cement. A quiet, tense moment of shared understanding passed between them as Jack put Dennis down. “It was a huge moment,” Jack says now. “It made me think I wouldn’t have any problems with this ever again, that I was finally strong enough to defend myself.”

Still, Jack couldn’t shake his bedtime ritual of thinking about all the times Dennis had raped him. “There was a voice in my head, saying to me, ‘When are you going to do something about this?’ ”Another voice would talk back, “I don’t want to hurt my mother. I’ll do it in 10 years’ time, or 20 years’ time.” Decades passed. By the time Jack was 45, he was close to losing it. He’d developed intense anger-management problems and had volcanic road rage. His entire family noticed it. What they didn’t know was that Jack was also regularly contemplating suicide. “It was like a monster,” he says of his rage towards his brother. “It just got bigger and bigger and it was dominating my whole life.” One day, he finally told his wife by saying, “You know I’ve never really liked my brother. Here’s why.” That first revelation was like a crack in the dam. From there, Jack told his adult sons and his GP, who referred him to a counsellor. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Against the advice of his counsellor, Jack decided to confront Dennis in person. When Dennis – now deeply Christian – admitted to the abuse and asked Jack to forgive him, Jack left feeling stronger and happier. “But it only lasted a few weeks,” he says. “Then I started to think, ‘Hang on, I let him get away with too much.’ ”In 2010 Jack spoke to police, who eventually arranged for him to wear a wire tap while talking to Dennis. That evidence propelled Dennis to plead guilty to three acts of buggery that had occurred in 1976. Sentenced to a year for each crime, to be served concurrently, Dennis is still in prison. Jack says he sleeps much better nowadays.

Carmen Burnet, however, has mixed feelings about taking Samuel to court. When she took him to trial in 1993, when she was 17, it was one of the ACT’s first incest trials. “The catalyst for deciding to go to the police was that he was trying to get custody of his daughter, who by then was 2 1/2,” she says. “I just thought, ‘No, I’ve got to do something to protect her. I am not going to just stand by and let him potentially do the same thing to her.’ I don’t know that he would have, but the fact that he’d been so lacking in remorse or guilt or anything in relation to me made me feel pretty frightened.”

Carmen describes the court experience as “nasty”, adding that she wasn’t allowed to give evidence via video link but instead was forced to give evidence in person, with dozens of journalists and complete strangers staring at her and listening to her testimony. Of the six charges – including carnal knowledge, sexual intercourse without consent, and acts of indecency – Samuel pleaded guilty to only one minor charge of “committing an act of indecency”, and a jury found him not guilty of all the others. Samuel was given a good-behaviour bond and ordered to pay Carmen $500 in compensation.

“I felt [like] I hadn’t been believed,” Carmen says. “Of course, I knew rationally that there was always the risk of an acquittal, but I wanted to believe that if I did the hard thing – of going through the courts – that would be worth it. That people would see and understand and that he would get convicted. When that didn’t happen, I was left with this huge void of disbelief. I hadn’t prepared myself for that possibility at all. It was total shock. The only way I’d been able to go through with it was with the belief he’d be convicted.”

Carmen says the one thing that made it worthwhile was that Samuel was prevented from gaining custody of his daughter. In the scheme of things, though, it was a small victory.

Carmen spoke to Good Weekend immediately after an appointment with her psychologist. Right now, Carmen has intensive psychotherapy three times a week to address the complex PTSD she developed as a result of her sexual abuse and the resulting court case. “That’s been an ongoing thing that, periodically, totally disables me,” she says, adding she has received the disability pension since 1998. “Most of the time I can function to some degree, but I haven’t had the sort of stability that you’d need to be reliable for a job.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, Carmen’s PTSD got so bad that she started a new regimen of medication and underwent intensive psychotherapy three times a week. When asked how she is now, Carmen smiles a little. “I’ve only been in hospital twice in the last two-and-a-half years,” she says, “so that’s not too bad.” Now, Carmen has non-existent or patchy relationships with her remaining siblings, though is close to some of her nieces and nephews. She has no contact with either parent. In all of this, though, she’s also been able to find love: she’s been married for the past four years.

But, she says, “It’s always going to be an aspect about myself and about my past that I somehow have to navigate or deal with. It doesn’t go away. It still really hurts to have had trust betrayed so badly … by someone who was a brother. And to have not been safe and protected in a situation where that’s what we should have had: safety and protection.”

Living Well’s Gary Foster says all those feelings sexual-abuse survivors experience – shame, confusion, self-blame – are only amplified when the abuser is a sibling. “Say there’s an uncle who’s 25 years older,” he says. “There’s the sense that, ‘This was an abusive relationship and there’s not much I can do.’ Or if you’re attacked out of the blue, it’s like, ‘What more could I have done?’ ”

Sibling-abuse victims, on the other hand, are often initially invited into the behaviour from someone with whom they already have an intimate bond. “It can mess with your mind so much more,” says Foster. “Abuse might happen at night, yet they’ll go down to breakfast and everybody’s behaving normally. They go on holidays with the family [together]. In front of everybody, it’s all fun. You become trained very quickly in pretending and covering this up, even though you’ve got this incredible emotional turmoil happening. It’s hard enough for adults to get their heads around the issue. Imagine what it’s like for a 10-year old.”

For Sofia, her confusion over what her cousin and brother did to her was that it didn’t fit the classic narrative of sexual abuse. But one thing that has changed since undergoing counselling as an adult is she no longer carries any shame over what her brother did. “I’m not ashamed for myself,” she says. “But I’m ashamed I’m related to him.”

* Except for Carmen Burnet, all names of victims, perpetrators and family members have been changed. Lifeline 13 11 14; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

Nowhere Man | Bush Survival in Australia

Resolute inner-city dweller Benjamin Law spends a night out in the Aussie bush – without a bottle of moisturiser in sight.
(Photos: Tony McDonough)

Bush tucker man … Bob Cooper shows Ben Law how to live off the land.
Flying into Western Australia from the east coast, all I can see are endless stretches of yellow and brown. If there is fresh water out there, it’s difficult to spot. It’s not hard to see how someone might, say, get lost, go insane and die of thirst out there. In the past three weeks alone, there have been six disappearances in WA. Four have been rescued and one has been found dead. One man is still missing. Looking out over the endlessly dry terrain, I don’t like his chances.

I’ve come to WA to learn how to avoid such a fate. Despite being a resolutely inner-city-dwelling ABC (Australian-born Chinese) homosexual, with only an arts degree and an expired first-aid certificate to my name, I’ve been tasked with spending a full day and night out in the bush to learn survival skills. Here, Bob Cooper, an Australian whom the BBC calls “a world authority on desert survival”, will teach me how to find water, attract help, build shelter and gather food – abilities that will prove useful should I ever find myself stranded in the middle of goddamned nowhere.

Based on my track record, this isn’t likely to go terrifically. The last time I went bush – when my Lutheran school sent us all on a one-month survival camp – I was 15. On hikes, my spine buckled under a backpack that was nearly half my entire bodyweight, until a female friend of mine offered to carry my pack on top of hers. During the “solo” part of the program – when we were each forced to set up overnight camp at screaming-distance intervals from each other, I accidentally stepped in my own shit. Nerds and nature: we just don’t mix.

So I’ve spent my entire adult life in cities (or places where you can at least buy a decent non-oil-based face moisturiser). When I told my friends I was going to do Cooper’s course, they mocked me with sadistic delight, and one sent me the link to a news item about a gruesome machete murder that had recently taken place in the outback.

Cooper picks me up from Perth Airport wearing exclusively earth-coloured clothes: sandy-beige shirt and sediment-grey pants. He is 58 and looks like Santa: pink cheeks, baby-blue eyes, trimmed salty beard and sandy-white hair. As he packs my bags into his four-wheel-drive, Cooper tells me he’s had a busy week. As well as running his bush-survival, tracking and snake-handling courses, he’s also been assisting state police locate the single remaining missing person who’s still out there somewhere.

I will survive … Cooper's survival kit.
I will survive … Cooper’s survival kit. (Photo: Tony McDonough)

 

When I ask whether he has any theories as to why people get lost, Cooper says, succinctly, “Technology” – specifically, GPS devices. The problem is simple, he says: they don’t always work. And when they don’t work in the West Australian desert, you’ve got a life-threatening situation.

Contrary to popular belief, though, Australia is not the world’s harshest continent, says Cooper. “It’s flat,” he reasons. “You can stand on a sand dune and still see around you, so getting around is easy enough.” The main problem with Australian deserts, he continues, is that they’re so remote (“as that missing guy is proving”). But learn how they work, he says, and they can protect you.

Cooper turns his attention to my clothes. What do I plan on wearing once we get into the bush? Part of me wonders whether my outfit looks ridiculous to Cooper – like I’ve unknowingly dressed like a gay-stripper version of how a bush survivalist is supposed to look. I tell him I plan to wear exactly what I’m wearing now: American Apparel Oxford shirt; Carhartt slim shorts; Vanishing Elephant leather boots; Japanese cotton socks.

“Did you bring any trousers?” Cooper asks.

“No,” I say. Cooper looks mildly disappointed. Shorts are okay, he says, but with trousers, you avoid scratches, mosquito bites and sunburn. It sounds ridiculously obvious once he says it, of course, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.

We drive south from Perth to a fenced-off reserve that Cooper uses specifically for these courses. When he stops finally, he points out of the window and asks me what I see. If I’m honest, I don’t see much. Lots of nature. Potential death. Wake In Fright and Evil Angels. He invites me to walk into the seemingly endless scrub with him.

He points to some red resin at the base of a tree that’s as bright as a boiled lolly. It crumbles as soon as I touch it. Cooper tells me to crush some in my hand and add a little water. It smells like iodine. That’s right, Cooper explains: it’s a natural anaesthetic. Nearby moss can serve as a poultice for wounds. Grass trees are a source of water and food. Tea tree leaves can be boiled to make herbal tea. A succulent called pigface yields water when crushed. Suck a yellow banksia and taste nectar; the dead ones have velvety insides that are perfect for starting fires. I feel humbled and impressed. “There are your fire-lighting sticks,” he says. “There’s medicine on that dark-brown tree. Nectar there, a fish-trap there. They’re all your friends.”

We get to the reserve and unload. Cooper has brought 20 litres of water, so we’re definitely not at risk of dehydration. Still, he adds, some people have died of thirst with water still in their canteens. It’s because they sipped the water instead of drinking it. If you sip water, he explains, the liquid only gets used for digestion, not proper hydration. Out here, that can kill you.

Cooper shows me other ways of procuring water. We remove dead leaves and spiders’ eggs from a large gum-tree branch, then tightly seal them in a clear plastic bag. Plastic bags, I learn, are vital in survival situations. The sun’s heat will eventually make the leaves sweat, producing drinking water. Another option is to make a solar still: dig a hole, crush plant-life or urinate into it, place a container in the middle of it all and make the pit airtight by sealing it across the top with a plastic sheet. As the heat evaporates the urine and sucks the moisture from the crushed plants, condensation will form on the underside of the plastic sheet. Funnel the condensation down towards the container and allow it to drip into a cup.

Cooper introduces me to his patented survival kit, a metal tin the size of a large block of cheese. It contains more than 30 items that will keep me alive once I know how to use them. Some inclusions are obvious (compass, knife, flint); others, less so (stock cubes, potassium permanganate tablets).

Each implement has vital – often multiple – purposes. What’s the most important thing inside the kit? “It depends,” says Cooper. The mirror and whistle are vital when it comes to attracting attention. Plastic bags are essential if you’re running out of water. However, fire – provided by the flint – is a priority people often ignore. Fire doesn’t just provide warmth: it purifies water, cooks food, sterilises tools, provides psychological comfort.

After several hours of orienteering, map reading and fire-lighting training, Cooper tells me he’s departing for the evening. He’ll only be a short drive away, he says, then leaves me a two-way radio in case … well, in case something happens.

As I watch his vehicle pull away, I’m surprised I don’t feel panic. Instead, I feel weirdly confident: I can make this work. First, I do the homework Cooper has given me and construct a large tripod of branches in the middle of the road – to attract the attention of hypothetical passers-by. Nearby, I set up my campsite. It takes a while to make the flint work, and I swear violently every time I strike the metal fruitlessly. But finally, sweating, I produce a flame by setting alight a shredded cotton pad.

Dinner tonight will be a broth of boiled nuts, made using stock cubes and cooked in a metal can, and native sandalwood and quandong nuts that Cooper found earlier. I unshell the nuts by smashing them between two large rocks. It’s surprisingly hard work. I’m sweating and hear ape-like grunts involuntarily escaping my mouth. In survival situations, Cooper says a stock cube can go a long way – even the tiniest sliver can add flavour to an otherwise tasteless meal. After all that work with the nuts, I decide to indulge myself and use both of them: one chicken, one beef.

By the time I finish dinner it’s only just past 7pm and, with little else to do, I figure I may as well go to bed with my iPhone. My bed tonight consists of two hessian sacks and an emergency blanket. If I didn’t have the hessian sacks, I could have used soft weeds that grow to a metre tall out here. I dig a small groove for my butt, lie the hessian sacks down and pull the reflective blanket over me.

To my amazement, 3G reception is strong. Sure, I’m about to dig a hole in the ground to take a dump but, hey, I can also brag about it on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram! And I do just that for the rest of the evening until my battery runs out.

Getting to sleep is another matter, though. I discover a full moon can be insanely, distractingly bright. I oscillate between feeling cold and suspecting the emergency blanket is baking me alive. Mosquitoes attack me with force, zipping in and out of my ears, literally eating my face. Reaching around blindly, I grab a mosquito net and wrap it around my face as if it were cling wrap.

The next day, Cooper rolls up just after 5am. Groggily, I stand up, the mosquito net still twisted wildly around my face. A pair of kangaroos stare at me, unimpressed. Cooper’s brought me some pigface for breakfast and I make some tea. While the water boils, we find our gum-tree bag now has about a cup of water inside. I drink it and marvel. The water is minty, eucalyptus-infused and pure.

As we finish up, Cooper hands me back my survival kit, like a medal. “And if I catch you anywhere in Australia, out and about, without it …”

“You’ll shoot me with a rifle?”

“Nah, I’ll beat you with a frill-neck lizard.”

I can’t help feeling a little smug. You could place me in the middle of nowhere, and I’d really be fine. I feel indestructible. Nothing can beat me. Then, five minutes later, we drive past a supermarket. Turns out it would have taken me less than an hour to reach it by foot, had I needed it.

Falling with Style | Olympic diver Matthew Mitcham

After soaring at the Beijing Olympics, diver Matthew Mitcham crashed out in London. Benjamin Law investigates what went wrong.

Back on board … plagued by injury from the 10-metre platform, Matthew Mitcham has shifted his focus to three-metre springboard diving.

Back on board … plagued by injury from the 10-metre platform, Matthew Mitcham has shifted his focus to three-metre springboard diving. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

It’s supposed to be spring in Sydney, but it’s miserable out there today: 9°C and bleak with rain. Outside Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, where Matthew Mitcham trains, umbrella-inverting winds are so violent they feel capable of lacerating faces. Sydneysiders could be forgiven for ditching their morning exercise regimens and crawling back into bed, but Mitcham never has that option. Every weekday, the Olympic gold medal-winning diver is up at 5am and ready for gym training by six. After a midday break, he will hit the pool – very literally – over and over again for roughly another three hours.

When I meet Mitcham at the NSW Institute of Sport, he sports a mild fuzz of a beard and super-short shorts: Narnia’s Mr Tumnus as Tommy Hilfiger model. I suggest people might be surprised to know he is training again so soon after the London Olympics.

“I was actually planning on retiring after London,” says the 24-year-old, “but because of how things went …”

Mitcham never made it to the Olympic 10-metre platform final. His last dive in the semi-final – a back two-and-a-half somersault with a two-and-a-half twist, the same manoeuvre that won him gold in Beijing – was his undoing in London. As the anaemic score of 70.20 came up and eliminated him from competition, Mitcham couldn’t help it. For a moment, he wept right there in front of the cameras.

Sports commentators were generous, noting that Mitcham had been plagued by injuries coming into the London Games. They’re common in this sport, especially from the 10-metre platform, where competitors hurl themselves from three-storey heights and collide with the water at the speed of a car shifting into fourth gear. Done repeatedly, it almost guarantees the gradual demolition of their bodies, especially their wrists, which absorb all the impact. Ganglions – cartilage lumps that often form after injury or shock – riddle that area. Most platform divers wear strapping tape or wrist guards constantly, as if their bodies are always on the brink of crumbling, only held together by adhesives.

Mitcham’s injuries were far more serious: spinal stress fractures and an abdominal tear that rendered him immobile. “With the injury I had, you have to have complete rest, which could take anywhere from a month and a half to nine months,” he says. There had been other incidents, too. Back in February, Mitcham, competing in the German city of Rostock, had badly misjudged a 10-metre dive in training and smashed into the pool on his back with a sickening slap. He came up coughing blood. “It’s the most awful feeling when you know something’s gone wrong,” he says. “The free fall is the worst, because you’re expecting it, but don’t know how bad it’s going to be.”

There was also another far more serious problem plaguing Mitcham. Publicly, he was contending with physical injuries and a string of poor performances. Privately, he was experiencing the psychological nightmare of clinical depression, compounded by serious drug abuse. His body crippled by injuries and his self-esteem destroyed by poor dives, Mitcham had turned to the comfort of methamphetamine – the savagely addictive substance also known as crystal meth.

“It came into my life because of all the injuries,” he says. “Uppers make you feel up, and I was feeling really, really down.”

On weekdays, Mitcham would smoke the odourless drug in a pipe the way many consume coffee: in the mornings before training, then again at lunchtime – usually in his car, out of sight from everyone, including his coach, manager and boyfriend.

“Nobody suspected anything,” Mitcham says. “I’d done such a good job of hiding it and maintaining my functionality, but it scared the shit out of me that I didn’t have control. I’d always said to myself, ‘I’ll stop as soon as I want to.’ And as soon as I wanted to, it wasn’t that easy. That was terrifying. And it was getting closer and closer to the Olympics …”

To most people, this will all sound as shocking as it seems unlikely. Mitcham’s entire persona is endearingly wholesome. He’s that adorable goof who plays ukelele covers of Beyoncé on YouTube (“Oh my God. I think I’m ovulating, and I’m a guy,” went one YouTube comment). He’s the cutie-patootie flirt who promised Twitter followers he’d dive off the 10-metre platform naked if he won gold in London. He’s the lovable dork who dressed as a unicorn to go to a Lady Gaga concert.

The epigraph of Mitcham’s new memoir is – no joke – a quote from the Toy Story character Woody. But given what Mitcham’s been through, it’s strangely appropriate: “That wasn’t flying! That was … falling with style.”

Matthew Mitcham’s parents were barely adults when their son was born: Vivienne Mitcham was 18, Greg Swadling was 21. An old photo of Swadling shows a beachy, sun-kissed man with tousled dark blond hair and a demon grin. Cover his eyes in the photograph and Swadling is a dead-spit for Mitcham now. He was too young to be ready for fatherhood.

“Never having had a dad, I didn’t miss him,” Mitcham writes in his book. “I felt no sense of loss or abandonment. Mum and her father were enough.” It would be another two decades before Mitcham would meet Swadling – and he found him “one of the most lovely, most grounded people I had ever met”.

To begin with, Vivienne Mitcham and her son lived in an old family home in Brisbane’s Carina, before moving into a small flat in Camp Hill. They struggled financially but Matthew never thought of his family as poor, despite their electricity being cut off for half a year when he was six. He counts that period as being among his fondest childhood memories. They dined by candlelight and had baths heated by the gas stove. When their dog refused to eat the cheapest pet food available – a gruesome processed sausage – Vivienne and Matthew made him fetch chopped-off chunks, turning mealtimes into a game. “Making the most of a shit situation” is how Mitcham happily describes that period now.

However, Mitcham was also terrified of his mother’s temper. Vivienne was prone to mood swings and constantly demanded silence and space – two commodities that aren’t readily available with parenthood. It would be years until a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome explained her moods. “That’s what made it really hard for Matthew,” she tells me. “If I’d been diagnosed earlier, we both would have known why I really needed peace and quiet around the house.”

At nine, Mitcham suspected he was gay. When he was six, he’d had a sexual encounter with a 12-year-old boy in a shed and remembered feeling jealous when he later saw the same boy in the shed with another kid. For a few years, he tried to condition himself out of being gay by snapping his wrist with a rubber band whenever he thought of boys. It didn’t work. At 15, he came out to his mother when she discovered gay porn on his computer. Her response: “Derrr.”

“I always had an inkling,” says Vivienne. “Because I was always expecting it, I was fine with it. But he struggled with that. Teenage years are hard enough, but with that on top?”

Rumours and stories about Mitcham’s sexuality circulated around his school until he decided to face all the snickering whispers head-on, confirming to schoolmates he was, in fact, gay. “I reasoned, if you say, ‘Yes, I am a fag, what’s the big deal?’ then it’ll deprive the finger-pointers of their fun,” he writes. For Mitcham at least, the strategy worked.

Diving came into his life by accident. Mitcham had been competing on trampoline since the age of eight. When he was 11, an AIS diving instructor spotted him showing off by performing acrobatic feats on the diving board at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre, in suburban Chandler. Impressed, the instructor demanded to know where he’d learnt to dive like that. For a while, Mitcham competed in both diving and trampoline until the 30-hours-a-week demands of doing both became too much. Trampoline wasn’t an Olympic sport at that stage, so Mitcham went with diving. By the age of 14, he was winning national titles across one-metre, three-metre and 10-metre events.

Despite the wins, Mitcham wasn’t a happy teenager. Diagnosed with clinical depression at 14, he began sneaking out of home at odd hours, armed with a fake ID and an athlete’s body that made him look older than he was. He became a regular face on Brisbane’s gay club circuit and would dance until dawn, meeting boys, sometimes going home with them. He smoked pot regularly and sampled LSD, only to wake up the next day with little or no memory of the night before.

Mitcham’s Sunday-night routine: stay out clubbing until 5am Monday, then head straight to the pool for 6am training. By Tuesday and Wednesday, he would be wrecked, sleeping right through school subjects he didn’t like.

Photos of Mitcham taken during this time show someone trying to undermine his natural golden-boy image with dyed black hair and a pierced tongue. (He’s ditched the hair dye, but kept the piercing.) His growing hatred of diving fed into his depression, for which he was prescribed antidepressants. He didn’t anticipate their effect, which was to cause his entire spectrum of emotions to flatline.

“They just completely zombied me out,” he says. “Eventually, I just got so sick of not feeling anything that I took myself off them.”

But without his meds, Mitcham’s depression swan-dived, manifesting itself in intense self-harming episodes. He rolls up his cardigan sleeves for me and displays the fleshy under-part of his left forearm, his smooth skin marred by a fine ladder of equidistant cuts. “And that was one just episode,” Mitcham says quietly.

When I turn to his right forearm, I wince. Unlike the left forearm, the cuts on Mitcham’s right arm don’t follow any logical pattern. It’s as if a small wild animal has clawed at him repeatedly. Nestled in the wild lantana growth of scar tissue is a particularly awful wound that’s eight centimetres long – a deep, purposeful stab that required eight stitches in hospital.

On the one hand, Mitcham suspects that his cutting was a cry for help, or a subliminal plea for attention. But he says that after self-harming, “there was the most overwhelming sense of shame, so I covered it up and hid it at all costs”. His favourite garment was a rugby jersey with three-quarter-length sleeves, mainly because it covered up most of his scars.

One of the biggest problems he faced was his mother’s emotional detachment, which he now understands was because of her Asperger’s. “The way children learn to regulate their feelings and emotions is by interaction with their parents,” he reasons. “My only parent doesn’t do emotions very well, so I never learnt that emotional regulation.”

After one particularly intense self-harm episode that followed an argument, Vivienne Mitcham kicked Matthew out of home. He was 15. “I felt very out of my depth,” Vivienne says. Matthew moved in with his grandmother Marion, which seemed to help everyone. As Marion doled out the discipline, Vivienne and Matt reconnected as friends. “Some people might not agree with this type of parenting,” Vivienne says, “but the best way for me to help him was to go out partying with him. It was my way of keeping my eye on him.”

Meanwhile, his relationship with then-coach Hui Tong – now Diving Australia’s national head coach – was deteriorating. Tong’s coaching style predominantly focuses on correcting athletes’ flaws, while Mitcham thrives on – and needs – praise. When criticised by Tong, he responded with the limited emotional palette of most teenagers: seething silence or passive aggression.

By 2006, Mitcham – exhausted, angry and walking wounded – hated the sport and loathed his coaches. He came to such verbal blows with Tong at the 2006 FINA Diving World Cup in China that Tong banned Mitcham from attending the World Junior Diving Championships in Malaysia that year. Furious, and close to leaving diving altogether, Mitcham impulsively booked flights to Sydney for an escape, despite barely knowing anyone there.

Clubbing one night in Darlinghurst, he met Lachlan Fletcher, a shy, tall and ruggedly handsome man 10 years his senior. Mitcham ended up staying at Fletcher’s for the week. He showed Fletcher his wounds – the ones in his head, the ones on his limbs – and Fletcher confided in Mitcham his own grief over having lost his long-term boyfriend to cancer.

With Fletcher’s support, Mitcham quit diving at the age of 18. By that stage, he had quit school, too. For six months, free from diving and classrooms, he did nothing but party.

As Mitcham tells me all this, his phone rings. Apologising, he takes a call from his current coach, Salvador “Chava” Sobrino, who is Mexican. Mitcham cheerily greets him in Spanish.

“Hola, Cabrón!” he says “Dónde estás? Estás en la oficina?” (“Hey, motherf…er! Where are you? You in the office?”) Sobrino was the one who wooed Mitcham back into the sport in 2007, reaching out with a simple SMS. “Matthew,” he wrote, “if you ever want to start diving again, I’ll have a place for you in my squad.”

“He was kind of misunderstood,” says Sobrino, a former Olympic diver himself. “He was a very different type of person, artistic in many ways. He was gay and flamboyant – very out-there – but that’s why I liked him. When you are an artist, your personality doesn’t fit the norm. I could see there was a perfectionism, an artist, and a freakish diver, even when he was young.”

When Sobrino lobbied Diving Australia to allow Mitcham back into training, they told him Matthew Mitcham spelled trouble. “I was trouble,” says Mitcham. “There were all these episodes of cutting, and even times where I would scratch myself and leave big patches of bare skin on my body.” Still, Sobrino got what he wanted and Mitcham was readmitted.

By 2008, when Mitcham was 20, he wasn’t just Olympic-ready, but in Sobrino’s mind, capable of winning gold.

The question of whether to go public with his sexuality came up. “My approach was, ‘Look, it’s your decision, but I would say don’t do it yet,’ ” Sobrino says. “My concern was it would cut the possibility of sponsorship.” But Mitcham said he just wanted to get it out of the way and Sobrino respected that.

When Mitcham arrived in Beijing, he says: “For the first time in a really long time, I was diving because I was happy.”

At the Beijing Olympic final, Mitcham’s finishing dive scored four perfect 10s and a total of 112.10 – the highest-scoring dive in Olympic history. Mitcham became the first male Australian diver to win an Olympic gold in 84 years and the first Olympic gold medallist to compete as a publicly gay man. It was the biggest high of his life. But just as in the world of diving, the realm of mental health also dictates that what goes up must come down.

After the international love-in that followed his Olympic gold, Mitcham hit a wall with a bad case of post-Olympic comedown. He had been off antidepressants since 2007 and struggled with the psychological slump most Olympic athletes face several months after the Games finish. By late 2008, facing new athletic pressures and professional commitments, Mitcham began using crystal meth – a drug he’d previously dabbled with – to regulate his moods.

Performance-wise, though, Mitcham’s momentum remained strong. In early 2009, he scored new personal bests at local meets. International competitions in Doha, Changzhou and Rome were less successful and shook his confidence, but he clawed back in 2010 to win silver and gold at international meets in Mexico and Canada.

Things changed later that year. At the Delhi Commonwealth Games in October, Tom Daley – the newly crowned British diving wunderkind – demolished Mitcham, scoring perfect 10s to finish 29.2 points ahead and claim gold. Daley had already beaten Mitcham in Rome the year before and the media swarmed to him. If journalists paid any attention to Mitcham at all, it was usually to focus on the growing rivalry between the Aussie and the Brit. Adding injury to insult, Mitcham was now also carrying two undiagnosed stress fractures, resulting in back pain so constant and severe it deprived him of sleep.

Further scans revealed a 10-centimetre tear in his abdominal muscle. “That injury …” Sobrino says, shaking his head. “Oh, it was a terrible injury. It’s the centre of your body. He couldn’t cough. He couldn’t laugh. It’s a long, long period to recover.”

It was impossible for Mitcham to train at full capacity. His disadvantage at competitions was devastating. “When he arrived at the [London] Olympics, he had to drop two dives off his list and went back to basic dives. He couldn’t get his legs straight into his chest,” says Sobrino, laying out his palms. “I know I have the best diver in the world. But when he’s broken? It’s very difficult.”

Even now, Mitcham struggles to explain why he started using methamphetamines. “It was just like: ‘I feel like shit, and this makes me feel better,’ ” he says. He pauses to think. “Actually, you know what? It was probably because I’d associated so many happy memories with partying and drugs. And because I felt so shit, that was the last thing I could think back to that actually made me happy – apart from the Olympic experience, but I couldn’t replicate that for another four years.”

Meth seemed to offer Mitcham everything antidepressants failed to provide. “It gives you a lot of energy and it makes you feel happy,” he explains. “It also focuses your attention.”

While supporting teammates at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, Mitcham behaved weirdly, and Sobrino now understands why: it’s hard to get a hit in a foreign country, and Mitcham was experiencing withdrawals. “His personality was completely different,” Sobrino says. “He was very jumpy, very grumpy, so I’d stay away from him. I thought it was me, but it was this series of problems he was having.” Later, when Mitcham told Sobrino what was going on, the diver completely broke down. “Oh, he was a mess,” Sobrino says. “Like a seven-year-old kid, crying.”

Vivienne Mitcham wasn’t necessarily surprised that he was using drugs, but was taken aback at the depth of his problem. “Obviously, as a mother, and knowing his upbringing, I had to ask myself whether I contributed to it,” she says.

He also confessed to Robyn Watson, his manager, who has represented elite athletes for years. “There are no surprises in our industry,” she says. “But what I was surprised at is that he still managed to maintain a professional front. Matthew’s never let me down. He’s never been late for an appearance; he’s never missed an appearance. But I could see he was depressed about his injury. I could tell he wasn’t centred and balanced.”

Mitcham had already come clean to boyfriend Fletcher, who was privately administering random drug tests to help Mitcham stay clean, but the admission to Watson changed things. She initially observed him to see whether he could stop using meth on his own. Then, she says, “it became apparent that he hadn’t broken the addiction”. Watson consulted a professional counsellor, who confirmed that Mitcham needed to be admitted into rehab. “Robyn gave me an ultimatum,” Mitcham says, “that if I wanted to keep diving and keep working with her, that this is what I had to do.”

Vivienne Mitcham also had a frank conversation with her son: “If you go to rehab, I’ll stop drinking,” she said. Both knew she had struggled with alcohol for years. (Like her son, Vivienne has suffered from depression and in 2006 she attempted to take her own life.) True to her word, she hasn’t touched alcohol for 14 months.

In late September and October 2011, Mitcham was admitted to South Pacific Private, on Sydney’s northern beaches, where he shared a room with five other people. “I was scared for my anonymity,” he says. By the third week, the inevitable happened: a fellow patient asked him whether he was “that person”. Mitcham said he was, but added he didn’t want anyone to know.

Chantelle Newbery – who won gold in the 10-metre platform at the 2004 Athens Olympics – also spent time in the same clinic. For years after the Olympics, Newbery suffered from intense depression that led to two suicide attempts. “There are Olympic medallists out there suffering silently,” she says. “After I came out with my story, a lot of people contacted me – other elite athletes. Some had retired abruptly, some had won medals, some hadn’t won any. It triggers depression from a lot of avenues.”

Both Newbery and Mitcham agree the demands of being an elite athlete are not exactly conducive to good mental health. An athlete’s entire sense of self-worth relies on physical success. At competitions, you win or you don’t. Which means that most of the time, there are only two options for your mental state: massive highs or crushing lows.

Inside the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, we’re embraced by the warm, foggy, chemical atmosphere universal to all indoor pools. As we walk under the diving platforms, the 10-metre cement limb juts out and looms over us. From this angle, it looks nauseatingly high. Mitcham takes a brief glance up and confirms he’s not going near it any time soon. After London, Mitcham quit the 10-metre event altogether and is now solely focused on the three-metre springboard. It’s easier on the body, he explains. Plus, the shake-up keeps him interested in a sport he’s been involved in for 13 years.

Post-London, Mitcham hasn’t felt the slightest abdominal pain. Since rehab and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, his cravings for crystal meth have petered out. He has been back on the antidepressant Effexor for more than a year and has come to terms with the idea he may have to manage depression for the rest of his life. “I’m really good at the moment,” he reassures me.

Mitcham’s book is dedicated to his three half-siblings – his mother’s son Marcus, 15, and his father’s daughter Mia, 14, and son Ky, 10. If they read the book, it will be the first time they’ll have heard about his drug use. Why dedicate the book to them, then? “I don’t want them to experience some of the things I experienced,” he says slowly. “I really want them to be able to learn from some of the things I went through.”

Still, all of this only happened barely a year ago. Doesn’t his coach still worry about Mitcham? Sobrino shakes his head. “No, not any more. He’s across the line. The only thing that worries me now is the basic athlete-coach situation. I think he could train more!”

Watson feels the same. “If I wasn’t 100 per cent confident he had recovered, there is no way I’d be permitting this book to be released,” she says.

“He’s got such a strong support system,” adds Vivienne. “Everything’s out on the table now. He doesn’t have to run from it, or from anything.”

There’s also Lachlan. “He really looks after me,” Mitcham says. “I think he’s the only boyfriend I’ve had where I feel like he’s smarter than me.” (It is, he adds – half-joking, half-serious – “rather annoying”.) Though Mitcham’s a vocal advocate for same-sex marriage, he has no plan to marry if the legislation ever passes: “I’m so young,” he says. “Way too young to get married.”

Still, he thinks about the future often, acutely aware that all elite athletes have expiry dates. “Financial security is always going to be a stress for me,” he says. Right now, he is ineligible for certain sports grants because he failed to win medals in London, so he is studying linguistics part time at university and ramping up speaking and TV engagements. Mitcham can neither confirm nor deny a role on Seven’s forthcoming Celebrity Splash - a Dutch television format billed as “Diving with the Stars” (“Nothing will be confirmed for a while yet”). However, he does say that while he hasn’t yet wrapped his head around the concept of diving for entertainment (“that’s the elite athlete in me talking”), he hopes it will help kick-start a media career.

Until then, there is training. Poolside, Mitcham does an impossible number of somersaults off a diving springboard onto a thick pile of gymnastic mats. He spins so fast that he looks like CGI – the moves seem too quick to be believed or perceived properly by the human eye. Later, watching him dive, I can’t fathom how a human being stands with his back to a pool before somersaulting into their body while simultaneously pushing away from the springboard, all the while rotating 360 degrees, without killing themselves.

But that’s diving for you: a sport that’s less about averting disaster than managing the aerial chaos and inevitable collisions. During training, Mitcham botches some of the dives completely, but instead of beating himself up he comes out of the pool grinning, like he’s having fun. Matthew Mitcham is only diving now because he wants to. More importantly, he’s getting better at avoiding injury and pain.

Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Adverse Reactions

It’s raining softly across the Northern Rivers and everywhere is the smell of wet jungle. This region of north-east NSW – encompassing the Ballina, Byron, Kyogle, Lismore, Richmond Valley, Tweed and Clare Valley councils – is Australia’s organic heartland, a lush stretch of green that hangs like ivy over the Queensland-NSW border. Cynics often dismiss these shires as refuges for tree-hugging, granola-grazing hippies. Educated lefties who live here say it’s all about getting back to nature.

But the Northern Rivers is also a public-health black spot, notorious for flash outbreaks of infectious, preventable diseases. In August and September 2010, measles infected 14 people, mostly high school students, in the Tweed area, after an unvaccinated teenager returned from an overseas holiday. Last year saw a big jump in the incidence of whooping cough in the region, with 493 cases reported between the Tweed and the Clarence rivers.

Childhood immunisation rates here are among the lowest in the country. Many parents distrust conventional medicine. One in 10 kids aged under 10 doesn’t have a single vaccination recorded against their name. Similarly low vaccination rates can be found elsewhere in Australia, but the Northern Rivers can claim the dubious honour of having the highest percentage of parents who don’t immunise their children on purpose, believing vaccines may do their kids harm. In the Byron Shire town of Mullumbimby alone, a fifth of all parents identify as conscientious objectors to vaccination. Continue reading

Kiss Me, I’m Asian

If you’ve never heard of grindr, ask your local smartphone-owning homosexual for the lowdown. Like some gay hybrid of a GPS, personals section and neighbourhood beat, Grindr pinpoints your location and presents you with photos of nearby men. Naturally, Grindr users all look for different things: hairy/smooth, slim/athletic. Many also state what they’re avoiding. “No femmes,” say some. “No fat, no old,” say others. “No Asians.” That last one – “No Asians” – comes up a lot. Which is to say, they’re avoiding guys like me.

Setting up a Grindr profile is easy. My rules are simple: my profile will show my bare torso, but not my face – nothing to indicate race. Within minutes, a Caucasian man, whose face I can only describe as vaguely potato-ish, starts chatting to me. He has no username, but his listed age is 31. After pleasant banter, the conversation veers, of course, to my nipples. Continue reading