male commentators need to take a back seat


Guys, it’s time to shut up.

Former staffer Brittany Higgins interviewed on The Project (Image: Channel 10)

Note: this article discusses sexual assault.

Male commentators have once again raced to the front pages to offer astute insights on parliamentary rape: “Go to the police”; “Think of your girls”; “Another sex scandal”.

It’s the epitome of male privilege: old dudes believing they have the right experience, understanding and context to weigh into an issue that has never affected them and getting it so horribly, horribly wrong.

‘Go to the police’

On Wednesday, Australia’s most out-of-touch despised narcissistic read Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt offered up this delicious nugget of wisdom: “Put faith in the justice system.”

I forget Bolt doesn’t know how to use the internet, otherwise a quick skim through Google would have shown him survivors probably shouldn’t have faith in the justice system: from victim-blaming and bullying by police, to less than a third of sexual assault reports leading to legal action.

Perhaps that explains why of the millions of women who have experienced sexual assault in Australia just 13% contact the police.

Bolt continued: “We should also remember we’ve heard only one side of this alleged rape. The man [Brittany Higgins] accuses may have a different memory of what happened.”

I too would like to hear how a new hire pulled into an office, so drunk she could barely sign her name, then left semi-naked and unconscious overnight would paint a picture of consent.

“Higgins could start the police investigation we need,” Bolt concluded. “It’s patronising to think such a woman is so weak that we can’t expect her to have done that already.”

‘Another sex scandal’

Then we have Dennis Shanahan at The Australian who likened the alleged rape to yet another “sex scandal”.

“The sexual scandal surrounding the terrible circumstances of former Liberal ministerial staffer Brittany Higgins is self-evidently terrible and has clearly taken a toll on the young woman,” he wrote.

Taken a toll on her. Like working long hours takes its toll on sleep quality, or engaging in strenuous physical activity takes its toll on your knees. Not quite how rape takes its toll with one in five victims sustaining injuries, ranging from head injuries to bruises and torn genitalia, or how 57% of victims experience anxiety and fear in the year after the assault.

Shanahan concluded in a paragraph since removed from the online version the issue was so pervasive that politicians felt the need to implement the “bonking ban” — forgetting the issue here is rape, which has been “banned” as a criminal act for centuries.

Was it better in the days when women were property?

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher wilfully ignores the reasons behind the women’s liberation or the Me Too movement and, oh, most of history, writing:

In decades past there was a discreet backchannel operating between the prime minister’s office and the opposition leader’s office to keep sexual misconduct in check. Each side kept an eye out for rogue behaviour by members of the other and duly alerted the leaders’ offices accordingly. That system fell into disuse years ago.

In decades past, when a female parliamentarian was as rare as a unicorn? Or in decades past when rape or sexual assault was considered something to be dealt with privately? Or in decades past when virginity was so prized that rape meant women were forced into marriage with their abuser?

Talk about rose-tinted glasses.

Focusing on the situation

Scott Morrison has been called out by Higgins for his “continued victim-blaming rhetoric”. Morrison invoked his wife, Jenny, to educate him on the fact that women, too, are people.

The PM was quickly informed women remain people independent of their relationship to a man. Higgins, by the way, is not a girl but a woman. He continues to refer to Higgins as Brittany — not Ms Higgins, but Brittany. It’s an incredibly personal term to use given Morrison’s office may well have known about the rape for two years but never reached out to her.

As Sydney Morning Herald investigative reporter Jacqui Maley wrote:

The persistent use of Higgins’ first name, and Morrison’s comments about consulting his wife Jenny on how to handle the alleged rape, all gave the impression that this was a matter to do with Women’s Feelings.

In an overall well-written piece by Caroline Overington in The Australian addressing Shanahan’s disgusting “sex scandal rhetoric” she still refers to Higgins and her alleged abuser as “drinkers”.

“The grand halls were locked up for the day, and these drinkers didn’t have security passes,” she wrote.

The vast majority of media reporting on violence against women in Australia focuses on the individual circumstances of violence: the lead-up, the violence, the relationship, the hours before.

In 2016 one report found just 9.9% of Australian articles discussing violence against women quoted domestic violence spokespeople; 15% had elements of victim-blaming; another 14.8% offered excuses for the perpetrator.

Things really haven’t changed.

No excuses not to educate yourself

It’s this fundamental lack of understanding — worse, a complete refusal to even try to understand — of the context around violence against women that’s at the heart of the old boys’ takes.

Importantly, it’s not up to women to educate men. There are so many resources in Australia — so many spokespeople, so many reports and reviews and advocacy groups. There is absolutely no excuse for cooked takes.

As Bolt would say, it’s patronising to think male commentators are so inept that we can’t expect them to do some independent research into the topic.

To the old boys club: educate yourself before that self-righteous urge to stand up and open your mouth kicks in.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732, or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.

Peter Fray

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