Abuse is not normal

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is set to sue fellow senator David Leyonhjelm for comments which she says were defamatory. 

The allegations stem from an argument that grew from a discussion about women's safety. The only record of the conversation is in the memory of those who heard it, and Hanson-Young said something along the lines of, "Women don't need to change their behaviour, men need to stop raping women." 

Please keep in mind that the comment only applies to the subset of men who rape women.

Leyonhjelm responded by saying that Hanson-Young should, in that case, "stop shagging men". He has since clarified that he interpreted Hanson-Young's comment as a claim that all men are rapists. Virginia Trioli challenged Leyonhjelm on the need to be accurate in this case. Leyonhjelm—whose job is to delibarate upon the nuances of our legislation—didn't seem to think accuracy in wording was an issue.

Was it sexist?

Leyonhjelm's remark can be cleared of sexism if he would have said it to someone of any gender, but of course there are other angles to this comment, in the light of presumed heterosexuality. 

Only Leyonhjelm can know* whether sexism was a motivator for his comment (and it's possible that he doesn't know). There is, however, a pattern of female MPs copping a certain form of criticism that male MPs do not have to deal with. 

Was it slutshaming?

I don't think so*, as it wasn't implied that "shagging men" is a sign of moral failing. In fact, Leyonhjelm's retort would have been sound if Hanson-Young had in fact claimed that all men are rapists. But Leyonhyelm does not now support that version of events, so his response was at best a vulgar and uncalled-for non sequitur.

Was it normal?

Leyonhjelm, who will soon be seeking re-election in the first half-senate election since the senate voting rules changed in 2016, is milking the controversy. He claimed that his outburst was merely abuse (equal-opportunity abuse, not sexist abuse), which is "normal, Australian" behaviour.

But verbal abuse is not normal, at work or anywhere else. Only someone with an interest in being able to abuse others with impunity would suggest so.

When this type of speech is used in our parliament, it degrades the institution. And as Twitter user @Reading_Hix pointed out, we should actually expect better-than-normal conduct from our politicians:

 

That said, everything about the incident so far points to abusive speech actually being the norm in our houses of parliament.

This abuse includes sexist abuse. 

Our elected representatives are emboldened to make blatantly sexist attacks against women in politics, including our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard. The fertility of our female MPs seems to be fair game, but the media respected the line between Barnaby Joyce's private and public lives until Joyce himself made it untenable to do so. Political opponents attack the performance and decisions of most cabinet ministers, or suggest conflicts of interest; Michaelia Cash alone is called a "bitch" and a "shrieking harpy" (and Cash herself indulged in a petty slur against female staffers).

It has to stop. We are better than this. We can be straightforward, assertive and principled without being abusive. Abuse is not normal.


UPDATE 6/7/2018: This post originally stated that Leyonhjelm was facing re-election for the first time since the 2016 voting changes. This point has been corrected to note that the next senate election will be the first half-senate election he will face since the change in voting rules.

*UPDATE 7/7/2018: I just read this article and have changed my mind: https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/news/politics/2018/07/07/sexist-abuse-the-senate/15308856006523. Now that I'm aware of the context, i.e. a long history of smutty comments regarding sensor Hanson-Young's sex life, I absolutely believe the latest comment was sexist slut-shaming. It's foul. I regret not doing my research first. 

 

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[Published: 06 Jul 2018]