Monsters, sexual harassment and dealing with misogyny

November 29, 2017
Photo: Katy Jon Went

Don Burke, a television host and “family man”, is the latest celebrity to be outed as a serial sexual harasser. A joint investigation by Fairfax Media and the ABC has uncovered multiple claims of Burke committing indecent assault, sexual harassment and bullying of women in the late 1980s and 1990s. 

As more women come forward with their horrific experiences with this particular monster, we need to ask what more can be done? Do we just expose more perpetrators, or is there something else?

The social media-inspired #MeToo campaign, which began in the wake of the revelations about the serial predator producer and director Harvey Weinstein, has highlighted how widespread sexual harassment is. 

Millions of women around the world went public that they too had experienced sexual abuse and discrimination in the workplace, at home and in the streets. They revealed that it was so much a part of their daily lives that they had adapted their behaviour — including dress and approach — to cope.  

The crescendo of these #MeToo Facebook and Twitter statuses played an important role in giving women agency to speak out about a subject that had been considered taboo. 

It helped underscore the fact that perpetrators are more often friends and family, and it helped highlight the utter inadequacy of the state-supported White Ribbon campaigns. 

It started to torpedo the long-held view that actions, attire, or precautions have any bearing on the incidences of sexual assault and it started to challenge victim blaming — the main defence of conservatives and reactionaries.

For those who were already aware of the extent of sexual harassment, the #MeToo phenomenon has allowed the personal to become political. 

As Sanjana Haribhakti and Anushka Shah acknowledge: “[T]he campaign powerfully altered the form of knowledge from an impersonal perspective of it afflicting the unknown and nameless to a much more personal and jarring knowledge of several loved ones, family and friends being victims.”

Much like the myriad discussion groups that led to the second wave of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s, the sharing of #MeToo stories has opened a discussion about what drives and sustains systemic misogyny today.

“Low level” harassment keeps women out of leadership roles, workplaces and public life. As British feminist and comic Jo Brand recently pointed out: “For women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.”

However, while the very act of speaking out about sexual harassment may be momentarily liberating, it will not result in any significant change for women without a change in material factors that support misogyny and the culture that supports it.

Discrimination and harassment are already crimes, but this will not be fixed with criminal sanctions alone. Sexual harassment will remain a daily occurrence for most women until we change the system that still denies women equality.

Gender inequality

The latest Australian government “gender equality scorecard” shows that women still earn on average less than 78% of men’s full-time earnings. The average annual income of full-time women employees is $26,526 less than that of a man doing an equivalent job. Management roles continue to be dominated by men with women holding just 16.5% of CEO roles and 30% of management roles.

Workplace Gender Equality Agency spokesperson Libby Lyons affirmed that the unequal remuneration is structural: “This is not about women’s choices: whether you are a manager, a scientist, a butcher, a baker or even a TV presenter, there is a gender pay gap favouring men.”

The same agency’s report Unpaid Care Work and the Labour Market found:

  • In Australia women spend substantially more time on unpaid care work than men.
  • The unequal distribution of unpaid care work reinforces gender stereotypes, such as the “male breadwinner model”.
  • Gender inequality in unpaid care work contributes to the gender inequalities in the labour market; and
  • The redistribution of unpaid care work can reduce gender stereotypes and increase female workforce participation.

Unpaid care work carried out in large part by women is how capitalism gets away with ensuring that women are not paid an estimated $650.1 billion (50.6% of GDP if it were included in the GDP calculation). Those are the figures from the Australian government.

The Unpaid Care Work and the Labour Market report found that women spend 64.4% of their average weekly working time on unpaid care work compared to 36.1% for men. 

This means that women, who are largely working, also carry out the lion’s share of the nation’s domestic work, for which they do not get paid.

As the government agency acknowledges: “Unpaid care work is essential to the social and economic wellbeing of individuals, families and societies. The provision of unpaid care work, such as washing clothes or preparing food increases the productivity of the individual and as a consequence care work substantively contributes to economic activity of the individual and the country as a whole.”

Why, then, is this wage theft of women on a grand scale allowed? 

It is because a system that priorities profits makes women second-class citizens.

The capitalist system, like all previous class systems, is patriarchal. It relies on women to have as their main and primary role the raising of the next generation in the private family unit. While the majority of men are also enslaved, capitalism does privilege men economically and socially over women. This is used to reinforce gender stereotypes — the idea than women are biologically inferior to men — and a whole raft of sexist laws, customs, practices and ideas.

While the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s won some important legal reforms, they are clearly not enough. The state has been forced to take on some social responsibilities, but under neoliberalism (or late capitalism) we can see inequality remains and the state is doing all it can to privatise the cost of these services and reverse those social gains. 

The great bulk of the care of children and other household work is still not socialised. As the statistics show, the state of inequality is permanent, if not worsening. 

Challenging misogyny

How does all this fit with the openings provided by the #MeToo campaign? 

Misogyny is a way of reinforcing inequality between men and women. It works to keep women conforming to restrictive standards of behaviour — sexual and otherwise. It works to make women feel inadequate — not as competent, not as clever and not as worthy as men. Most men are not misogynist, but they live in a society where, for too long, it has been tolerated. if not promoted.

The collective nature of the #MeToo testimonials has allowed many to draw courage from the solidarity shown them — by men and women. But for this to make a real difference to women’s lives, we have to push our unions and women’s organisations to take a stand against misogyny. 

The Australian Council of Trade Union’s push for 10 days of paid domestic violence leave is an important concrete measure. The Fair Work Commission rejected the ACTU’s bid in July to incorporate it into all industrial awards, but left the door open to agree to unpaid leave.

Yes, let’s make sure that the Burkes and Weinsteins of the world face justice. But for the millions of women who deal with so-called low level harassment every day — because it is built into the system — we also have to organise to dismantle it and replace it with a system that nurtures human solidarity.

We all want to dream of a bright feminist future for our daughters and sons and our nieces and nephews. 

But, as a friend said, to do this we not only have to bring down the monsters — like Burke — but if we make it all about individual monsters and fail to understand this as a systemic problem that requires a total system overhaul, we are missing the point.

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