What's behind those sexist texts?

Issue 
International Women's Day protest, Sydney, 1975.

The most recent examples of sexism by two Coalition front bench MPs reminds us that sexism and misogyny is alive and thriving 32 years after the landmark law that made such discrimination a crime.

From the outrageous sexist attacks on former PM Julia Gillard — largely from the same Coalition MPs — to MP Peter Dutton's “mad fucking witch” (MFW) text, the view that women are second-class citizens and sexual objects — and can be treated as such — remains strong especially among those with the means to shape public opinion.

The complaint of sexual harassment against Jamie Briggs was investigated in early December, but he was only removed from the front bench later that month — to allow him quality time with his family at Christmas.

This is hardly adequate punishment for someone deemed to have “breached ministerial standards”. It sends a message that the “incident” was minor and contradicts everything that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in his November 25 speech at a White Ribbon breakfast.

Speaking of the need for a change in thinking about violence against women, he said: “Violence against women is the end point of disrespecting women ... Not all disrespect of women ends up in violence against women, but that is where all violence against women begins. And so at the root of this is respect for women.”

Earlier in the same speech, Turnbull said: “Now, the government is, and I think all parties here, all Members and Senators here are totally committed to this cultural change, I know that.”

Since then Dutton's gas-lighting — something he appears to excel at — has been passed off as a joke among friends.

Indeed, he's been praised for apologising for the MFW text he inadvertently sent to journalist Samantha Maiden rather than Briggs.

Maiden used her January 3 Sunday Telegraph column to take Briggs to task for “conduct unbecoming” in Hong Kong where the harassment took place. She also lambasted him for trying to deflect the heat by leaking a picture of the public servant who had filed the complaint.

For Dutton to describe her to his mate Briggs as an “MFW” gives an insight into his own misogynistic views and, by implication, those in his own party.

Misogyny, once defined as a “hatred of women”, has been redefined by Macquarie Dictionary since Gillard's famous misogyny speech in 2012 as “entrenched prejudice against women”. This is more accurate because it points to institutional discrimination, rather than an individual's attitude towards a woman or women's essential role in society.

The social and economic factors that maintain the sexist double standard are entrenched under capitalism — the system that prioritises profit-making over meeting human needs and in which women carry out the lion's share of unpaid labour in the home and in the community.

Normalising, or attempting to normalise this unfair state of affairs, which rests on discrimination, is what Dutton, Briggs and company are doing in their efforts to downplay, trivialise, de-escalate, minimise and dismiss their critics.

Sure, capitalism can live with women in the workforce just as long as we know our place and continue to accept the double standard, which includes the normalising of sexual behaviours in a variety of non-sexual circumstances.

Sexual harassment is a crime, but remains a big workplace problem. The idea of professional boundaries at work —and in the pub afterwards — is a very simple one. But it does involve having real respect for women, and that involves seeing women as equals, not inferiors.

While many still think that violence against women refers only to physical violence, the reality is that violence against women includes a wide range of behaviours designed to control and intimidate women such as emotional, psychological, social and financial forms of abuse and control.

A 2013 national survey conducted by VicHealth, titled “Australians' attitudes to violence against women”, showed the key factors driving this are: “the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women” and “an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles and identities (i.e. what it means to be masculine or feminine)”.

The report said: “Attitudes that condone or tolerate violence are recognised as playing a central role in shaping the way individuals, organisations and communities respond to violence.”

There may be a silver lining in the misogynist attitudes recently displayed by so-called leaders. They have provoked a deeper discussion about what constitutes sexism, why it is a crime and why it is unacceptable — not just in the workplace, but everywhere.

But much more needs to be done. According to the VicHealth survey, “young people's attitudes remain a cause of concern”. It said “sizeable proportions believe that there are circumstances in which violence can be excused”, and “young people have somewhat more violence supportive attitudes than others” although it has improved since 2009.

It notes that attitudes have a material base, and are shaped by the world around us. Preventing violence against women — in all its forms — “is not simply a matter of changing attitudes”. It will involve challenging the social and economic factors that shape those beliefs.

Given the entrenched sexism, it is going to take all manner of anti-sexist campaigns and movements, like that from which the first major anti-discrimination laws evolved, to ensure that Gen Y and future generations have a fighting chance of building a society where all can grow to their full potential.

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