Nothing New: Why slut shaming in a state parliamentary debate should be no surprise

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Words || Katelyn Free

‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not. And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. Not now, not ever.’

On the 28th of June, the words ‘stop shagging men’ were said in the Senate. They were said by Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm and were aimed at Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young as part of a debate about women’s safety. A New South Wales senator felt that it was appropriate to use language that effectively slut shamed a female senator, as a retort in a parliamentary debate.

Granted, there is more to be said for Hanson-Young’s own rhetoric. It was reported she made a comment to the effect of ‘men should stop raping women’ or ‘all men are rapists’ (depending on which version of Leyonhjelm’s explanation you adhere to), which elicited the said response from Leyonhjelm. However, after the debate, Hanson-Young approached Leyonhjelm asking him to clarify his comments, in which he confirmed his original sentiment, refused to apologise and told Ms Hanson-Young to ‘fuck off’. He then went on Sky News and 3AW radio and reaffirmed his comments before alluding to Ms Hanson-Young’s private life.

This was the behaviour of an elected  senator who still currently resides within the state parliament.

Leyonhjelm has been asked to apologise by several members of parliament, including the Prime Minister. He is yet to recognise his comments as inappropriate or offensive, instead characterising his verbal abuse as simply ‘Australian’ and genderless. Hanson-Young has now begun a defamation lawsuit against the senator.

An elected member of parliament made clearly gendered and personally offensive remarks to a female senator in a parliamentary session. He has not apologised nor recognised the inherent sexism of his remarks. And he currently remains in his position, with no indication that he will be removed.

‘I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition went outside in the front of Parliament and stood next to a sign that said “Ditch the witch”’

The Hanson-Young and Leyonhjelm situation is not an isolated incident. It’s an example of an entrenched precedent of sexism in Australian politics. While Leyonhjelm may have a point in stating that ribbing of politicians is a normalised part of Australian politics and culture, the type of abuse that female politicians face harshly departs from the regular banter of disgruntled voters.

When Kristina Keneally made her bid in running for the Sydney seat of Bennelong last year, headlines covering the political move read ‘Now She’s Bill’s Girl’. Not only was a female professional politician of 48 referred to as a ‘girl’ but was also portrayed as the property of her male party leader. Mark Latham of Sky News additionally felt it appropriate to refer to her as a ‘Yankee sheila’ on air, causing Keneally to lodge a formal complaint. This was the type of discourse that took place within a relatively short revived political career.

Former Liberal party staffer Paula Matthewson commented after the incident between Hanson-Young and Leyonhjelm, that in her experience the ‘white noise of abuse isn’t picked up by the chamber microphones, but it can be deafening to those who are actually in the room’. The climate of gendered insults and slut shaming that is prevalent in Australian government is made visible through particular instances such as the one that occurred on the 28th of June, but they are only a small glimpse of the larger problem.

‘I was offended when the Leader of the Opposition stood next to a sign that described me as a man’s bitch’

Perhaps the greatest example of this systemic sexism was the treatment of Australia’s first female prime minister. Regardless of your opinions on her particular policies, there should be a general standard that referring to the Prime Minister of Australia as a man’s bitch is not okay. But there was no such standard for Julia Gillard.

The leader of the opposition at the time, Tony Abbott, proudly stood next to a sign that called Gillard ‘Bob Brown’s bitch’. The leader of one of Australia’s major political parties legitimised discourse which referred to the Prime Minister of Australia as a man’s bitch. And no one kicked up a fuss.

This was only a small example of the gendered abuse directed at Gillard. Attacks on her personal life, probing questions as to the sexuality of her long-term partner, claims that she was ill fit for governance due to her lack of children, were all commonplace discussions during the time of her leadership. Sexualised and degrading caricatures, beyond that of her male counterparts, were regularly featured in media outlets.

This was the treatment afforded to a female at the highest place in government. So is the treatment of Senator Hanson-Young really so shocking? Because it shouldn’t be.

‘…the Leader of the Opposition now looking at his watch because apparently a woman’s spoken too long’

The SEX DISCRIMINATION ACT 1984 provides for the rights of individuals to be able to participate in a workplace free from gendered harassment and abuse. Female politicians are currently not afforded this safety. They are left in the lurch in an environment which shows no signs of becoming less hostile. The issue that has been highlighted through the controversy between Hanson-Young and Leyonhjelm is one of entrenched sexism in Australian politics, that has overwhelming evidence in the treatment of several other female politicians.

You may not agree with the views or policies of Senator Hanson-Young. That is perfectly fine. But at no point should it ever be acceptable for a woman in any position to be slut shamed in her place of work. And for the perpetrator to remain unchallenged in their position, with no signs of remorse or apology.

Except of course, if it’s the Senate. Because Senator Leyonhjelm’s right, unfortunately there’s nothing more Australian than sexism in politics.