‘Victim Blaming’ and Sex Education in the Boys’ Club of Australian Politics

‘Victim Blaming’ and Sex Education in the Boys’ Club of Australian Politics
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Summary: Scott Morrison’s words, critics said, revealed a disturbing sentiment.
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Letter 196

Scott Morrison’s words, critics said, revealed a disturbing sentiment.

Brittany Higgins outside Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, in 2018.

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When Brittany Higgins first alleged earlier this month that she had been raped in a Parliament building, the Australian government’s initial response was silence.

The following day, it went into damage control, announcing a review of support processes and professional behavior among staff. Eventually, after consulting his wife — who he said clarified things by asking him to imagine that his own daughters had been assaulted — the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, apologized.

“There should not be an environment where a young woman can find herself in such a vulnerable situation,” Mr. Morrison said. “Despite what were the genuine good intentions of all those who did try to provide support to Brittany,” he added, “she did not feel that way.”

Critics denounced Mr. Morrison for his response: “Shouldn’t you have thought about it as a human being? What happens if men don’t have a wife and children? Would they reach the same compassionate conclusion?” asked one reporter. A Twitter account satirizing the government posted: “are women people.”

His words, critics said, were reluctant and patronizing. Worse, they revealed a disturbing sentiment: that when a woman is raped, and unable to enlist the support of her colleagues to bring the perpetrator to justice, the blame lies not with the accused, or the victim’s superiors, but with her. As Ms. Higgins herself said in a statement released last week, “The continued victim-blaming rhetoric by the Prime Minister is personally very distressing to me and countless other survivors.”

Mr. Morrison and others have not expressly blamed Ms. Higgins for having become too inebriated on the night she says she was raped, or for what she wore that evening — such obvious victim blaming belongs in the past. But they insinuate that the fault lies with her, women’s rights advocates say, by couching her allegations in terms of Ms. Higgins’s perception of the attack and her emotions in response to what followed.

As Jacqueline Maley wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald, “It may not have been deliberate, but 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.”

“Women’s Feelings,” she explains, “is a private emotional realm, tricky to navigate and best left to the ladies. It has little to do with male leaders, and nothing to do with important matters of state.” The problem, she adds, with this characterization is that it “minimizes what should be an obvious point: rape is a crime.”

Part of the problem is cultural, experts say. Australia has a dearth of sex education, so it should be no surprise that Mr. Morrison, the leader of among the most male-dominated spaces in the country, can’t fully comprehend issues of consent, or articulate an appropriately condemning response, they add.

“There’s a huge lack of willingness to talk about it,” said Sharna Bremner, an assault survivor and the founder of End Rape on Campus Australia. Australia, she added, is still enmeshed in a “blokey culture” and tends to be significantly behind other countries in addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“The boys’ club of politics is hardly a place that is invested in supporting a culture of enthusiastic consent,” said Rachael Burgin, a lecturer in criminology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

“Talking about sex education doesn’t win elections,” she added.

So where does this leave us? Women’s rights advocates say Ms. Higgins has provided the country with an opportunity for self-reflection; with an opportunity to strip back a culture that is complicit in crimes of sexual assault and violence.

“If we want to fix misogyny and sexual assault, that’s the conversation we need to have as a country,” said Clare O’Neil, a member of the opposition Labor Party. “If our Parliament can’t do that, then how can we ask Australians to?”

We want to hear what you think: Has the rhetoric from the government around Ms. Higgins’s accusations bothered you? And what kind of sex education have you received in your own experience in Australia? Let us know at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

Now, on to the week’s stories:


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Gathering pears in the so-called red zone, an area in suburban Christchurch, New Zealand, that was damaged by the disaster.
Credit...Cornell Tukiri for The New York Times

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Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Last week, we asked how you felt about Facebook’s decision to ban news in Australia, and whether it had changed your social media habits. Here are some reader responses:

In its actions Facebook demonstrated both its arrogance and lies. And hypocrisy. Punishing — in their view — a nation of users because it didn’t like a law shows that Facebook sees itself above the law. I thought that Facebook couldn’t easily monitor content? That’s why they didn’t have to apply decency and fact-checking filters. But now we see that they can block links down to the resolution of individual users. Cognitive dissonance and bullying.

— Jenni L. Evans

Spent the weekend downloading apps for news sites. Who needs Facebook?

— Pamela Bryant

The Facebook news ban was the impetus I needed to finally delete my Facebook account for good.

— Caitlin Clarke

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