I was twelve when I first participated in a self-defence class. Alongside my classmates, I learned how to break a man’s grip using my arms and how to roll his bodyweight over my own. I learned the most effective ways to inflict pain via a knee to the shin or an elbow to the stomach. The premise of this was: at some point in my life, it was very possible I’d be attacked by a man, and it was important I learned how to defend myself.
With the distortions of time and memory, I’m unable to clearly recall whether those classes were the introduction to my own gendered vulnerability or whether that innocence had already been taken: pulled out from under me by well-meaning parents or snatched by the grim conclusion of a nightly news report. In all likelihood, it was more of a gentle deflation over time, like an inflatable raft with a tiny, invisible tear.
While self-defence classes tend to focus narrowly on potential attacks by strangers, women and girls learn quickly that there is no guaranteed safe place: our homes, schools and workplaces can be as dangerous as a dark sidewalk. We internalise these truths almost seamlessly, learning to accommodate the violent intrusions of a society that fails repeatedly to offer safety or justice – that refuses to critically examine the depth or complexity of the violence it allows.
On the causes of violence against women, Domestic Violence Victoria provides the following explanation:
We know from international evidence that the major cause is inequality between women and men – that is, the unequal distribution of power, resources and opportunities. Stereotypical ideas about the roles of women and men in society and the way they should behave fosters an environment for violence against women to occur.
All evidence points to the complex and interlinked nature of violence against women: physical, psychological and sexual violence cannot be neatly separated from locker room jokes or sexist advertising or pay inequity. The treatment of women matters, at all levels of society and in all forums. This is a reality that often goes unacknowledged by a hypermasculine culture too attached to the status quo. It’s just a joke. What was she wearing? You can’t say anything anymore.
The seeds of violence are planted early. On a recent study of Australian primary schools, independent think tank Per Capita writes,
40% of teachers reported observing problematic sexual behaviour, including rape threats, sharing and re-enacting violent pornography, sexually harassing behaviours, and sending violent or sexual messages online.
It is no surprise, then, that a recent viral petition started by a former Sydney high school student generated over 500 testimonies of sexual assault from current and former high school students in Australia. Australia is failing women and girls, and it is failing them from the beginning.
We know the statistics: one in three women, one in four women, one in five women. We know them so well that they barely elicit an emotional response, so normalised it is in the national consciousness that Australian women are unsafe in their own homes, workplaces, educational institutions and neighbourhoods. These numbers also conceal further inequity: some women, including transgender women, women with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, experience much higher rates and more severe forms of violence.
There is one fact that seems to permeate the national consciousness with some regularity, momentarily rousing us from the stupor of denial and minimisation:
On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
When a woman’s murder receives attention by mainstream media, Australia is angry. Angrier still if there is a perception of negligence, mounting cause for concern that went ignored or under-addressed by police and other authorities. We are good at prosecuting – figuratively speaking – the immediate situation, swiftly apportioning blame and condemning the perpetrator with the full force of our fury. A woman’s death is a tangibly tragic outcome. But a woman’s murder does not occur in isolation, and it can be traced further than a man’s violent tendencies or psychological ill-health. Further even than the murkily unspecific social and cultural norms to which we so often attribute these tragedies.
In discourse surrounding violence against women, we are well-accustomed to the language of the epidemic. It can be useful in that it illustrates the scale and urgency of the problem, but what does it obscure?
Generally speaking, an epidemic is the result of an infectious disease: complex, naturally occurring and difficult to contain. Its origins are biological rather than social, necessitating an urgent scientific and medical response rather than an equally urgent social reckoning. Perhaps this conceptualisation, narrow in its metaphorical scope, is no accident.
When Brisbane woman Hannah Clarke and her children were murdered early last year by Clarke’s former partner, there was a familiar public outpouring of anger and grief. Following a moment’s silence in Federal Parliament, Scott Morrison addressed the chamber:
I believe state, territory and national governments, all of us, and our agencies and importantly the judiciary, we must all reflect again on these terrible murders. We must reflect on how and where the system failed Hannah and her children, as it has failed so many others. It is so frustrating. It’s so devastating.
Though perhaps containing a degree of sincerity, these remarks speak to the politics of denial that characterise the Coalition Government’s treatment of violence against women. This is a government that, while in opposition, carried out a hateful and gendered campaign against Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and later appointed the aggressively sexist leader of said campaign as the minister for women’s affairs. It is a government whose male members showed such disregard for the complex and gendered nature of their own power that then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull felt compelled to implement a bonk ban to prevent them from sleeping with their own female staff. Recent years have seen defection and accusations of bullying by the Liberal Party’s own women. Late last year, Scott Morrison himself made headlines for stepping in to speak over a female senator who, ironically, was asked a question by a reporter about the treatment of women in the Federal Government.
Incidents like these could fill a book. It is all too easy to dismiss them as the unavoidable fallout of politics, or dissociate them from what we perceive to be the ‘worst’ of violence against women: physical assault, sexual assault, murder. When Scott Morrison urges his colleagues to reflect, we can assume – based on his track record – that he is urging them to reflect on the system in abstract rather than their own actions within it, as if the words and behaviours of elected leaders occur in some kind of hermetically sealed bubble.
This is a political project of wilful ignorance that we as citizens are implicitly asked to co-enact, over and over again. There is a hacking apart of the web of violence – of cause and effect, words and actions, ideas and transgressions – to allow for a successful scapegoating of evil men: dangerous psychopaths whose actions are to be viewed as outliers. In this effort, the Coalition Government leads the charge. In their manufactured reality, the worst kinds of violence against women are heinous, but they are also aberrations.
Recently the ‘Aus Govt Just Googled’ parody account sent out this tweet:
Are women people
It was a grim joke in response to an unfolding story involving a young Coalition staffer, Brittany Higgins, who accused a staffer of raping her on a couch of a minister’s office in Parliament House in 2019. While her boss, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, claims she offered her full support to Higgins should she want to pursue a charge, Higgins herself claims her assault was treated as a problem to be buried, and that she was denied access to CCTV footage already viewed by others. Higgins is not the first Coalition staffer to allege sexual assault.
Leaving aside its damaging and inadequate policy responses, the Coalition’s own conduct renders it culpable for violence occurring outside the halls of Parliament. If a group of people with power regularly partakes in character assassinations and mistreatments of women, or stands idly by as they occur, it is responsible for the culture fostered by these actions. If we accept this statement as a fair assessment of the Coalition’s responsibility to its own female staff and ministers, then it would not be a stretch to view this responsibility as applicable to the entire country under the Coalition’s governance. The Coalition may not have a parliamentary monopoly on misogyny, but it certainly leads by a mile. Stories of inappropriate – and sometimes criminal – behaviour toward women by Liberal and National Party members clog our news feeds and airwaves. If we ignore or minimise their impact on our broader culture, we are missing a key piece of the puzzle.
If there’s one useful parallel to be drawn between Australia’s gender-based violence problem and an epidemic, it might be the Trump administration’s management of the coronavirus pandemic, whose actions quickly bypassed negligence en route to mass manslaughter. To laugh in the face of basic preventative measures and to deny the most basic science evinces a disturbing pathology. Leaving aside its myriad other failings, the Republican administration’s refusal to wear masks represented more than a demonstration of personal choice or passive resistance: it was a politics of disdain and disregard. A man’s laughter, if you will.
Few Australians would think that a country with a mask-refusing leader at the helm would stand any chance of curbing the coronavirus. Flying the flag of self-interest, the Trump administration became a literal and symbolic vector for the virus, rendering an effective response impossible. How can a government mandate the behaviour change required for such an effort when it refuses to change its behaviour? How can a government claim plausible deniability when its actions set the tone for those of a nation? The contradiction is clear.
This logic is transferable: the Coalition Government could hurl its entire budget at the problem of violence against women, announce a new raft of new gender equity initiatives and condemn acts of violence in the harshest possible terms, but until it reckons with the impact of its own culture – its own politics of disdain and disregard – the problem of violence against women in our country will not go away.
So: are women people in the eyes of the Coalition? A record of scandals, let downs, insults and insinuations tells us that the answer is no. Not in any way that truly matters.
A genuine desire to see the end of violence against women is incompatible with supporting a government that has shown itself to be unconcerned with change, if it means looking inward. If we are to call this violence an epidemic, then we should recognise our current government as a vector and seek to replace it. We must continue to push our leaders to not only legislate the profound, transformative and wide-reaching change necessary for progress – but to demonstrate it.