‘Because of this online campaign I will be asking my younger brother and my male friends and colleagues how they really behave on nights out, what they would do if they saw something inappropriate, and what they think constitutes sexual harassment. You should, too.’
This line encapsulates the overwhelming response to #MeToo, which like so many hashtags spread across the internet like wildfire, and faded almost as quickly, leaving us with a painful reminder of the fact that sexism and harassment continue to form a backdrop in the lives of all women. The above is yet another entreaty to individual men to change their own and their friends’ behaviour. Then there is the appeal to women to ‘speak up’ and ask the men around them to be ‘better’. If only it were so simple …
The call to action pretty much stops here.
The general response to this perpetual crisis of abuse falls far short of offering any answers for how to understand and, more importantly, how to challenge the systemic sexist abuse that #MeToo highlights. But as so many have already said, we cannot respond to the courage of so many women to speak out by throwing up our hands and blaming sexism on human nature or a nebulous notion of patriarchy. We have to be able to point a way forward that goes beyond individual solutions and deals with the economic system that produces sexism.
It is important that we challenge the sexist ideas of men – and women – that is undeniable. But that cannot be the beginning and end point in the fight against sexism. And it cannot be the beginning and end of our analysis of sexism. All too often the despair that this approach generates leads to calls for punitive measures that have been shown consistently to fail. Of course, victims are entitled to justice. But again, this does nothing to deal with the root of the problem.
To do that, and find our way out of the paralysis around this question, we must find ways of fighting sexism collectively. This collective strength is found not in courtrooms, and certainly not on Twitter, but in our workplaces, on our campuses and in the streets. And unions, as our most powerful vehicle for collective action, need to play a central role in this struggle, as they have done in the past.
The political economy of #MeToo
Absent from the discussion so far has been the question of the basic economic conditions that, time and time and time again, allow women to be placed in situations of vulnerability and subordination. While bourgeois feminism (absorbed into mainstream discourse in recent decades) focuses almost exclusively on individual success, questions of economics have fallen by the wayside in this discussion. Things that the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s fought so hard for – free childcare, financial autonomy, equal pay, the right to be in a union, abortion-on-demand – now barely warrant a mention. One would think we had achieved all of these things.
At best, economic concerns are considered important but separate to sexist attitudes in society. Sexist ideas, in turn, and associated ‘rape culture’, tend to be treated in isolation from the conditions in which they arise, as if these ideas appear out of thin air. (There is a disturbing biological determinism in the notion that men are naturally inclined to dominate women.) At the same time as confronting sexist ideas, we have to deal with the structural inequalities that produce them and allow them to flourish, and which produce a constant stream of sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein, and an even longer stream of those abused.
The case of Weinstein that sparked #MeToo, which has repulsive parallels with Donald Trump, is a clear-cut example of a man using his immense power and wealth to abuse women with comparatively little or no economic power. This same culture of entitlement, abuse and cover-up has been revealed in our universities, particularly the elite colleges, which Sydney University students have done such an excellent job in responding to.
But this economic inequality, and the power imbalance that comes with it, is replicated in the lives and workplaces of women all over the world. Employment insecurity cannot be left out of the equation when considering a woman’s ability to report or even respond to sexual harassment. Around 50 per cent of women who work are in casual or part-time jobs, and women in general are far more likely to work in lower-paying jobs. The knowledge that you could easily be fired, given fewer shifts, or not given the job at all is a sure-fire way to prevent a woman from speaking up against harassment, particularly if her boss or manager is the perpetrator – just as it is a good way of ensuring that employees of any gender don’t speak up against low wages and bad conditions in general.
Increasing casualisation and precarious employment across many sectors of the economy mean that more and more women are being pushed into positions of vulnerability. Given that around one in three women experiences sexual harassment in the workplace, this is no small deal.
In hospitality and retail, an infamously insecure sector, women are expected to simply endure a certain amount of harassment on a daily basis. Women I know have been told to flirt with or to ‘humour’ sexually inappropriate customers to keep them coming back. The Turnbull government’s cuts to penalty rates – the biggest wholesale cut to wages since the Great Depression – will also make workers in affected industries even more vulnerable. Disgracefully, it was the union that represents many of these workers, the SDA, that set the precedent for such a savage attack by trading away penalty rates.
The Weinstein case makes it clear that it’s not only physical coercion that constitutes an abuse of power. In a situation where a person fears the very real economic consequences of rejecting someone’s sexual advances, the idea that ‘consent’ is something that you can give or deny without constraint doesn’t stand up. As one article put it succinctly, ‘Consent is a function of power. You have to have a modicum of power to give it.’ Surely we should be concerning ourselves with making sure women have real power to say no, or yes, without wondering what bearing it might have on their income.
The domestic front
The other side of precarity in the workplace, of course, is the economic role that women continue to play in the nuclear family, whether they also work for a wage or not. Kevin Rudd once called the family ‘the greatest social welfare system ever created’, before his government proceeded to carry on with the cuts begun by Howard. It’s estimated that the unpaid labour associated with childrearing that women do saves the Australian state $345 billion every year. Put in these terms, it’s pretty clear why the government isn’t too keen to do away with the nuclear family and gender roles any time soon.
And just in case a woman forgets her place, most Hollywood movies, along with ads and the rest of it, still remind us that a woman’s happiness is to be found in men and motherhood (Bechdel Test, anyone?), all while our sexual objectification is sold to us as sexual liberation. When you combine the fact that women continue to have to serve the basic needs of children and men in the home, often at the expense of their own needs, desires and aspirations, with the endless commodification of our bodies, is it any wonder that we are often viewed as objects that exist for the gratification of men, rather than as complete human beings?
This also needs to be situated in the broader context of neoliberalism. Wage stagnation, unemployment, cuts to public services and constant attacks on unions all exacerbate the oppression of women, and also show the way in which male workers have a material interest in fighting alongside women against sexism.
There are the obvious examples like the closure of domestic violence services in NSW and cuts to single parents’ payments (both courtesy of female politicians, Pru Goward and Julia Gillard), as well as the privatisation of 1800 RESPECT, defunding of the Rape Crisis Centre and cuts to community legal aid.
But less remarked upon in the debate about violence against women is the question of general public services and provisions. Years of cuts to public childcare mean that in many places it now costs over $100 a day to put a child in day care. For many families, it makes more economic sense for the mother, who is already likely to be earning less than her male partner, to give up her job and care for the child. Alongside this, for every cut to disability, aged and health care, there are a few hundred women who have to do the work that was previously provided by the state.
Unpaid care of adults, 69 per cent of which is done by women, represents around $15.4 million per annum. And often partners are forced to work longer hours to make up for lost income. It’s clear how these economic factors work to push women back into the home and entrench gender roles. That’s not to mention the effects of privatisation on public service workers, usually marked by lower pay and worse conditions.
Much research shows that as rates of unemployment and poverty rise, so does the rate of domestic violence. As ever, the family home is the place where all the pressures and frustrations of the day come to bare – and is where most serious sexual abuse happens. And given that the gender wage gap has gone back to the 1982 rate of around 17.5%, more women will be economically dependent on a partner, violent or otherwise.
Malcolm Turnbull and Michaelia Cash’s White Ribbon campaign, which insists that ‘lack of respect’ towards women is the source of domestic violence, deliberately ignores these facts. It’s also rich coming from a government who allows refugee women to be routinely assaulted on Nauru, and which has released a barrage of homophobia and transphobia across the country in the form of the plebiscite. It was similarly hard to stomach Tanya Plibersek, speaking at Sydney’s Reclaim the Night, airing her apparent concerns for the high rates of domestic violence in Aboriginal communities, with no mention of the ALP’s deeply destructive NT Intervention.
Ignoring questions of economic inequality is to be expected from a couple of characters like Turnbull and Cash. But the left has to do better. Class, economics and sexism cannot be understood in isolation from one another. Any fight back, therefore, has to be built on this basis.
In light of Weinstein, some attention turned to the abysmal failure of the actors’ union, the Screen Actors’ Guild of America, to protect its members: its procedures put far too much onus on the individual worker, leaned heavily on legal procedures and left investigations in the hands of offending companies.
We can’t rely on employers to deliver programs around sexism. For one, in my experience (and the experiences of many), bosses and managers are just as likely as workers – if not more likely – to be sexually abusive. And when a workforce is already overworked, they are unlikely to take kindly to another educational program foisted on them by the very people responsible for their over work. But more importantly, employers cannot be relied upon to deliver the economic changes required to deal with the problems I’ve outlined. Whether a man or a woman, bosses rarely guarantee job security, or pay rises that match the cost of living.
Unions themselves need to tackle the issue of sexism in the workplace, have procedures in place for dealing with harassment and ensure workers can’t be penalised for speaking out. They are also far better placed to tackle sexist ideas among union members and workers themselves. Anyone who has spoken out against sexual harassment knows that it is far easier, and more effective, if it is done as a group. While people often do this off their own initiative, this support should be institutionalised. Workplace agreements also need to include provisions for workers affected by gender-based violence, like domestic violence leave, which many EBAs are lacking.
But just as important as dealing with issues of sexism head on is the need to build a proper fight against casualisation, wage stagnation and the ongoing war on workers in general – to turn back the tide of neoliberalism that so compounds all forms of oppression. This will go hand-in-hand with actually rebuilding the union movement from a historically low rate of membership and strike activity. For example, an initiative to draw up guidelines for responding to sexual misconduct in the arts sector and have the MEAA oversee this is an excellent start. But the glaring problem remains that very few arts workers actually belong to the MEAA. As such, the guidelines will be difficult to enforce until the union can prove itself effective in fighting for basic rights.
And given that the greatest gaps in wages are actually between industries, rather than within them, further legislation around equal pay won’t fix the problem – it will be in these lower-paid industries themselves that this battle must be waged. It is excellent to see childcare workers with United Voice beginning to take strike action over outrageously low rates of pay – more of this please! Now that Fair Work has thrown the case out of court (surprise, surprise), we will also need a serious industrial campaign against penalty rate cuts. The action on 16 November is a step in the right direction.
And if a Labor government comes to power next election, the left will have to fight tooth-and-nail to hold them accountable to their promises to reverse cuts to women’s and public services, and stop them from delivering more.
Women in protest
The act of resistance and struggle can be transformative in itself and has the potential to build the confidence that is necessary to confront and stare down sexual predators. There’s nothing like demanding and winning dignified working conditions, or the right to control your own reproduction, or overthrowing a dictator to give you a sense of self-worth. And united working-class activity has the power to break down sexist ideas among men on a far greater and deeper scale than any hashtag. As Egyptian revolutionary Mahienour El-Massry put it, after women played a leading role in the 2011 revolution, ‘with time society starts looking at you not as a woman who is weak and needs help, but as a human.’ A strike isn’t a revolution, but fighting alongside someone for a common interest can have a similar effect.
I for one think that sexism is not natural or eternal, which gives me great hope. It is built into the capitalist system in which we live, and we will need to get rid of this system eventually to get rid of sexism entirely. But in the meantime, or rather, as a precondition of that, it can be beaten back. Not with a hashtag, but with resistance, and class power.