28 November 2017, Melbourne, Australia
I think we need to talk about men.
It seems the world has finally had a gut full of the damage violent, abusive men do. Each day that goes by there is a new revelation in the media of their damage, particularly to women and girls.
It has been less than three months since the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and in this time mostly women have come forward with reports of predatory sexual behaviour that run the gamut from unsolicited lewd texts to sexual assault by over 60 men in the movie industry.
There have also been allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated by 3 of America’s past 5 Presidents. In the case of Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, these allegations were widely canvassed prior to and during their election campaigns yet both were elected regardless.
Public figures who until then had been universally admired such as Rolf Harris, Bill Cosby and Jimmy Saville have been charged with systematically preying on young women and girls over decades. Their predatory behaviour was no secret to many of their colleagues yet these colleagues remained silent and allowed the abuse to continue.
This wave of disclosure and exposure exemplified by the #MeToo movement has also reached these shores, as inevitably it would and should. In the past month, 500 Australian women have come forward naming 65 men as abusers in the media industry alone. The first high profile case of Don Burke was broadly in December. No doubt here will be many more.
I have no doubt that a culture of systemic and pervasive misogynistic abuse of women is not confined to the media industry alone. Let’s consider a uniquely Victorian industry.
In the past decade, the Police have instigated investigations into sexual misconduct perpetrated by over 30 AFL footballers. Most recently this has included a Richmond player distributing an explicit image of his girlfriend to his mates immediately after the Grand Final after assuring her he had deleted it.
Earlier this year, two of the AFL’s most senior executives were sacked following revelations of predatory sexual behaviour towards young women in their workplace. This is the same workplace where a list of the Top ten hottest female staff members had been circulated amongst most of the male staff.
There are three very hard truths we must confront about this as men.
First, we can no longer dismiss this as the behaviour of a few bad apples. There is a false comfort in confining and defining this problem as the despicable acts of an evil few. If this were true we just pluck out the bad apples and the problem goes away but unfortunately the core of this evil lies much deeper.
The second hard truth is that these abuses were enabled and perpetuated by the systems of power surrounding these men. The senior managers of Children’s hospitals in the UK welcomed Jimmy Saville’s charity visits to their wards in full knowledge that he would use those visits to sexually assault the young children in their care.
When a woman made a police report of sexual assault by an AFL footballer, senior officers intervened saying they needed to make the complaint disappear. A young actress’s publicist sent her to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel room in full knowledge of what she would encounter, alone.
It’s not just the apples that are rotten. There is something very rotten in the systems that overtly and inadvertently protects these men and moves to marginalise and silence those who speak out. In the words of one Hollywood insider who had heard ‘stories’ about Weinstein’s predatory behaviour:
Since this story broke last week, I have been struggling with my shame. It shouldn’t matter what my place was, my level of success, my degree of power. It should only matter that I knew this was happening and I stayed silent.
We all stayed silent.
The final hard truth is that there is something rotten about the way we men think and act towards woman and the way we think and about ourselves as men. You only have to look at the raw statistics to understand the magnitude of violence and abuse towards women in Australia.
Every week at least one Australian woman is killed by her current or former male partner. One in every 3 Australian women over the age of 15 has been physically or sexually assaulted by a man they know. Almost every Australian woman has been subjected to some form of sexual abuse or harassment.
These women are our sisters, our daughters and our mothers. But they are not defined their relations to men. They are every woman.
But there is another way of looking at these statistics.
Every week at least one Australian man kills his current or former partner. One in every 3 Australian men will physically or sexually assault a woman they know. And almost every Australian man will subject a woman to some form of sexual abuse or harassment or at least be complicit in this.
These men are our brothers, our sons and our fathers. These men are us.
To all of the men out there who want to say back that is not me, I have never done any of these things, I sincerely hope that it true. But let me ask you this.
Were you ever in a group of men when someone made a disparagingly sexist or misogynistic remark or joke about a woman? Did you do anything about it? Did you snicker uncomfortably about it but otherwise let it pass?
Have you ever witnessed a woman being wolf whistled or leered at in public? Did you do anything about it or did you decide it wasn’t your business? Well it is your business.
I want to light upon street harassment for a minute to illustrate why it is your business and I do so deliberately because I am guessing and hoping that there are not too many wolf whistlers in this audience.
A 2015 US study found that 85% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the street by the age of 18. I wonder how many men have been subject to sexual harassment in the street by the age of 18?
What is the motive, the message and the impact of street harassment?
This is how one woman has described it.
The words of street harassment fall on a spectrum of disrespect. They are not just words, they are a threat. The threat of implied violence lies behind every word. The words are nothing compared with what they could be and they are intended that way, as a smirking warning to all women.
It is our responsibility as men to face this uncomfortable truth about our own culture, about masculinity. Men are not inherently violent or abusive but we make ourselves so by our silence and inaction and permit others to be so.
Not all men will abuse or assault women but it is the responsibility of every man to call out both friends and strangers when they perpetuate the sexist and misogynistic attitudes and behaviours that allow abusers to go unchallenged. Unless you speak out, your silence will be taken as complicit support by perpetrators.
The research clearly shows that allowing everyday low-level sexism and sexual harassment to continue feeds the climate and attitudes that perpetuate sexual violence. It is the seed from which the rot grows. The research also suggests that if a man is called out for using abusive language by their peers the risks of them progressing to more serious forms of abuse drops by 80%.
It will take a critical mass of good men to turn around the male culture that allows the rotten seeds of sexual violence to propagate.
It will take a critical mass of good men to change the way their peers think about and treat women. It will take a critical mass of good men to root out the rottenness in the hearts of men that engenders violence and harassment of women.
Every year this school will send out into the world 330 good men to add to that critical mass.
I hope sooner rather than later, the tide will turn.
As Edmund Burke said, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.