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  • Fear of sexual violence pervades from our government to our homes

Fear of sexual violence pervades from our government to our homes



The two most incisive statements relating to the allegations of sexual assault currently miring the Liberal party have come from opposite ends of its hierarchy: the junior employee allegedly raped in a defence ministry office two years ago, and the head of government who denies any prior knowledge of her ordeal.

Main image:  Minister Scott Morrison (L) and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during Question Time in the House of Representatives on February 22, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Parliament House is not, after all, ‘the safest building in Australia’, said Brittany Higgins when announcing her intention to ‘proceed with a formal complaint regarding the crime committed against me’ by a fellow Liberal staffer in that apparently-sacrosanct space. And, ‘if any workplace thinks that this [pervasive culture of disrespect] is just confined to the parliament, they’re kidding themselves,’ said Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in a vain attempt to deflect blame from his party.

The first statement shatters the myth that there are safe spaces where women and girls will be protected from the harm that might otherwise be committed against them. Experience and research, too, disprove this hypothesis: in Australia, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence perpetrated by a man since the age of 15, according to Our Watch. Such violence occurs in any and all of the spaces into which women dare venture: workplaces, schools, places of worship, railways stations, parks, the hallowed halls of parliament and — perhaps most frequently of all — their own homes.

The potential for violence — especially sexual assault — is like air for women, in its most rudimentary sense; it exists all around us, invisible yet omnipresent, hefted with capability. It is an unspoken — often unacknowledged — social compact, an awareness gifted to us as armour when we are young, heightening our senses and cautioning us against danger. But instead of expanding our existence, such forewarning diminishes it; as we move through the world, we mechanically measure and mitigate our movement in relation to men’s propensity for violence. We urge our friends and female relatives to text us when they’re safely home, warn one another against sleazy colleagues and against catching Ubers unless we’re in a trusted person’s company. We hold ourselves responsible for our own safety.

Such learned behaviour circumscribes our already gender-defined boundaries yet further. The fear of rape, as the writer, feminist and social commentator Rebecca Solnit writes so trenchantly in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, ‘puts many women in their place — indoors, intimidated, dependent yet again on material barriers and protectors... I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me... all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men's behaviour rather than society's to ensure my freedom. I realised that many women had been so successfully socialised to know their place that they had chosen more conservative, gregarious lives without realising why.’

Men, by comparison, aren’t socialised to shrink in public the way women are; they occupy the world much the way they do a seat on a bus — expansively, with confidence and a robust sense of entitlement. So natural is this disposition, they are generally unaware of it; since male privilege, like white privilege, is a birthright and a norm, men must deliberately interrogate their one-dimensional perspective of it if they are to fully appreciate both its power and its prejudice. It wouldn’t occur to men, generally, to dress modestly so as to avoid aggressive and unwanted sexual attention, or to let their friends know they’ve arrived home safely after a night out, or to avoid the boss at the office Christmas party. Most men would be surprised to learn of the adrenalin that electrifies the lone woman’s body as they stride behind her in the dark; it is them she fears.


'Our parliament — where at least one woman’s such fear was allegedly realised — is indeed not the only Australian institution fetid with such a "pervasive culture of disrespect"; but it is most certainly the highest-ranked.'


Such insidiousness underpins the second statement, in which Morrison attempts to mitigate the damage this incident has caused his government by claiming such conduct isn’t confined to parliament; unwittingly, he emphasises the magnitude of the problem. Besides the sexual violence suffered by women, a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission found that 39 per cent of women said they’d experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years. When men experience such harassment or assault — and to be sure it does happen — their experience is treated like news; yet for women it has always been a given.

Indeed, most women and girls live in fear of rape, Solnit writes in Men Explain Things to Me. ‘That’s how rape functions as a powerful means by which the whole female population is held in a subordinate position to the whole male population, even though many men don’t rape, and many women are never victims of rape.’

Our parliament — where at least one woman’s such fear was allegedly realised — is indeed not the only Australian institution fetid with such a ‘pervasive culture of disrespect’; but it is most certainly the highest-ranked. As leader of a population comprising 50.2 per cent women — those citizens whose lives are constrained daily by fear of sexual violence — Morrison would do well to lead from the top and put his own house in order.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Minister Scott Morrison (L) and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during Question Time in the House of Representatives on February 22, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Brittany Higgins, Scott Morrison, sexual violence, Rebecca Solnit, rape culture



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Existing comments

I agree Catherine with all that you say.....sadly. The 'pervasive culture of disrespect' to women is actually much more pervasive in Parliament House than in most other parts of our community. I had the 'pleasure' of meeting with many Liberal Ministers offices this past year to advocate for a critical gender equality issue that affects many Australians. The arrogance, open rudeness, laughing at issues which were not amusing and sneering about others that were justifiable was quite dispiriting and I left the House worried about our democratic representatives and their motives for working as politicians. I was told that there were two issues that were of no interest to this Government and one of them was 'women'. I hope that they now change their minds.

Carol | 25 February 2021  

Since her ecstatic paen to Same Sex Marriage in this journal, I have tended to view Catherine Marshall's social prognostications with a pinch of salt. I also seem to remember Our Watch helped cause an Australian Women's Soccer coach to lose his job for no reason. What recently came out of Canberra regarding serious sexual assault/rape allegations, which I hope proceed to court, are serious. I do not see this as a 'women's issue' but a national one which involves all of us and the future. It appears to me, from what I read, that Linda Reynolds is also one of the politicians who would not get a gold star for her handling of the issue. Sadly, in a drunken yobbo culture, as seems to exist amongst some parliamentary staffers and elsewhere, women are at risk. I deprecate drunken yobbo culture with such results. Something needs to be done. I am not sure some of the current stock solutions are the answer.

Edward Fido | 25 February 2021  

Your fourth paragraph (and especially the final sentence), Catherine, highlights the real nature of what women are dealing with. Every day. Many women do not report sexual violence because they are already traumatised and are unable to proceed through more trauma. Even when violence is reported there are great difficulties in securing justice. It's important for women to support other women who disclose sexual violence. In an institution like Federal parliament it may mean putting a career on the line. So be it. And then the narrative will change.

Pam | 25 February 2021  

Its certainly not confined to the hallowed halls of Parliament Catherine considering : "Three former High Court associates have announced plans to sue former justice Dyson Heydon and the Commonwealth for compensation, after an independent investigation found their complaints of sexual harassment were valid. Key points: Maurice Blackburn lawyers, who represents three of the women, say they will seek compensation on behalf of the former associates. Former judge Dyson Heydon has denied allegations made against him of sexual harassment; Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the allegations against Mr Heydon are "very disturbing" and "incredibly serious" An independent investigation commissioned by the High Court, referred to on Monday in a statement released by the Chief Justice, found six former court staff members were harassed by Dyson Heydon, claims which have been categorically denied by the former justice. Maurice Blackburn lawyer Josh Bornstein, who is representing the three women seeking compensation, said the alleged harassment had caused significant harm to his clients." SMH June 22 2020. It can and does happen anywhere unfortunately.

Francis Armstrong | 25 February 2021  

I’ve started this comment four times now. The article so perfectly embodies the irrational, mendacious and sickeningly divisive philosophies that now dominate our society that it’s impossible to fix on one issue within the many. In general, however, I’d say that those who truly value the values of the Enlightenment should listen to this kind of polemic with horror. I agree that Brittany is a victim, perhaps once of a repulsive predator, but certainly of the women who are so cold-bloodedly sacrificing her to their own campaign - which is not about cleaning up the Parliament at all.

Joan Seymour | 25 February 2021  

It may be sexist but I resent the fact that in this type of article it appears that all men are tarred with the same brush. I am nearly 80 and was always taught and have tried to live with a respect for women and sexistly (if that is a word) an instinct to protect them. It has seemed to me that in recent years boys have not been taught from birth to respect others and to avoid violence in deed, word or action. OK, I may not have always had the courage to live up to these ideals but I have always tried to and I am not the only one. I am appalled at the behaviour of those who don't live up to these ideals Please use a narrower brush when making your case. .

Joe | 25 February 2021  

I felt for the tormented whirlwinds Damned for their carnal sins Committed when they let their passions rule their reason. Dante Alighieri

AO | 26 February 2021  

Mr Fido, I feel morally bound to respond to your comment. It is disappointing to hear that your antipathy towards my opinion on same-sex marriage has caused you to diminish women’s experience as highlighted in this article. That women are sexually harassed and assaulted at disturbing levels is not a prognostication, nor is it a modern blight (as suggested by commenter Joe); it is a diabolical fact. Reports this week of rampant sexual assault in aged care facilities – an average of 50 per week – prove, as I point out in my article, that women are not safe anywhere. The Our Watch reference relates in fact to data gathered by the ABS; therefore it is not an opinion gleaned from (what you infer is) a dodgy organisation, but rather an empirical fact (see https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/latest-release). Sexual assault is, as you acknowledge, not a women's problem, though women are by far the majority victims of it. Your naming of just one politician in your comment – a woman – is an excellent illustration of the entrenched culture in which men (as a general population) tend to shift blame while refusing to take collective action for a scourge which is in fact their problem to solve.

Catherine Marshall | 26 February 2021  

Methinks Joe is spot on. From the available research, there seem to be individuals predisposed to violence and violent sexuality. Our sex obsessed age, with vile, degrading pornography so readily available, preconditions youths to a bizarre concept of human sexuality. How many footballers and other 'heroes' have been arraigned for sexual misconduct? Of course, there is also the unspoken problem of indigenous women, who are really stuck where they are. Drugs, alcohol and petrol sniffing fuel the flames. We need a moral revolution here. A moral revolution with serious consequences for offenders, however high or low they might be.

Edward Fido | 26 February 2021  

Gosh, it's easy for church people to point the finger at non-church institutions. I have a Masters, a PhD and an article pointing back to the Church regarding the sexual misconduct against adults (men included) and that 50% of clergy have given up on chastity/celibacy but want to continue the impression as IF they are celibate. No one seems interested in exploring or complaining about the rapes, sexual abuses going on with adults by clergy who want their cake and eat it too. But, having said that, seriously, the whole issue of sexual misconduct in elite and power-imbalanced institutions is a major one that needs a severe and immediate overhaul. Kudos to Brittany and others who are stirring the cesspit in order to force change in ALL parties as well, hopefully - Labor and the Greens and One Nation (EG) aren't pure as the driven snow here, either.

Stephen de Weger | 27 February 2021  

To get down to the nitty gritty, the part that both first and second wave feminism have played in the devaluing of women has to be recognised. First wave feminism championed by the likes of Margaret Sanger who pioneered the pill against the background of a woman's right to control her fertility sewed the seed. The blooming, however, has to be attributed to second wave feminism characterised by the exhortations of the likes of Germain Greer and her ilk, protected by the pill, to step down from the pedestal on which Judeo-Christian society had placed women and assert their rights to sexual freedom. This movement clamoured for sexual equality with the male and embodied the rejection of "the weaker sex" syndrome which effectively protected them. Greer was a minnow, however, compared with the embryo lawyers (first year out of law school), Weddington and Coffey, who converted the illegal abortion clinics to which they referred women like Norma Mc Corvey (the fictitious Jane Roe) to neo-legal bastions of women's rights/health through the legalisation of abortion on demand. This great achievement for women's rights excluded men, to whom half the child in the womb belonged, from any say in the killing of that child. Sadly, women became fair game when they achieved so-called gender equality and, to be expected, men began treating them as they treated other men - courtesy and concern went out the window. Women were no longer on the pedestal that afforded them recognition of their specialness above the male as the essential element of propagation of the human race. It might be that the solution rests not with the men but entirely with women. A new female champion prepared to restore the special place of women and to abandon the mundane downgrading of their kind towards equality with men is what is needed. It has taken 50 years to reach the present deplorable state to which humanity has fallen. It will take even longer to restore. Get going, ladies! There is a hell of a lot of damage that only you can repair. A good place to start, even though it may involve some personal sacrifice, (nothing worthwhile comes without personal sacrifice) would be to report all male abusers to the law even if that might be personally embarrassing or perhaps even threatening for the reporter.

john frawley | 27 February 2021  

The contradiction in this article is the contradiction that the Devil sought to foist upon Christ in the desert when he offered him a deal to have spiritual and, in consequence, material influence over all the kingdoms of the world. In return for renouncing his princedom of the ‘power of the air’, Christ would be free to do any good he wanted in the world as long as he worshipped Satan. This shows that the Devil is not invested in ‘evil’. Lucifer is above the base urgings of human worms. As an incorporeal thought-in-action, all he wants is to prove the truth of his principle, that there can be ‘good’ without God. Catherine Marshall, supporting same-sex marriage as well as the issue here, wants Christians to help perfect an atheistic society so that it can be good without God. As does Eureka Street. By definition, there can be no good without God. Brittany Higgins is not to be violated not because of French Revolution Rights of Man which boil down to a prudential deal not to harm others in exchange for not being harmed yourself, but simply because she is a Child of God ---- under duty like the centurion.

roy chen yee | 28 February 2021  

Stealing supplies from work may seem to some people like a perk of the job—even an action that no one will notice. However, this type of employee theft can be considered a crime. Taking money from your workplace is embezzlement. Workplace theft is a common problem for employers and retailers, and many have systems in place to detect it. Whether it’s pens, paper, electronic devices, DVDs, thumb drives, petty cash or merchandise, taking home assets you do not own and haven’t pay for from your place of employment could result in your being terminated from employment and subjected to criminal charges, fines, possibly jail time, and civil restitution claims for treble and punitive damages. The word Yoobo, Edward Fido, is too kind of a word to describe the culture at parliament! RAPE is a crime! A crime, times more egregious than stealing stationary! And yet, whereas, such criminal activity calls for the criminal to be stepped down, fired, and prisoned. Current parliament ministers can rape a young staffer like Brittney Higgins, many others and a 16 year old, (RIP) and still be at Government! Not a yobbo culture, Edward Fido, but a culture that defends its 'organized' criminal dealings. https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/cockroaches-in-the-trap-kill-spray-gm1139433262-304549460 But no more. Its over! Time for termination and a huge clean up!

AloyshA | 28 February 2021  

2,000 years ago, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder said, “What we do to our children, they will do to society.” Today’s society is very child-unfriendly. In the 1950s, teachers’ top disciplinary problems included, talking out of turn and making noise. Today they include drugs, assault, rape, and suicide. Children are assaulted prematurely by sexperts who have long argued for more sex education at younger ages. Radical gender theory was pushed into schools by Marxist Roz Ward under the guise of “anti-bullying” while she covertly admitted it was “not about stopping bullying.” Pornography is ubiquitous, with evidence showing children now acting out on other children what they see on their screens. No-fault divorce and single parenting have consequences. In 2008, Barack Obama said: “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.” Recently I watched the 1948 film “My Brother Jonathan” of which one reviewer commented: “It is the kind of film almost impossible to make these days as it is a story of a decent man who does decent things.”

Ross Howard | 28 February 2021  

I'm not so sure Joe that the past was all as rosy as you remember. I'm of similar vintage to you and, like you, I can remember the formalities of respect for women of that time, but I can also remember the subordinate position in which they were held, their lack of agency, and the coercion, mostly economic, but sometimes physical or psychological, to which many women were subjected. Australian culture has been, and still is, a blokey one, where women are too often treated as 'handmaids' and 'uppity' ones disparaged..

Ginger Meggs | 28 February 2021  

Yes, Edward, a revolution that recognises the source of our moral capacity in God and our need for divine assistance in realising it, evident by reflection on human experience and the revelation of Christ's life and message.

John RD | 01 March 2021  

Dear Ms Marshall, Thank you for your response to me. I had not seen it in ES till today because I have been involved with the affairs of my wife, who has Early Onset Alzheimer's and is in care. Matters arising here were my top priority. My moral reservations about SSM do not mean I am either 'homophobic' or impervious to what I would term 'rape culture' in certain institutions. As far as female politicians go, I think Penny Wong and Sarah Henderson are doing very much the right thing on this matter. As far as Our Watch and the Australian Women's Soccer Team goes, that matter, the statistics and all, have been hotly debated by able people on both sides. It is still highly contentious. Rape, sadly, has been part of recorded human history from the very beginning. Armenian women, for thousands of years, have been subject to it by their neighbours in the Caucasus and elsewhere. Uighur women in Communist China are suffering it en masse today. In both instances I would contend it was part of a policy of genocide: a conscious attempt to eliminate a race. There is a very dark side to human nature. Genuinely eliminating 'rape culture' anywhere is going to require tremendous effort. That certainly does not mean it should not be attempted.

Edward Fido | 02 March 2021  

I'm somewhat surprised the ES editor let this article run with the Higgins allegation represented as "breaking the myth" but that wouldn't be my main criticism. To quote and paraphrase Solnit for a couple of paragraphs was banal, particularly that she's just a writer (not an expert) but to insert the rape drivel quote from "Men Explain Things to Me" is plain unconscionable; it astounds me that Ms Solnit actually spoke with many men for her "research" and seems to have relied on perspicacity to make a book. It might help to consider that the book doesn't make international distinctions, just Oprah on steroids condemning half the population. I am far from a Scomo supporter but it seems no man can say anything honest or empathetic on this matter; today the PM has been eviscerated by Grace Tame for his honesty of conscience and similarly battered by others for seeking advice from his wife. You can beat the PM into the ground all you like demanding your satisfaction but who'll take the reins, the Attorney General? It bothers me greatly that this effervescent two weeks of public angst began with Higgins request 19 Feb to the PM to "I would ask please that my privacy is respected..." just before she lambasted him on a TV interview. Sucker punch.

ray | 04 March 2021  

Morrison would do well to lead from the top and put his own house in order. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhIVgSoJVRc

AO | 05 March 2021  

Ray: ‘it seems no man can say anything honest or empathetic on this matter’ It seems that Angus Campbell mustn’t say in public what any mother at home would be telling her daughters. And if behaviour modification has its way in school curricula, pretty soon what you can say at home will only be what you can say in public or your naïve child might say something too honest about you on social media in a post that goes viral, somewhat akin to a child in early twentieth-century Europe confiding to a classmate about the Jew her family is hiding in the attic.

roy chen yee | 05 March 2021  

Roy: one of the fears I have is the "culture" matter is rapidly morphing from privileged to male privileged to white male privileged...and this is influencing the selection of the inquiry commission; while I don't dispute the appointment of Kate Jenkins I am concerned that it couldn't be "anybody", certainly not a male. Jenkins has already cited a purpose for a finding of "change" so the agenda is palpable for investigation of the treatment of women and directing "positive change" to a safe(r) workplace. I'm no prude but I find interesting the juxtaposed events and proclivities that led to the Turnbull "bonk ban" yet the Deputy PM McCormack advocates for unemployed persons to seek work in rural areas to meet "the love of your life". Almost every workplace I have visited in the last 15 years has been drug and alcohol free, including arrival at the workplace. I'm dismayed that the inquiry is pressured into directing itself into workplace sex discrimination when apparently (reportedly) neither person was in control of their faculties on arrival; this is fast becoming an avoidance of an embarrassing examining of the security of Parliament house. Compounding the vibe is the partisan party political divide of more women in politics, particularly "cabinet"; proportional representation didn't satisfy some but repercussions from this loaded commission might.

ray | 06 March 2021  

Ray: ‘while I don't dispute the appointment of Kate Jenkins I am concerned that it couldn't be "anybody", certainly not a male. Jenkins has already cited a purpose for a finding of "change" so the agenda is palpable for investigation of the treatment of women….’ I suppose, to a sex discrimination commissioner, every problem could look like sex discrimination, as, with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. There are several commissioners in the Human Rights Commission, one of which is the Human Rights Commissioner who happens to be male, not that that should matter because human rights is ‘human’ rights. Justice has to be seen, etc. etc. It may appear that a woman should adjudicate merits because the complainant is a woman but when the issue is also about protecting the rights of the accused, there is no reason why the adjudicator must be male or female. Perhaps we can breed a homo sapiens with no sex (or race) for the specific purpose of working in the Human Rights Commission. And perhaps, to help with the empathy thing, also with genetically engineered poor health so they know what it is like to spend their whole lives feeling unwell.

roy chen yee | 11 March 2021  

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