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Making safe spaces for reporting harassment

  • 01 November 2019


As the waves of the #MeToo movement continue to challenge society's culture of gendered abuse and harassment, we are ushering in a new era of women not just talking about their experiences, but reporting them, too. This is not a small achievement — it's a significant step to break through centuries of socialised oppression that actively tells women the behaviour and choices of others is 'not meant to be taken seriously' or that they're being too 'emotional'.

But cultural change takes time, and while the message is getting through that sexual harassment and abuse is wrong, there remain too many barriers for women who are trying to do something about it. In the past year, there have been several cases that made headlines after women reported alleged sexual harassment against high-profile and powerful men and were subsequently subjected to smear campaigns to tarnish their reputations. Catherine Marriott, Tessa Sullivan and Christie Whelan Browne had their motives questioned and they in turn have faced repeated and sustained attacks by parts of the media and the public.

Marriott, a well-respected rural Australian advocate, reported former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce to the National Party for sexual harassment in February. Within days, her identity was leaked to the media, reportedly by those inside the party, and she was accused of being politically motivated.

Photographs of former Melbourne City councillor Sullivan wearing a bikini and media reports alluding to her being sexually promiscuous were splashed across a newspaper front page after she claimed that then Lord Mayor Robert Doyle had harassed and groped her. And actress Whelan Browne has faced a 'torrent of abuse' and faces a defamation case brought by the man she and two other women accused of sexual harassment and abuse.

The theme, and the message, is clear — if you report sexual harassment, then you will be punished for it. This not only blames victims for the actions and behaviours of others, but it actively seeks to dismiss, blacklist and castigate those who are not willing to stay silent. It's not enough that #MeToo has created a space for women to finally, and openly, discuss the systematic abuse, harassment and discrimination they have experienced. We also need to create a safe and supportive environment for them to report these behaviours.

In the US, a survey of women who work in tech revealed the high price that those who reported sexual harassment are forced to pay.