Unlike previous waves of feminism, the Me Too movement has largely focused on assault, harassment and supporting survivors. But sexual violence is not driven by sexual desire alone — it’s driven by power and control cultivated in an unequal society.
The movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, has said this hyper-focus on calling out harassment was never its point. She said to create a world free of sexual violence: “We start by dismantling the building blocks of sexual violence: power and privilege. This starts by shifting our culture away from a focus on individual bad actors or depraved, isolated behaviour.”
The movement’s focus on survivors’ experiences, while important, ignores the structures underpinning that violence. These root causes not only have a disproportionate effect on women of colour, Indigenous women and marginalised groups but often on men too. By failing to address them, the movement is unlikely to create long-lasting change.
Move the focus away from women
There’s been a cultural shift in recent decades to supporting and believing rather than shaming and stigmatising those who come forward with experiences of sexual violence. It’s a huge advancement — and an important one. Yet so much of the Me Too movement’s direction and energy has focused on providing support. In doing so, founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby and Officer of the Order of Australia feminist academic Eva Cox told Crikey, less attention is given to men’s behaviour.
“A lot of energy is going into providing services and making sure that women are taken care of … without really addressing the fact that there seems to be a lot of men around who behave badly,” she said.
“It’s this classic female thing of going into rescue mode rather than into change mode.”
This is what’s largely holding the movement back — stalling at the first step of raising awareness and support, without implementing change. As feminist scholar Nilmini Fernando said: “Every time [the white feminist movement] flares up, it only flares up around sexual assaults, and that is actually the symptom, not the cause.”
Power always plays a part
Every woman knows a woman who has experienced sexual violence, but few men claim to know perpetrators of sexual violence. This isn’t because there’s one serial perpetrator in each community harassing women — that would make things a lot easier to solve. The fact is that 92% of women physically assaulted by a man know their perpetrator. In 41% of cases, it is their former or current partner.
This is at the heart of sexual violence: it’s not depraved monsters committing it, but our fathers, friends, husbands and sons. The root cause is gender inequality driven by stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity and male peer relationships, or “male bonding”, that emphasises aggression and disrespect towards women.
“Gender equality is at the heart of the solution,” Natasha Stott Despoja, chair of Our Watch, a leading organisation addressing violence against women, told Crikey. But she stressed “gender inequality is not the same thing for all women”, with racism, colonisation, ableism, homophobia and transphobia other forms of discrimination affecting how inequality is experienced.
It’s the same driver for workplace harassment, sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins said: “Gender inequality underlies the broad structural conditions in society that allow sexual harassment, and other forms of discrimination and violence against women, to occur.”
Yet gender equality in Australia has gone backwards. In 2006 we ranked 15 in world gender equity. We’ve since slipped to 56 out of 153.
A culture obsessed with ‘masculine’ values
Australia’s culture is built around archetypical “masculine” values. We’re highly individualistic with unequal power distributions, and define success through individual achievements: promotions, wealth, power. Too often women are seen as something to be achieved. You don’t have to look much further than Parliament’s so-called “big swinging dicks” club to find an example of this.
It’s these same values that teaches boys not to cry, that men must be the breadwinners, that sex is a conquest and life is a competition. It’s why domestic violence risk increases by 35% when women start earning more than their partners.
This lack of emotional literacy leads to more than one in three middle-aged men feeling emotionally unconnected and unsupported. One-quarter have no one outside their immediate family they can rely on. It also fosters a sense of inequality. These emotions come back to haunt women in the form of sexual violence.
“The men at the bottom feel they’re grossly neglected and the people at the top end feel they can do anything as long as they get away with it,” Cox said.
“If we actually got people to feel more respected and more being seen as good citizens then maybe we’d be able to get rid of some of the gross behaviours of the people that feel angry.”
The fact these values are so ingrained in our culture makes change difficult. Without addressing the culture, quotas — as implemented by the Labor Party in 1994 and now being considered by the Liberal Party — won’t lead to massive change.
“We have been getting more women into positions of power but they only let them in if they weren’t going to change the system,” Cox said.
Our Minister for Women, Marise Payne, remains silent, the new Assistant Minister for Women, Amanda Stoker, is anti-abortion and has said women were “playing the gender card” when they came forward with bullying claims, and Liberal Party federal vice-president Teena McQueen has said she “would kill to be sexually harassed at the moment”.
Jenkins agreed with Cox: “While gender-balanced leadership is only one of the mechanisms to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, it is an important element of reducing the power imbalances that can enable it.”
Do you think the Liberal Party introducing quotas would help? Write to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Next: While sexual violence affects everyone, not everyone gets the same benefits from calling it out. All women need to benefit — not just middle-class white ones.