Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault.
This article was inspired by numerous conversations I’ve had with other women on this subject matter. I draw from both my own and their experiences collectively.
I’ve come to realise that I lead two separate lives in student politics. The first one is of unflappable optimism and elation. One where we advocate and fight for a more equitable world that prioritises people over profit. Where we celebrate our victories and endlessly wheel and deal, hatching crazed schemes over drinks at the local pub.
But there lurks a second, shadow life. One that I and every woman in young politics experiences at some point. There is only one word for it: misogyny.
There is a misconception that these attitudes exist solely in the far-right, with their insistence on traditional gender roles and their unrelenting crusade to control women’s bodily autonomy. However, misogyny runs rampant in every political space like different strains of a virus. It can remain latent for a time before viciously attacking and infecting every crevice of our organisations, not just at the University of Sydney but also in youth politics more broadly. In every corner of young politics, every woman has lived this life and has a story all too familiar.
It is the grossly lewd comments made in social settings — for example, a male colleague implying that he’d ‘cream himself’ based on a woman’s choice of clothing.
It is the constant undermining of our contributions, our causes and campaigns, especially in regards to women centric issues like sexual violence and reproductive justice, consistently taking second priority to causes and initiatives led by men.
It is the imbalance of emotional labour where women often fall into the “maternal therapist” archetype. We take up the burden to watch out for the wellbeing of younger recruits as well as facilitating the often mentally taxing “debrief sessions” with other faction members.
Meanwhile, those same senior faction members – who are also woman-identifying – are often excluded from being involved in critical decision making processes. In other words, we are given the unglamorous responsibilities of this emotional labour without having any authority or say in the direction of the organisation.
It is the accusation that you’re in bed with your male colleague, with the implication you’re sleeping your way to the top, rather than your hard work and competency being acknowledged.
It is the flippant dismissal or outright rejection of sexual harassment and assault allegations. We are constantly and painfully reminded that men would rather back up their mates instead of holding them accountable.
This is all, for the most part, tacitly accepted. We lament and commiserate together over these instances. Yet I’m still to witness anyone calling out these behaviours as they happen.
Even worse, what these isolated instances produce is an insidious culture where women are not respected as people, equal to our cis male counterparts. Our value as a sexual commodity takes priority over our value as a legitimate political operator, let alone as whole thinking and feeling person.
Subsequently, this leads to a tacit acceptance and widespread endorsement of intimidation, harassment, sexual assault and violence towards women. The horror stories I have heard, particularly where perpetrators and predators remain within political organisations, always give me chills.
The reporting process usually goes one of two ways. Either the reporting process becomes drawn out and arduous; since the burden of proof falls on the survivor, it becomes their responsibility to present and compile evidence. This onerous process often retraumatises and triggers survivors, leaving them in an exacerbated mental state. After all that, perpetrators still remain in these organisations with only a minor slap on the wrist at worst.
Or alternatively, the organisation in question has no formal reporting process because it was not designed with survivors’ needs in mind. As a result there is a lack of any proper mechanism to expel or discipline the perpetrator at all.
Beyond political factions and organisations, misogyny bleeds into the institutions we are elected to. The attitudes our student leaders display and accept then exacerbate sexism throughout our broader communities. How can we expect our institutions and our society to not be misogynist if our own internal spaces and political institutions remain persistently affected by it?
Moreover, it pains me to admit but many of our leaders in these spheres will become the real leaders of ‘tomorrow’. Parliament is already notoriously an unsafe place for women, with the ABC reporting that ⅓ staffers experience sexual harassment as well as the allegations brought by Lydia Thorpe, Brittany Higgins and Karen Andrews to name a few. Again, this culture of tacit acceptance in adult politics pervades through Australian society on a macro level.
Misogynistic attitudes manifested in both discriminatory actions and actual violence towards women will likely continue to infect our political spheres at every level. Sometimes, in my more mentally fragile moments, I question the ethics of bringing other young women into these spaces when the risks are so staggeringly high. Am I doing the right thing by them or am I simply enabling an ongoing system of oppression?
However, like I said that at the start of this article, I am still an unflappable optimist. I fundamentally believe that together we can bring about a better world. If we are ever going to cure our political spaces from the virus of misogyny we must not look to men but to each other.