When Brittany Higgins and Dhanya Mani shared with the nation their experiences of sexual assault and abuse, they sparked a movement demanding change to the way we approach sexual assault and consent.
In this context I was asked whether, as a man, the coverage of these events had changed or influenced my understanding of consent.
My honest answer is: no.
Because women like Brittany and Dhanya, and the thousands of survivors of harassment, indecent and sexual assault, should not have had to launch a national campaign in order for us to be educated about basic standards of human decency.
What this movement has revealed however, is the extent to which power imbalances and male entitlement remain engrained across all levels of our society. It appals me that someone has the audacity to allegedly commit rape in Parliament, or to decide that it’s perfectly reasonable to masturbate on a female Minister’s desk and boast about doing so, or for political staffers to allegedly indecently assault a colleague in their own home. The fact that these acts occurred in the very seat of democracy in Australia meant to encompass principles of equality and respect, adds to their disturbing nature.
Of course, sexual assault anywhere by anyone is unacceptable. But, if we have men who are so brazenly comfortable to commit such horrific crimes in Parliament, one shudders to think about the extent to which such disregard for consent exists across our communities. Yet, this is not a new phenomenon.
In truth, if there are men who are surprised by the public outrage caused by these events, you haven’t been paying attention.
It is clear that we still have far to go to dismantle toxic masculinity and the societal structures that have allowed such behaviour for far too long.
The question we must all ask ourselves, especially men, is how do we fix this, and where do we fit into the solution?
One suggested solution is to implement ‘enthusiastic consent’ laws which, in effect, puts the onus on both parties to ensure they explicitly consent to sex. But such a conclusion would imply that perpetrators simply do not understand that their acts are wrong or illegal. If that were true, we wouldn’t have a former justice of the High Court allegedly embroiled in harassing behaviour that is evidently still pervasive in modern society.
Whilst it may be a step in the right direction to change the dialogue of what is required to consent, relying exclusively on law reform as the solution is vulnerable to reducing consent to a ‘one-off’ question, rather than accounting for consent as a continual process. Consent should not become a “tick a box” exercise to allow a sexual encounter to occur. There needs to be consent throughout the entire encounter and that needs to be communicated and understood by all parties involved.
It’s here that sex education, both at home and in the school curriculum, becomes important. Whilst none of us will ever forget that awkward lesson where the veil was lifted that babies were not, in fact, delivered by storks, discussion about consent was noticeably absent.
Though the importance of consent seems so objectively obvious, the facts reveal that a culture of consent has not developed organically. If it had, we would not still be listening to the tired old statements of ‘what was she wearing?’, ‘she was dancing promiscuously’ or ‘she was already out on a date with me, she was keen’.
Regardless of how obvious the objective importance of consent may seem, we still have men who either don’t understand its significance, or are so toxically arrogant and entitled that consent is a secondary afterthought (if at all). My money is on the latter.
If we know this to be a reality, then we cannot afford to tiptoe around the subject in our homes or at school and wait for it to fix itself. I accept that these are not comfortable conversations to have. But the cost of doing nothing means we will continue to see the same excuses, the same toxicity and the same horrific impacts on survivors for generations to come.
Even then, combining law reform with education will not cure the full extent of the problem.
What men can do
As men, we need to be asking ourselves this: why is the toxicity and entitlement so disgustingly common? The only logical conclusion to that question is that we are still living in a patriarchal world where power structures remain stacked against female voices.
That fact does not make all men evil. As Dr Zac Seidler, men’s mental health expert, notes, “Of course, not all men are rapists, murderers or misogynists, but all men have a part to play in making sure those that do exhibit poor behaviour are called out.”
It is for us as men (myself included) to listen, to learn and to challenge that toxicity.
It is our collective responsibility to uphold the standards of respect and dignity. Holding each other to higher standards will be one of the most necessary and effective tools in the ongoing path toward gender equality.
It ensures that toxic behaviour cannot seek refuge even in exclusively male circles and will not be tolerated or reinforced.
Those higher standards mean holding each other accountable by actively calling out and dismantling the notion of ‘traditional’ gender roles – within the home, at work and life in general.
It means calling out sexist ‘locker room talk’ rather than uncomfortably laughing along.
It means speaking up against violent or controlling abusers and standing in active support with victims of abusive relationships, rather than remaining wilfully blind.
It means that complacency, indifference or even well-meaning support on the sidelines must be replaced by meaningful action.
Though this call to action may mean uncomfortable introspections, this is a moment in time that calls for us to do something more. We need to commit to being better.
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