Can Anyone Stop Australia’s Slut Shaming?

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young at an Australian Greens news conference at Parliament House in February.CreditCreditMichael Masters/Getty Images
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young at an Australian Greens news conference at Parliament House in February. Credit Michael Masters / Getty Images

Slut shaming — that is, turning women’s sexuality into a weapon that can be used against them — may be a new term, but it is an ancient practice in Australia.

The first ship to arrive here after the First Fleet, which brought our earliest settlers, was the Lady Juliana, in 1790, which carried female convicts and is to this day referred to as a “floating brothel.”

As recorded by the historian Sian Rees, the passage of these women — many of them former London prostitutes who had been banished to the colonies as penance — exemplified the true burden of slut shaming: its permanence.

“It was a regrettable fact,” Ms. Rees wrote in “The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts,” “that disgraced females found ‘their character is utterly gone, may never be retrieved’, whereas disgraced males ‘after many errors, may reform and be admitted into that same society and meet with a cordial reception as before’ — but there it was, nature’s way.”

Today, “nature’s way” abides. We witness prominent men cheat on their wives or girlfriends, or otherwise make evident that they are sexual beings, without such revelations leading to convulsions. Women who do the same, however, are still pilloried: sluts, whores, tarts, strumpets, harlots, trollops.

In recent weeks, slut shaming has become a household term in Australia, thanks to the vile public taunting of two of our female politicians.

The most recent target was the Labor politician Emma Husar. When Ms. Husar found out that she had been publicly accused by a former staffer of exposing her genitals to another colleague while his young child was present, she walked to the bathroom in her Sydney home and vomited.

Perhaps it’s because she knew what was coming next. Many watched aghast as Ms. Husar, a single mother who had been a victim of domestic violence for decades, was trampled underfoot by a phalanx of camera operators and anonymous party operatives. A few days later, following a deluge of sensational stories about Ms. Husar “executing a Sharon Stone move,” and continuous leaks from her own party to the press about an investigation into her workplace conduct, she announced she would not run again for Parliament.

For the record, Ms. Husar told me the flashing allegation was “1000 percent fabricated” by a complainant who was not even present on the occasion he says it occurred; she pointed out that, given that she’d recently injured her knee and wears only pencil skirts, “it was physically impossible.” Two days after she announced she was leaving, the investigation’s findings were released: There was “merit” to staff complaints of “unreasonable management,” but the allegations of sexual harassment and exposing herself were unfounded.

But it was too late. The maelstrom left her reputation “in smithereens,” Ms. Husar said, beyond repair. She has admitted there were “things she could have done better” but in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, she said that what brought her political career to an end was “being slut shamed so viciously, with no ability to come back and stand up for myself” that it was “almost a method of torture.” And the general public had only seen the very worst of it: In reality, she said, it began the moment she started working as a politician, with an unnerving stream of rumors about her alleged sexual partners circulated in Parliament by colleagues, both in her party and outside it.

If the case of Ms. Husar demonstrates how quickly anything hinting at her sexuality — whether grounded in truth or not — can crush a woman’s career, the case of another politician, Sarah Hanson-Young, provides a glimmer of hope that women can begin to erode the impact of slut shaming by naming it, condemning it, and discrediting those who seek to stigmatize them by employing it.

In June, Ms. Hanson-Young, another female politician and single mother, was told to “stop shagging men” by a fellow senator during a parliamentary debate. The ugly spectacle of disrespect played out over several days.

Ms. Hanson-Young, 36, a senator for the Greens Party, had been participating in a debate on how to stop violence against women. Just as she was making the point that, instead of focusing on arming women against attacks, we should work on preventing men from attacking them, Senator David Leyonhjelm called out from across the chamber, “Stop shagging men, Sarah.”

Mr. Leyonhjelm has refused to apologize, claiming that his remarks were justified because Ms. Hanson-Young was accusing all men of being rapists. (She was not.) Instead, he has embarked on a media campaign during which he has repeated his innuendos about Ms. Hanson-Young’s sexuality. He told male presenters on Sky News that Ms. Hanson-Young was known for “liking men” around Canberra, and that the rumors were “well-known.”

Ms. Hanson-Young announced in July that she was suing Mr. Leyonhjelm for defamation. It’s rare for a journalist to support such a suit — but women in politics have historically had so little recourse against such obscenities that it seems fair. If she is successful — if she can wrestle this archaic weapon, slut shaming, away from her tormentor and perhaps manage to fire it back at him — she will set a new precedent. (She has reportedly just offered to settle the case for $75,000 with a verdict in her favor.)

While powerful women are being shamed for things they did not do in Australia, women whose sexuality has intersected with politics are now being taken seriously in America. Where just a few decades ago, women like Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky were belittled, porn star Stormy Daniels is being held aloft like a homecoming queen, photographed by Annie Leibovitz while wearing Zac Posen for Vogue. Perhaps America has learned something.

Here, however, the potency of slut shaming stems from its enduring nature. Prominent men can shrug off trysts or cheating or scandals as male behavior — or, as Nationals M.P. Barnaby Joyce said after impregnating a staffer, a symptom of the “loneliness” of higher office — then return to work. Mr. Joyce may have lost his position as deputy prime minister, but he is still in Parliament, and he still has a platform in politics. But when prominent women are accused of remiss sexual behavior, the accusation is often enough to stain a reputation in perpetuity.

Take Candice Warner, the wife of the former vice captain of the Australian cricket team, David Warner, and an athlete in her own right. (She’s a former Ironwoman.) Eleven years ago, before she married and had children with Mr. Warner, a photograph, captured by a member of the public, of her entwined with a rugby player, Sonny Bill Williams, in a toilet cubicle was made public.

This past spring, while Mr. Warner was playing in South Africa, members of the opposing team used the episode to taunt him about his wife’s sexual past. Grotesquely, spectators wore masks of Mr. Williams’ face. Mr. Warner got into multiple angry altercations as a result. After Mr. Warner, in the same series, participated in an episode of ball-tampering, his wife blamed herself, saying her actions more than a decade ago put him in a bad “head space.” She said that the guilt was “killing me,” and that she was “a wreck.” Ms. Warner even went so far as to apologize to Mr. Williams for the strain the fans’ taunting of her had caused him.

It’s hard to imagine that all those cricket players are pristine, or celibate. And yet somehow, the sexual past of one of their wives, an episode that took place when she was 22, becomes material with which he can be sledged.

This is why Ms. Hanson-Young’s case is crucial: If there are consequences for trying to shut down or shame women on the grounds of sexuality, even if it’s just vehement, broad public disapprobation, the weapon will be blunted. It’s risible to think that in 2018 a woman’s character can be impugned by suggesting she might have sex. It’s not “nature’s way.” It’s ludicrous.

Julia Baird, a contributing opinion writer, is a journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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