Like ABC journalist Ashleigh Raper, who made an extraordinarily brave statement accusing NSW Opposition Leader Luke Foley of sexual assault, I grew up around political circles. On the first (and yes, there were several) occasion I was groped by a politician, I was 19-years-old. Despite being a law student at the time, it never occurred to me there was legal redress available. This was a decade before #metoo. Embarrassed and uncomfortable, my primary concern was making sure people didn’t find out. I wanted to be taken seriously in politics, not dismissed as the girly-plaything of men.
In not reporting what happened, I didn’t consider the potential other women who might have been subject to the same lewd behaviour. I didn’t dwell on what it said about the character of an elected official and whether such things ought to be made public. Besides, the inappropriate actions of this man – and others like him in Canberra – were an open secret. I reasoned to myself that it wasn’t exactly news that I was his latest victim. Many others had gone before me and not kicked up a fuss. So, I shut that shit down as quickly as possible; discreetly made it stop, went home, had a shower, moved on.
There is an enormous sense of entitlement that exists around politics. Hierarchy, power and influence dictate who talks to whom and how often, who gets what position and who misses out, who receives media attention and who is ignored, whose opinion matters and whose is deemed irrelevant. Those same considerations shape sexual encounters between the players of this peculiar game. The only rule that is as regularly relied upon as entitlement, is the assumption of quiet.
When sexually inappropriate behaviour happens in politics, silence is presupposed. There are staff members who won’t speak up out of loyalty to their bosses, or the political parties they serve. For members of parliament presenting a clean-cut, happy family image to the public, a sexually charged scandal can be ruinous. Even when it’s consensual or you’re personally free of blame. And for journalists like Ashleigh Raper? The trust of politicians, and your relationships with them, are your career cache. It has to be preserved for the sake of your job and often at enormous cost.
“Raper’s body was reduced to an opportunity for political point scoring between parties that were more interested in themselves than a woman’s right to privacy.”
Jacqueline Maley wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald this week that Raper’s statement “tells you everything you need to know about why women generally don’t report sexual harassment”. Ashleigh Raper didn’t want to report what happened to her. She didn’t want the country to know that Foley had “stood next to me… put his hand through a gap in the back of my dress and inside my underpants… rested his hand on my buttocks”. Her choice – as is absolutely her prerogative and completely reasonable in the circumstances – was to stay quiet.
Not an ingenue like I was, but a respected and established journalist, Raper would presumably have weighed up the innumerable potential consequences of reporting. I imagine she would have considered how the accusation might influence the outcome of the state election, the subsequent invasion of her privacy by the media, inevitable and unfair damage to her own reputation, the personal impact on Foley’s family and her own, the effect on her career and political contacts, potential legal costs, being vilified in the press, and the likelihood she’d be called a liar…
Raper didn’t pursue the matter further, in fact she asked fellow journalist and witness to what happened, Sean Nicholls, to do the same. Accepting that this was her story to tell and not his, Nicholls agreed. That decision – just like Raper’s bodily autonomy – was then removed from her control. A symbol, perhaps, of how women so often tend to experience these ordeals. A lack of control, a lack of options, a lack of personhood. It is telling that so many of the potential damaging outcomes have since come to pass.
Corrections Minister David Elliot used parliamentary privilege to raise the issue (at the time, just a rumour) in the NSW parliament. Federally, Senator Eric Abetz also spoke about the rumour in Budget Estimates by making a bogus link with the ABC’s human resources management. Raper’s body was reduced to an opportunity for political point scoring between parties that were more interested in themselves than a woman’s right to privacy. Respect for her decision was nowhere to be found.
Raper was never going to win in this situation. She could only lose in an arena that continues to pay its overwhelming dues to the interests of men. Julia Baird gave voice in the Fairfax papers to the reality that is clear to women everywhere: “What we all see [is] talented women whose stories are leaked to the press, aired in parliament, disputed in court, against their wishes. This is not #MeToo. This is not about protecting but exposing women. If a woman does not want to tell her story, you cannot tell it for her”.
“Almost every woman I know has a story of being harassed, abused or at least made to feel sexually uncomfortable at work.”
Of course, the kind of power games around sexual assault and reporting is in no way confined to politics. While Raper’s case carries a particularly bright public spot light, women in every profession and from every walk of life make these sorts of calculations daily. For women on low incomes and those who are the sole breadwinner for their families, the ramifications of making a complaint at work are heavy indeed. They weigh the satisfaction of confronting or bringing their abuser to justice with the incalculable personal cost of doing so. More often than not, that calculation adds up to staying silent.
After considerable pressure from the media and within his own party, Luke Foley has resigned as Opposition Leader. He won’t recontest the next election. It’s a relief that he won’t be afforded the privilege of a potential return to power following a period of paying his dues on the backbench. Such has been the sordid, story of so many who went before him. Nonetheless, his resignation speech suggests he intends to fight on in the courts, which means Ashleigh Raper’s horrific ordeal isn’t over yet.
A colleague told me earlier this week that she’s struggling with her feelings about all of this. I am too. Possibly because it doesn’t feel like just another news story. Like so many of the accusations and revelations of the #metoo era, this tale is eerily familiar and uncomfortably close to home. Almost every woman I know has a story of being harassed, abused or at least made to feel sexually uncomfortable at work. Some have reported, some haven’t. And yes, occasionally the men who have committed wrongs against them have paid for what they did but for women, injury is all but guaranteed.
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