You may have missed it if you are outside of Sydney, but local station 2UE took radio to new lows with a sketch last week. It pertained to be a recording of the Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young having an orgasm in response to the carbon price. While some obviously found it funny, imagine being a young woman thinking about entering politics listening to 2UE that morning. Imagine being a woman, like Senator Hanson-Young, already in politics.
The skit purported to be a ‘secret recording’ but the not-so-secret-reason for creating it was to demean her and take away her power. Resorting to sexual innuendo or downright harassment is an increasingly common way that male political commentators, in the mainstream media like 2UE and online, are using when confronted with the rise of women in Australian politics and causes.
Two months ago, as a panelist on the ABC show Q&A I faced a similar onslaught of sexism – in my case online. I’ve decided to share this story now, because it’s less about me than it is about the rise of anonymous online abuse and vitriol in Australian politics, particularly against women. It’s time Australia had a conversation about the impact this disturbing trend is having on the number of women choosing to be spokespeople for political causes and organisations.
An hour or two before I was due at the ABC studio for Q&A that night, my fiancé and I ate dinner at the Sheraton Hotel in the city. It was a quick meal – I was too nervous to eat much and obviously wasn’t drinking alcohol before a national TV appearance! I was on the phone for most of the time to a friend discussing solar thermal, as I was hoping the topic of renewable energy would come up. My fiancé Simon, who is also heavily involved in climate change through the online progressive movement GetUp, was on the phone too, busy with the latest campaign – a usual occurrence for us at dinner!
After we finished dinner (and our respective phone calls), I was in the final preparation stage for the show. I had gone over all the topics I’d guessed would come up, jotted down key points I’d like to make, and practiced staying calm whilst being in the close vicinity of two people with vastly different views to me. And then, we received a text message from a friend. “Have you seen Twitter?” it said. Immediately, I looked online.
It turns out someone had been watching us at the restaurant. Whether it was someone who had just happened upon us by chance, or someone who’d deliberately set out to track us down and monitor us, I didn’t know. Either way, it was creepy. This guy had been sending a series of messages talking about what we were eating, drinking, and talking about, and most incredibly, making things up about this!
Here were some of the Tweets from @demonspofforth (Fred S) May 16, 2011 at approx 7.30pm.
“Anna Rose Is Simon Sheik’s paid for piece on the side”
“Anna Rose was playing tongue hockey with Simon Sheik from GetUp at the Sheraton tonight”
“Why did Anna Rose need to be fed lines about the ETS by Simon Sheik”
“From what I saw tonight she could win a salmon eating comp”
It was an aggressive and sexist personal attack both on me personally, and us as a couple, and it made me feel like crap. In fact, I was close to losing the plot. Thinking that someone had been essentially stalking us for the past hour without us even knowing? That there was a man I’d never met watching what I was eating, listening to what I was saying to my fiancé and writing about it online in real time without me knowing about it until later? Creepy and sick. And it was even weirder that this man had just decided to make up complete lies about us.
So I was really upset and shaken up. In short – completely not ready to go on national television in front of almost a million people. But at this point, I had no choice. I had less than half an hour before I had to get into a cab to go to the ABC. So I took five minutes to take deep breaths, and tried to block it out of my head. I did the panel and tried my best not to let the way I was feeling affect my performance.
After Q & A was over, Simon and my friends said that there were lots of really supportive and kind comments on Twitter. Despite that, I couldn’t bring myself to read any of the Twitter mentions because of what had happened before the panel. I went to sleep, still feeling deeply disturbed.
About a month later I was in the United States at a conference listening to a panel of influential female political candidates and bloggers share their stories of sexist smear campaigns targeted against them – both online and in the mainstream media. It was in this panel that I realised the incident before Q&A had affected me deeply; and that similar incidents (and much, much worse ones) affect women involved in politics every day.
Research from the United States conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Women’s Campaign Forum reveals how voters react to sexist coverage of women candidates. Surprisingly, the research found that the impact of “mild sexism” has the same negative ramifications for their campaign as “extreme” sexist smear campaigns. This is because the public is already uncomfortable with women in positions of power and influence.
Sam Bennett from the WCF Foundation told attendees at the Netroots Nation conference this year, “Even mild sexist attacks (like focusing on a female politician’s hair and makeup) is just as damaging to the perception of that woman’s ability as a leader as an outrageously sexist attack. Our culture has a hard time perceiving women as leaders. That means that when these attacks come the way of women, it further erodes readers and listeners’ ability to take them seriously.”
WFC’s report was published by Lake Research Partners in September 2010. The research showed that “sexism, even mild sexist language, has an impact on voters’ likelihood to vote for a female candidate and on how favorable they feel toward a woman seeking office. It also affects perceptions of trustworthiness, empathy, values, and effectiveness.”
Despite this, many people fail to see the problem. A recent Facebook discussion with a male friend over an online newspaper poll that asked readers to rate Julia Gillard’s dress sense drew the following comment: “Lots of people commented on Keating’s manner of dressing…is the problem that we don’t judge our male leaders on their dress sense when we should? Or is it that dress sense is irrelevant? Personally I think how a leader comports themselves in dress and manner, is important.”
Yes, male politicians sometimes (rarely, but it does occasionally happen) draw comment from the media about their appearance. No, the ramifications for their careers are not the same. The public doesn’t perceive male politicians’ leadership abilities in a lesser light after discussion of appearance, unlike when the subject of the discussion is a female politician. Not to mention they’re judged by a very different standard, where women are expected to look beautiful all the time, and men aren’t. Which is why it’s sexist.
The anonymous Twitter comments before Q&A, however, was more than “mild” sexism. It was the assertion that I wasn’t smart enough to come up with my own points of view and needed a man to “feed” them to me. It was the allegation that I was a “paid up piece on the side” – essentially, a prostitute. Attacking a woman’s sexuality is hardly an original way of diminishing our power, but it’s always demeaning and especially so when based on an outright lie (not sure how I can be my own fiancé’s “piece on the side”!). Tweets about what I was eating and my weight (whether or not I could “run around the block”) are another classic way to harass women. The anonymous tweeter (@demonspofforth) had really covered all the bases.
So this got me thinking about the way the online world is affecting women in politics. In the USA, the Women’s Campaign Forum reports that women are 50% less likely than men to even consider running for office. It’s obviously a similar situation here given the dearth of female politicians (yes, I hear you composing your angry comment post now – we do have a female Prime Minister. But remember only 30% of all state and Federal Parliamentarians in Australia are women and in some states like Western Australia that number is less then 20%).
As someone who occasionally gets questions about whether I want to go into Parliamentary politics, I can say that there’s absolutely nothing about being a female politician that appeals to me, apart from being able to influence climate change policy – which I can continue to do from outside the party system.
The amount of vitriol, the death threats and the nasty emails (many with extremely sexist overtones and threats of sexual violence) I receive, as a low-profile climate campaigner is enough, thank you very much. With the rise of Twitter and comment fields, anonymous haters are in their heydays. And whilst Facebook is made for liking, pretty much every other corner of the web seems to be made for hating.
Other young women who are starting to build public profiles around issues or causes, whether they be overtly “political” or not, are facing the same attacks, and experiencing similar feelings. Samah Hadid, who has appeared on Q& A several times, says that after she appears on the show, “I’ve had hate mail emailed to me, not to mention the personal abuse I’ve received on Twitter. I’ve been named a ‘bitch’, ‘trot’ and ‘devil’. My breasts were also mentioned at one point… the list goes on. Most of the abuse hurled has been from men. I’m sick of the abuse directly emailed to me and it has really deterred me from continuing any media.”
Sara Haghdoosti has similar experiences after appearing on Q&A, receiving comments like “who’s the pig in pink” and “that girl’s pretty but she’d be prettier if she kept her mouth shut”. Sara and Samah face the additional burden of racism, with Sara being sent messages to her personal Facebook account like “go back to where you came from” and “I hope you die, Muslim”.
Another young woman who works on development and poverty issues and would prefer not to be named, confesses: “This (online anonymous sexism and abuse) is exactly why I say no to media opportunities like Q&A, why I don’t feel comfortable writing personal-related posts on my blog (and then eventually took the site down altogether), why I switch back and forth between making my Twitter protected or public and why I have to tell people every week that no, I do not intend to go into politics. I know too many close female activist friends who get sickening, toxic, sexually violent hate attacks every single day – and I just don’t want to go there. It just doesn’t seem worth it, which is a really sad thing for me to say, because fighting for what’s right should always be worth it. I feel completely unequipped to step out into the public domain and take the inevitable Twitter snipes or vicious online comments as if they don’t matter.”
It’s clear that we must do something to equip young women from all sides of politics to be able to deal with the level of vitriol that’s now par for the course with being a spokesperson. But we must also remove the sexism we see in our mainstream (non-anonymous) media, and create an environment where female politicians – like our Prime Minister – can call out sexism from the media and third parties, and make it clear it’s not acceptable.
There is some good news from the US research on this second front. When women respond immediately and call out sexist behaviour for what it is, it appears they can recover from sexist language and attacks. Publicizing instances of sexism, holding the instigators accountable and calling it sexist goes against the conventional political wisdom of “ignore smear campaigns, you don’t want to give them air”. But the rise of online media means that we don’t live in conventional political times any more.
The American organisation “Name It. Change It” was set up to act as a watchdog for problematic coverage of women on all sides of politics. It aims “to end sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates by all members of the press—from bloggers to radio hosts to television pundits.” While at the conference, I took their pledge to do my part to prevent all instances of sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates, women leaders, and women of all walks of life.
So here goes: @demonspofforth – what you did that night was harassment. It was sexist. No woman should have to read vitriol like that online or anywhere else about herself.
And to all the women and men out there who want to see more women going into politics, let’s pledge now to call out sexism wherever we see it – online or offline, anonymous or not, whether it targets women of any political orientation. Maybe as a start, the Twitter feed of Q& A needs a movement of people letting problematic Tweeters know when their comments cross a line.
What do you think?