In 2018, the Federal Government, Liberal-National Party Coalition, granted nearly $1 million to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) to explore and investigate the incidence and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace in this country. Having experienced harassment, assault and discrimination based on my sexuality and gender in numerous workplaces both in Australia and the UK, I posit that the AHRC and the government are sadly and reprehensibly ignorant about what the real and significant issue is.
Hearing comments about what “great tits” I had when I first started work as a cadet journalist in 1968 aged 18 at the Sun News-Pictorial in Melburbia, I accepted the compliments without caring about them. My work and my career were of far greater import than how sexually attractive and/or appealing I was as determined by my tit size. Never deliberating about these comments except as misguided and misplaced sexual flattery, my attention was on work first and foremost. That’s not to say I didn’t also lust after some of my male colleagues, but I couldn’t see how big their dicks were so I shut up! Sexual banter was their domain, though I flirted sometimes over a drink but specific sex talk was off the page.
Fast forward ten years to the UK where I copped heaps of harassment with references, spoken and unspoken, about my sexuality-was I a lesbian? including several invitations for sex from married, male colleagues and of course, there was my male editor who levelled “Don’t wear your clitoris on your sleeve!” at Thames TV.
The suggestions for sex continued, sometimes I accepted and most times I didn’t, but new laws in the 80s in Australia when I returned here proscribed the ease with which men had hitherto made lascivious comments to fellow female employees and as I aged, the comments expectedly diminished.
Sexual harassment, albeit comments, looks and jokes, was simply part of the ploys of the media workplace in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and while it sometimes angered and annoyed me, I felt sorry for the men who seemingly “got off” on their own comments. Pity them I postulated, never feeling shame, guilt, or sorrow for their stupidity. More fool them for thinking I cared what they thought of my sexuality; my work still taking precedence over all else.
When it was obvious many thought I was a lesbian at Thames TV when I was 28 as I received two lighters as a farewell present; one a white, cheap, flick kind encased in a beige leather pouch with a heavy, metal clip for a jean’s attachment and another, a slimline, elegant, more expensive gas variety, I must say that initially I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at their insanity. If they only knew me I reflected, dismissing any more thoughts about it. Suffice to say I used the cheap white one, discarding the pouch and the metal attachment and the elegant other one never worked anyway; keeping it as a memento in ironic mirth until I tossed it into the rubbish 12 years ago.
As for sexual assault, I was physically pressured, or at least pressure was applied, to coerce me into continuing a sexual dalliance that I no longer consented to. Against my will, one could call it rape, certainly attempted rape, except with unknown strength I managed to extract myself from the man’s clutches as he was holding me down on the shoulders with me on top of him, escaping outside where he pursued me and banged my head against a brick wall. I have written about this in my book so I won’t repeat it here but suffice to say it certainly was assault. The man was my boyfriend at the time, and on another occasion, after showering me with freezing cold water and calling me a fucking whore because of my infidelity he then threw me on the bed to fuck me. I didn’t fight it so it could be argued I consented but it was assault, if not rape, as I define it. In my blog piece, Call It Rape, I also acquiesced to sex with a stranger I picked up in a bar (or picked me up) because I was somewhat frightened that if I didn’t, something really serious and deadly could happen. Not exactly assault as he only fucked me and I didn’t resist, but he had twisted my arm behind my back before the sex which is clearly assault.
Having thus experienced heaps of sexual harassment and some sexual assault, how did I feel about myself? Were these experiences harmful and destructive and did they make me feel uncomfortable and/or unsafe in the workplaces as I also worked with my boyfriend at the same newspaper? The resounding answer is NO! Moreover, there were several occasions when I refused men’s offers for sex and they all accepted it without one ever trying to coerce me when I refused to participate. It was ironically a boyfriend, albeit only for three months, who was THE problem. What the men may have thought of me I don’t know, but at least none of them behaved disrespectfully, at least not to my face. I have had great difficulty understanding the women of the #MeToo movement and many others who’ve “spoken out” about feeling ashamed, guilty, pained, tearful and traumatised by sexual harassment; seemingly blaming themselves for the man’s aberrant comments and behaviours. For me, it was always very clear that some men who did speak lecherously and lustfully to me couldn’t see themselves as the fools I saw them for. I can only ponder whether those #MeToo women have some sense of massive insecurity and no strength of self and a problem with sex per se that engenders these pathetic cries against men. If this sexual harassment is mostly by word only, or even a tit grope or hand up a thigh, then why can’t women recognise the stupidity of their salacious spin.
Sexual assault is another issue entirely and these men certainly have a far more serious problem within themselves. It is certainly not the women’s shame but the men’s. They need help if they have to force a woman against her will to have intercourse, oral sex or any participation in a sexual liaison if she doesn’t want it. Why are women so quick to blame themselves and feel ashamed? I don’t get it.
Maybe the answers, or clues to what the answers might be, were detailed in an article in The Weekend Australian magazine, 4/5 August, 2018, by writer Nikki Gemmell who wrote that Public Health England research showed 42 per cent of British women suffer from a “lack of sexual enjoyment”. Indeed, she continued “often men don’t know by instinct how to give a woman sexual pleasure-they have to be taught, guided. But women themselves have to learn what’s best for them”. She suggested wisely: “It can take years to discern. Wee’re complex, gloriously so, and what’s stimulating for one may not be for another. We need to articulate our wants. Sex is a process of distilling, discovering with experience what works and what doesn’t and having the courage to say: ‘No, actually, not there but perhaps here.” So if men and women are both having to learn about sex it is not at all surprising that “Only a quarter of women orgasm from penetrative sex. I’m not one of them, yet it took me until my thirties to understand I wasn’t abnormal,” Gemmell admitted.
So possibly women and men too have a problem with sex per se and that’s the big issue demanding attention, focus and education. It is interesting that while sex ed has been part of curricula around the western world for more than three decades at least, men and women’s enjoyment of sex, the respect towards each other, the knowledge and the “courage” to articulate one’s wants and needs, doesn’t seem to have changed much over that time. It still seems a fraught arena.
All of this notwithstanding, for me the pertinent perspective during more than 40 years in the media workplace was sexism- discrimination against me because of my gender, assumed sexuality and “freakish” lifestyle because I lived alone, had no partner, was childless and unbelievably to them, was reasonably happy about it all. Clearly, I was in denial, a misguided misfit, unconsciously jealous of other women who apparently had IT all- the man, the career, the power, sex and love, too. Obviously there was something profoundly “wrong” with me.
At 30, I penned that sexism was “fascism”, a means of control for women like me (though I knew no other female espousing my mantra) who bucked the behavioural norms to pursue my own path, only to find it blocked by men, and some of their supportive women, subverting my aspirations and what I had worked so hard all my life to achieve. I still believe sexism is akin to control whether one call its fascism or communism; it is a totalitarian disposition that dictates particular traits, qualities and personalities for promotion, money and power in the workplace. Of course, an employer can hire who he or she wants in their workplace, and as one woman international tech company CEO, Rebecca Carsons, acknowledged in an article recently: “women are harder on women”. My experience delineates no gender bias; it’s irrelevant when the focus is discrimination.
Thus, the AHRC as far as I’m concerned needs to examine sexism in the workplace against women who do not apparently conform to stereotypes perpetrated by both men and women. Sexual harassment is tangential to the significant issue; a manifestation maybe that something far more sinister actually exists in the environs. Having a hand creeping up your thigh or a few fingers massaging your breast is unimportant if you’re denied the promotion and pay you deserve. It’s a cop out from the central core of exploring and understanding why more women are seemingly unsuccessful in securing the positions and pay packets they not only seek, but should be the due reward for hard work, productivity, resilience and clever competence. Sadly, they are not and I can only wait to see if the AHRC even alludes to the problem of sexism as I’ve clarified it instead of fixating on harassment. The two are not inextricably linked and assault isn’t either, but I believe sexism is alive, well and flourishing in our midst; also complex, but demanding understanding and of course, redress!