Lost in the past

The right in this country is living inside a poisonous cartoon. So desperate are they to hold a contrary view, they can look at a report into widespread abuse on university campuses and instead of wronged survivors see only ideological enemies.

So desperate are they to defend a sugar-soaped vision of the past that they can read figures showing more than half of university students have been victims of sexual harassment and that 1.6 per cent of them have been sexually assaulted and say: “A good old wolf-whistle? Gosh, I remember the days when that was a compliment. Where have they gone?”

That response is from Brownyn Bishop, a former speaker of the house of representatives. Her callousness is matched by other conservative columnists, whose thinking has become so anxious and contorted that victims of harassment become figures of ridicule. At this point, it is hard to know what the right is clinging to.

As ever, it is some vague notion of the good old days. It is a place where a person abused on campus is a threat to power. Her place, the one she’s resisting, is good-humoured silence.

Reading the Human Rights Commission’s report, built from more than 30,000 responses, Bettina Arndt sees an “extraordinary attempt to cook these figures”.

She says: “We are not talking about people leaping out of the bushes to rape people. We are talking about sexual consent issues.”

Arndt seems oblivious to the fact that these two things are the same. She dismisses the findings and says they fail to produce evidence of widespread harassment.

“We have a group of feminist extremists who don’t like the fact that juries won’t convict young men in these cases and are determined to try and get the universities to punish these blokes,” she says.

“If you are talking about being stared at in a way you don’t like, [the figures] are not surprising. They failed dismally to produce any evidence of a rape culture on campus.”

And, in a column for The Australian, Arndt writes: “The problem is, they are not rape ‘victims’. They are accusers whose stories have never been tested in court – mainly date-rape cases, he-said, she-said stories revolving around sexual consent.”

It’s the same logic that sees Miranda Devine look at the handling of abusive behaviour at a residential college and write a column headlined, “Feminism’s latest victim: St Paul’s College”. She sees a note to college boys about rooting, harpooning and slaying women as “a frank and useful warning for any young woman considering an amorous assignation at the college”.

She writes of “the emasculating $1 million feminist re-education program designed by former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Liz Broderick that has wreaked such havoc on other former traditionally male bastions of the army, the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police”.

She worships the college as a place where men become manly. She sees this as a necessary path to chivalry in a sexually amoral culture driven by the “toxic ideologies of victim feminism and identity politics”.

The commission’s survey is not perfect. No survey is. But it shows a horrifying truth about sexual mistreatment on university campuses. It shows a culture that must be reckoned with and repaired.

The desire to pretend away these findings – to wolf-whistle them back into the shadows – is a perverse one. It makes no sense. It speaks of a political movement so busy looking for a way back into the past that it has led itself into a kind of moral hole – one where a young woman abused by her professor or molested by another student is the person who must be beat back ceaselessly from the present.


National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Lost in the past". Subscribe here.