Opinion

Sexual harassment in politics

A number of years ago, an elderly man, smallish and neatly dressed, wearing a Nehru cap and walking with a cane, approached me in a city street. Thinking he was going to ask for directions, I stopped.

He leaned forward, but instead of speaking he grabbed me and forced his tongue into my mouth.

As I recoiled, he just grinned and hobbled off. He didn’t say a word. 

I thought about going after him, shouting and calling the police. But what would I say? That this old man I didn’t know just forced himself on me… with a kiss? This frail-looking, pathetic stranger? This guy?

I could imagine how it would be. So I didn’t do anything. That’s how it goes.

In the years since then, the encounter with the old man has become a faded dinner-party story. But I haven’t forgotten the feeling that accompanied that aggressive, unwanted intimacy. It wasn’t sexy or fun. It was gross.

A politician did something similar to me when I was seated beside him at a late-night party in Parliament House about 15 years ago. He didn’t care that it was in front of other people. It was rough and, again, it was gross. He – and others – thought it was hilarious.

This week, United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tried to tell the world that his comments in the back of a bus to the now former entertainment television host Billy Bush were just harmless “locker-room talk”. Trump had boasted about how he treated women, mocked their bodies, explained how he would “grab them by the pussy”. It was just boys’ talk.

But to the oh-so-many women who’ve had that sort of gropey, gross thing happen to them time after time, year after year – or other things, much worse – it’s more than that. And let’s not pretend that Trump is some kind of rarity. That attitude and that kind of predatory behaviour is extremely – extremely – common.

As Trump proves with his own words, it’s mostly not the stranger in the street who makes these unwanted approaches. Trump knew the women he was talking about. He admitted to using his fame, his position, to get what he wanted with impunity. And as he also illustrated so vividly, it’s not always just a kiss, either. 

At the age of 21, I went to see a neurologist for a brain exam. He ordered me to remove my shirt and bra and stand in front of him, across the room, naked from the waist up. He didn’t explain why it was necessary. He was a doctor, so I did as he instructed. He didn’t touch me. He just sat there and looked.

It felt humiliating at the time and I didn’t tell anyone. Years later, when I heard in passing that the neurologist had died, I thought about that incident, dragged it back from the dark place where I’d parked it, and realised how deeply inappropriate it was. 

I was about the same age and working in the press gallery in Old Parliament House when an MP with an octopus reputation popped his head around the door of our tiny office and noted the new recruit. I’d pushed back my chair and had my feet against the desktop, with legs outstretched. It was the only way to make enough room to properly read a broadsheet newspaper.

Remarking that he had not met the newest member of the bureau, the MP quickly stepped into the minuscule room and started running his hand up my stockings, with a sleazy “And who have we here?” 

I froze. In a flash, his hand had reached the hem of my skirt and was not slowing. My fiery Irish-Australian bureau chief, the very fine journalist Paul Malone, flew around the filing cabinet from where he’d been sitting out of view. “Don’t you touch my staff!” he barked, as the MP backed away out the door. Needless to say, I was grateful for the intervention.

Then there was the cafe owner who thought it was fun one day to give me a bear hug that pressed my full body against his and pinned my arms to my sides so he could slide his hands around my breasts from the back, for a grope where nobody could see.  

When I was a young press gallery journalist, many of my female peers had these kinds of stories. They all involved men who were older and most were in positions of some sort of authority. Some were politicians. Some were media executives. Some were people we’d been sent to interview.

A few colleagues and I drafted a private blacklist of politicians with lecherous reputations and worded up new female journalists in the press gallery about which ones to avoid where possible. At one stage, we lodged a quiet complaint with senior colleagues of an MP who had taken to prowling the press gallery corridor late at night, dropping in on young women working alone. He stopped.

Another MP joined our unofficial list after I went with two male colleagues to a party in his parliamentary office. I was in my early 20s and he took me into another room to show me a map of his electorate – I kid you not – and then asked me what I thought about adultery.

“What do you mean?” I asked, confused by how his electoral boundaries related to the ones he was suddenly crossing.

“I mean, with me. Now.” He didn’t raise so much as a bead of uncomfortable sweat.

“But you’re married,” I stuttered back, gobsmacked.

Not missing a beat, he said: “Yes, darling. That’s why they call it adultery.”

At another party in Parliament House – one of the infamous corridor parties in the ministerial wing that are no more – a much more senior government MP asked, with one of his colleagues guffawing beside him, if I would like to join him on a beach holiday. 

“You could work on your tan,” he told me.

When I rebuffed his invitation, his tone changed. “Okay, well you could work on your figure then.”

Another time, I had a work lunch at a nice restaurant with a senator notorious for spending up big on journalists’ expense accounts, something I only discovered after he nominated the location and then ordered a horrendously priced bottle of wine while I was in the bathroom. Afterwards, he insisted I accept a lift back to Parliament House in his Commonwealth car. 

On the way, he asked if I wanted to “disappear for the afternoon”. I said, firmly, no. He told me to let him know if I ever changed my mind. I was both grateful for the presence of the Commonwealth car driver and appalled that he had heard the exchange.

There were countless other times that another senior MP from a different party would drop in to the office and run his hands down the neck and shoulders of the nearest female reporter seated at her desk, delivering a free, uninvited massage. 

In all of these cases, the expectation was that young, female journalists would tolerate this behaviour as a condition of being able to speak to these people. 

These things mostly happened when we were young and junior. Our jobs required us to get to know politicians. A few of them took liberties with that.

To be clear, it was only a handful of our elected representatives who did these things, under cover of a laugh.  

But it wasn’t only politicians. Sometimes it was colleagues. Once or twice, it was friends.

One evening I was having an after-work drink with a group of slightly older male journalist mates in what was then the Non-Members’ Bar at Parliament House. One of them reached across and, in full view of the others, grabbed both of my breasts and squeezed them hard, to bellowing laughter from the group.

Frozen with humiliation for a second or two, something in me snapped. In that strange moment of rage, I did something I had never done before, or since.

Stepping forward and leaning in close, I grabbed his testicles and yanked, whispering in his ear: “Don’t ever do that to me again.” 

I had shielded my grip from the eyes of the others, extending him a small courtesy with my return attack that he’d not shown with his. 

But his high-pitched squeal – and he was a big bloke – made it very clear what I had done. He nodded silently in a “message received” kind of way. I left immediately so I didn’t hear the conversation that followed. But he has never forgotten it. And he never did it again.

Not all that long ago, during a social gathering at which several Catholic priests were present, one of them stood too close, threw an unwanted arm around my shoulders, and squeezed so that he could see down my top. Others saw it happen. I was mortified. Nobody said anything. Who wants a scene, right? He was a priest

That’s how predators get away with it. 

Women don’t generally talk about these incidents publicly because it simply attracts personal abuse or is interpreted as an invitation to be subjected to an assessment of our attractiveness.

This week, when a colleague copied to her private Facebook feed a particularly putrid Twitter message denigrating both her work and her appearance, a couple of apparently well-meaning blokes responded by telling her not to worry because she was really very attractive. 

They completely missed the point. The original message – and her reason for re-posting it – was not about attractiveness. It was about power.

In case it needs to be spelled out, objecting to this sort of thing doesn’t mean we’re man-haters. 

But the point should be made occasionally that there’s a big difference between mutual attraction and these all-too-frequent incidents of unrequested, unwanted attention by force. The latter is, actually, illegal.

So when Donald Trump says it was just locker-room talk, all that stuff he was saying down the back of the bus, just some blokes getting together sharing a joke – he’s right. 

It was blokes getting together sharing a joke. But they were doing it at women’s expense. They were doing it at the expense of a woman they were both about to work with on camera, a woman unaware of what they had been saying. It was also a clear indication of what Trump thinks and probably what else he does.

The kinds of things Trump was alluding to happen to all kinds of women all the time. Maybe some of them think it’s funny. A lot don’t.

The men I’ve described are ordinary men. That’s the problem – that it is and has been ordinary to behave this way. Women don’t talk about it for lots of reasons. They fear it would damage their careers, their social lives, their relationships. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. It happens all the time, not only in Hollywood but in our bars and cafes, our homes and even – in the past at least – in the very halls of our parliament.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 15, 2016 as "The boys on the bus". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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