They may seem harmless enough but wolf whistles and gender jokes can be dangerous. By Laura Bates.

Laura Bates
The real cost of casual sexism

This month, Michael Roderick Robertson pleaded guilty to assaulting his pregnant partner. First, he threw rocks and bricks at her. Then, as she tried to flee, he chased her down, grabbed her by the hair, wrestled her to the ground and punched her repeatedly.

Just a few days earlier, in Gosford District Court, Peter Browning admitted to pouring petrol over his estranged wife’s head and threatening to set her alight.

Last month, Paul Mulvihill was jailed for the murder of his former lover, Rachelle Yeo, in what the judge described as a “sustained and vicious” attack.

Meanwhile, a man in Ashford was charged with assault causing grievous bodily harm with intent after allegedly fracturing bones in his female partner’s cheek.

These were not isolated incidents. They are part of a pattern that sees an estimated 132,500 women experience partner violence in Australia in a single year. The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012 Personal Safety Survey found an estimated 17 per cent of all women in Australia aged 18 years and over had experienced partner violence since age 15. The same survey found that an estimated 25 per cent of women aged 18 and over had experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15. That’s 1,479,900 female victims of partner violence. Female victims of emotional abuse number 2,142,600.

It is neither a coincidence nor an exaggeration that campaign groups are describing domestic violence in Australia as a “national emergency”.

Yet in spite of all the overwhelming evidence to the contrary; in spite of the fact that, statistically speaking, about one in five of the women you know has been the victim of intimate partner violence, we continue to think of these acts as things that happen somewhere else, to other people – the acts of evil strangers, not husbands, brothers and friends. Despite the fact that most assaults against women take place in their own homes, we insist on thinking of rapists and attackers as monsters in dark alleyways. And despite the epidemic of violence against women, we continue to brush aside the gender inequality and misogyny that lies at its very root as unimportant or benign.

The same wilful blindness that makes each of us so quick to imagine that we personally know very few victims of domestic abuse crosses over into our convenient dismissal of public, acceptable sexism. “It doesn’t matter, because he’s a good guy and I know he doesn’t mean it,” you might think. “It’s just a joke” … “It’s banter” … “He probably meant it as a compliment”, and so on.

There is a continuum of actions and discrimination of varying degrees of severity. On that sliding scale are sexist jokes and throwaway comments, sexual harassment in public spaces, gender imbalance in the media, discrimination against women in the workplace, intimate partner violence, sexual assault and rape. To view these as separate, distinct problems belies the fact that none of us lives in a bubble. To look at them in context, considering the ideas and normalised attitudes about women that they all feed into does not for one moment mean implying an oversimplistic direct link of causation. But it helps to understand how we have reached the point where we are suffering an international crisis of violence against women without anybody really acknowledging it as such. It helps in understanding how this atrocity has grown, unseen, and how victims have suffered in silence, and perpetrators acted with impunity, within the context of a society that constantly reminds us, in myriad “minor” ways, that women are inferior.

We accept sexism when it is voiced loudly and publicly by politicians or pundits, friends and colleagues. We stand by and watch a woman being vilified and lambasted for her sex alone, her childlessness extrapolated as a criticism of her political potential despite its utter irrelevance to her job. We don’t notice or protest when our views of women in politics and public life are subtly coloured by the sexist rhetoric in which the media couches its portrayal of them. Would The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have described a male chief of staff to Tony Abbott as it recently did Peta Credlin? “…183 centimetres tall, with long, dark hair, a taste for leopard print and a collection of elegant size-11 stilettos. The term ‘glamazon’ might have been invented for her.”

Probably not. But then, we’re so used to it that we don’t even notice anymore.

We don’t take measures to challenge unconscious bias in businesses and organisations despite the fact only 13.5 per cent of CEOs are women (only 4.6 per cent in financial and insurance services) and the pay gap has stood at 17 per cent for two decades. Even while women earn an average $262.50 less than men every week, we’d rather dismiss it as a “natural” phenomenon, assuming it was due to women’s lesser talent or drive or ambition, not a culture of sexism in business. We’d rather make sweeping statements about women “making different choices” and “focusing on family” than stop to question why having children should have any more of a negative impact on a woman’s career than a man’s, when properly implemented policies on shared parental leave and flexible working hours could go far towards closing the gap.

Whatever the form of gender imbalance, the way we excuse and preserve the status quo is remarkably similar – rooted in self-preservation, misconception and victim focus. “Women just aren’t that interested in business” … “Women just don’t make very good leaders” … “Why didn’t she just leave?” … “What did she do to provoke him?”

We don’t speak up when we hear a rape joke, because we’re among friends, and we can’t equate them with our mythologised and distant image of perpetrators. But a 2009 survey of 10,000 Australians showed that only 53 per cent considered “slapping or pushing a partner to cause harm or fear” to constitute “very serious” behaviour, and that 20 per cent believe domestic and sexual violence can be excused “if it results from people getting so angry that they temporarily lose control”. The same study (quoting research by Flood and Pease, 2006 and 2009) found a “powerful association between attitudes towards violence against women and attitudes towards gender … the more that people maintain egalitarian gender attitudes, the less acceptance of violence against women”.

Of course not one of these issues can be held directly responsible for the epidemic of violence against women, and solving one won’t magically exterminate the others. But in just the same way that we might consider a culture of pervasive low-level racism to contribute to a prevalence of racially motivated violence, so in order to truly tackle violence against women head on we must start taking sexist behaviours seriously.

We don’t challenge the minor examples of sexism we see all around us, every day, because the idea of them having any kind of significance doesn’t fit with our belief that violence against women is a distant, monstrous, alien phenomenon. But by letting casual sexism slide, we are all complicit in the culture that normalises and ingrains the idea of women as second-class citizens, the idea that they are less deserving of respect and autonomy, the same ideas that make it that bit easier for perpetrators of violence to excuse their own actions and that bit harder for victims to come forward.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "The real cost of casual sexism".

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Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project and author of Everyday Sexism.