For as long as we continue to laugh off sexist jokes, violence against women in our society will continue. I am not for a second saying that all people who make sexist jokes are violent, but a culture that tolerates one, tolerates the other – and I think we all need to think about that before we say that Eddie McGuire’s recent comments were ‘just a bit of a laugh’.
Every time another one of these examples is reported in the media and senior political and business leaders weigh in to defend the ‘joke’, we lose more ground with regards to gender equality. Every time someone has their sexist views reinforced, they become slightly more entitled to disrespect women. Every time a woman is shamed for not being able to ‘take a joke’ we push the culture of sexism and harassment that exists in Australian society further into the shadows and decrease the chance that people feel comfortable reporting sexism and harassment.
Consider a scenario that we have all been part of – the sexist joke being made at work or at a bar. Some people inevitably find it funny, some laugh along to be ‘part of the group’ and some shift uncomfortably in their seats. Rarely does anyone speak up and challenge the person who made the comment – for fear of being confrontational, or seen as someone who ‘can’t take a joke’.
For me, one of the most powerful moments in understanding how violence against women is perpetuated, was being introduced to what is known as the ‘continuum of violence’. This concept is based on the idea that violence supporting attitudes exist in our society and if they are not challenged, they can escalate. The continuum starts with gender based jokes, street hassling and general incourtesy, it transitions to voyeurism and commentary being made about women, at the next level, there are inappropriate calls and text messages, leading to wider issues of sexual harassment, touching and in some cases sexual assault, rape and murder.
When we allow sexist jokes in our workplaces, the vast majority of people hear a joke and think nothing further about it. But sometimes, someone hears their view of women, their right to power and control reinforced by society. When we overhear lewd comments being made about a woman at work or on Friday night drinks, most people feel uncomfortable but figure that as long as they didn’t make the comment, they aren’t condoning it. But sometimes, someone hears their view of women reinforced. Sometimes a woman who has experienced violence, hears her own view that it was somehow her fault, reinforced. When we hear that a colleague received an inappropriate text message and advise her or him to ignore it, or shake it off – most of us think that not engaging in the behaviour is the best outcome. But for the harasser, their behaviour, power and entitlement is reinforced. Perpetrators of low level sexist behaviour are not all violent, but tolerating this behaviour allows the more serious crimes to be committed, on our watch.
Perhaps if we thought about what we could be tolerating when we tolerate a sexist joke, we would be more likely to intervene?
So what would it take to drive change? In the case of Eddie McGuire, I would suggest that the various sponsors of Collingwood consider whether they want their brands associated with someone who believes that drowning a woman is funny. For the AFL, I would suggest that consideration be given to whether their commitment to gender equality is reflected in the leadership of a club that thinks it is funny to joke about attacking a woman when you don’t share her views.
As individuals, we need to accept responsibility for challenging sexist comments and attitudes, even when they weren’t directed at us. Imagine if one of the men who McGuire had been speaking to had said ‘sorry, what do you mean by that?’ instead of fuelling the comment. Imagine if one of the bystanders had said ‘actually I don’t find comments about drowning women funny, given we live in a society where one woman a week is killed by a partner or former partner’. Either of these bystander interventions would have dramatically shortened the conversation and hopefully caused McGuire to reflect on his comments.
In society more broadly, I think it is time we had a conversation about the ‘just joking’ defence. In my view, needing to say ‘I was just joking’ is a symbol of knowing that you have offended someone. Trying to make someone feel like they can’t take a joke further undermines them and reduces their power. Progressive companies who are genuine about stamping out workplace sexism are taking on no ‘just joking’ policies. They continue to support employees to have a laugh at work, but have recognised that if you need to say ‘just joking’ then the comment shouldn’t have been made. The existence of the policy starts conversations about the power of jokes, which make people more aware of the impact of this type of behaviour.
Not all disrespect of women ends in violence, but all violence against women starts with disrespect. It is time to stop hiding behind the ‘just joking’ defence and start taking these issues much more seriously.