Why victims of sexual harassment in politics still need to suffer in silence

Why victims of sexual harassment in politics are still forced to suffer in silence

We published this essay by Dhanya Mani on Women’s Agenda about sexual harassment in the Liberal party in March this year. On Wednesday, Dhanya and another former Liberal staffer Chelsey Potter, spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald & The Age in detail about alleged sexual assaults they experienced while working for senior politicians. They have highlighted the party’s failure to adequately address their complaints. 

To start, I want to tell you why I am writing this essay.

When I worked at NSW Parliament, I was the victim of sexual harassment. The perpetrator worked for a very senior Parliamentarian. I was a naïve twenty-one year old.

There were three main incidents over the course of two months. I’d made clear to the perpetrator that I did not want more than a friendship with him. He indecently assaulted me in the last and worst incident. I told him to stop three times. He did not listen, and something inside me snapped. I entered a state of temporary paralysis where I could not move or speak anymore.

Afterwards, he kept messaging me, and insisted I was responsible for what had happened until I sent him a message telling him how he had ignored me when I told him no. He told me he was devastated – not because of what he had done to me, but because he might lose someone he was interested in.

I’ve been on a journey since then to heal, and to understand how and why this happened to me. A University counsellor I saw at the time because I had been left anxious and unable to study explained it to me in a way that has stayed with me.

He said what happened followed the pattern of abuse: the perpetrator was trying to coerce me so I would enter into a relationship with him, rather than coercing me to stay with him.

He explained that the reason that each act of aggression was followed by a heartfelt outpouring of apparent care and concern for me, was so that the perpetrator could maintain the power he held over me.

The consequence of my belief in good faith between the incidents, that he would respect my boundaries, meant that he would still get to be a part of my life.

The #MeToo movement, and NOW Australia – its Australian iteration – have done a great deal of good work to shine a light on the power imbalances that cause sexual harassment in workplaces.

They have given many women a voice, and there has been an undeniable positive shift in the way that sexual harassment is reported on, and how it is understood by the public.

However, for this very reason, it has been especially surprising and disappointing to witness the failure of politicians, political parties and the mainstream media to unpack, explain, and propose ways we can begin to correct the unique way that power imbalances cause and perpetuate sexual harassment in political contexts.

Regardless of whether it is a scandal in Labor, The Greens or the Nationals, so far the crux of the reporting on stories of sexual harassment in politics is twofold.

First, how a male perpetrator’s political career might be, or was being impacted. Second, and in turn, how that would impact factions and/or the distribution of power and influence within political parties.

The victims were largely erased from their own stories, but for a passing sentence or two that noted their story set a chain of political events in motion. The failure to give women in politics who have been victims of harassment a voice is telling, and has affected me personally. In my belief, this erasure reflects the amplified nature of the power imbalance that exists in cases of workplace sexual harassment generally. That is because this is the only recent category of case where victims have played such a minimal role in explaining why their harassment matters.

I want to explain, in detail, from a victim’s perspective, the unique ways in which women in politics are silenced, and why coverage of sexual harassment in politics is  making the problem worse. 

The sexual culture in politics operates to hold women responsible for, and negatively judge them for any and all sexual encounters

I joined the Liberal Party when I was 17. When I began attending social events, I was given a list of the men I should avoid due to their lengthy records of sexual harassment. When I asked whether these serial offenders had ever been reprimanded, I was laughed off. I was told these men were ‘good guys’ but this was ‘just how they were’ and so I should be aware.

I’ve seen countless women being given a similar list to protect themselves in the eight years since I’ve joined. This is the only ‘mechanism’ in place to protect women. A warning which places the onus on the woman to stop herself from being harassed.

This attitude reflects and perpetuates a culture in politics where men and women alike focus almost solely on the actions of women in sexual situations, and what the situation says about her.

That focus unfolds in a context where members of political parties are obsessed with rumours about the romantic lives of their peers. The focus of the gossip is always near the woman’s motives in sleeping with a man, what the encounter says about her values, and how the encounter reflects on her political standing and reputation.

Given that positions of power in political parties are presently overwhelmingly dominated by men, rumours quickly turn into defamatory social judgments. Men and women alike will frequently conclude that a woman slept with a man so that she would be promoted politically. From there, they’ll usually conclude one or all of the below:

  1. She was drunk and desperate. ‘She made a fool of herself in sleeping with the man’;
  2. She’s slept with a man before. ‘She is easy and will sleep with any man who will have her’
  3. How dare she try to get ahead by sleeping her way to the top. ‘She doesn’t deserve to be promoted.’

The men are invariably congratulated for their sexual conquests, as it indicates they are attractive, charismatic and socially successful. If what happens turns into a relationship, the woman is always seen as the “girlfriend/partner/wife of” the man she is with.

This gossip has been constant in the eight years I’ve been involved in a political party and has meant women are always on the backfoot trying to uphold or defend their reputations. It means women are discouraged from ever having a romantic interaction with a man if she wants to be taken seriously, or achieve a position of political influence one day. If she sleeps with or dates a man, she is told to keep it a secret because she – not he – will suffer if it gets out.

There is simply no importance placed on female empowerment, consent, or female agency (beyond her alleged self-interest) in discussions about sex.

Why sexual harassment happens so frequently in politics, and why the stories we have heard about are the tip of the iceberg

Sexual harassment is about power and it is rare that a female victim of sexual harassment in politics has power.

Positions of political power and influence are dominated by men, and because promotion is dependent on building relationships, women must always focus on building and maintaining positive relationships with those men.

Women are wary of making complaints about a man, any man, because invariably she will need to rely upon the political capital she has built in her relationships with men (either in her faction, or in the Party at large) in order to have her grievance registered as a problem.

There is also a cultural limit that is imposed on the number of complaints a woman can make before she is presumed to have a victim complex, or to be a woman in denial who  was ‘asking for it.’

In conversations I have had with male mentors about the harassment I experienced, the undertone has always been that I must justify why I am not a troublemaker.

Men have often commented ‘I believe you because I know you’re a fighter and you’re not too sensitive. Something really bad must have happened’, ‘I know lots of women who raise these issues all the time. It’s hard to take them seriously when they complain about everything. But I know you’re not like that’, or ‘It’s frustrating how many women come to me with these complaints when I think they’ve flirted with me in the past/I’ve seen them flirt with other men’, or ‘Haha she says she was sexually harassed, but I can’t believe it, I would never flirt with her.’

These types of responses are so common, I often feel ashamed as I’ll catch myself justifying to mentors that they know I rarely complain about anyone or anything when I choose to raise a grievance.

The only safe quota of complaints for a woman in politics is zero. Those who I’ve told about the harassment consider me to be taking a risk in speaking about it to anyone at all. I’ve never heard of a woman making more than one complaint that has not adversely impacted her in some way.

It has gotten to a point where I am aware that for myself, and many other women, we canvass the surreptitious ways to convey to the man he should stop without hurting his ego.

This has resulted in a culture in which the majority of instances of sexual harassment in my Party are unreported. If it is talked about the identity of the perpetrator remains secret… and there is nobody who is trying to change this, or trying to collect the data to prove it. Sexual harassment is too risky to publicly touch.

It means victims rarely know the full details of what has happened to other victims, or who the worst perpetrators are.

In a culture where women are expected to protect themselves, they suffer with the handicap of not knowing who they most need to protect themselves from. They are also often unable to provide meaningful support to one another, as there is no safe place for women to openly share their experiences with one another.

Instead, women internalise that any and all experiences of a harassment are a dangerous burden they must bear alone and in silence, unless they want to jeopardise their reputation, and expend their political capital pointlessly when, even if they do report what happened to them informally, it is far more likely than not that nothing will happen. It has reached a point where I’ve seen young women trying to talk other women out of openly discussing their experiences of harassment because it will only be looked upon negatively.

They think that this is wise advice because there are no likely positive outcomes. While I strongly disagree with women dissuading other women from coming forward as it means the culture that enables harassment will not change, unfortunately, it is true that there are no positive outcomes.

You have no formal protections if you are harassed whilst you are a political staffer, or member of the NSW Liberal Party

Political staffers are not employees of the NSW public service. They are employed by the office of the Parliamentarian who has hired them. Their employment is governed by the Members of Parliament Staff Act 2013 (NSW) (‘MOPS Act’). That Act excludes all industrial relations legislation that would otherwise apply. This means that they are unable to complain to the Industrial Relations Commission, like other public service employees.

The only protections that apply to political staffers are spelled out in the Members’ Staff Conditions of Employment Declaration. The presiding officers, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly and the President of the Legislative Council, sign off on that Declaration. The Declaration itself makes no mention of sexual harassment. The only indirect reference to sexual harassment is in one sentence that states that staff must abide by the members’ staff Code of Conduct.

Whilst that code of conduct states that staff should not harass others on the basis of their sex, there are some significant problems.

First, that there is no definition of what sexual harassment constitutes.

Second, to the extent it could be said that the Declaration prohibits sexual harassment, the grievance-handling process in the Declaration is paltry at best. It states that a Department Head may ‘attempt’ to resolve the conflict. If they fail, it can be referred to another Department Head. But given these Departmental figures ultimately have no authority over Parliamentarians or their staff, the best that they can do according to the Declaration is a non-binding mediation. There are no remedies provided or outlined if Departmental heads fail. Basically, then, what it comes down to is that the Parliamentarian has all the power. They have the legal right to terminate a staff member’s employment at any time.

The Liberal Party does not mention sexual harassment in its Constitution, so if either a political staffer who is also a Party member has been harassed, or if the harassment has occurred between members, victims have no clear rights or remedies if they advise the Party that they have been sexually harassed.

If you choose to report your harassment to the Party anyway, those with the final say about what will happen are the members of state executive – a highly factionalised body. If the recent vote to waive Craig Kelly’s preselection tells us anything, it’s that members of executive will always put the interests of their faction first, and that influential men tend to be protected.

Although it is true that if a complaint is made during an election period, the State Director has the discretion to temporarily suspend a member – this protection is limited to those periods, and is designed to protect the Party’s reputation in the lead-up to an election, rather than to prioritise the interests of women.

That is reflected through the only available penalty the State Director can impose – a temporary suspension – as opposed to a diverse range of flexible penalties that are designed to safeguard victims and women broadly.

How and why the Young Liberal movement is enabling an endemic culture of sexism and sexual harassment that is antithetical to women being embraced, respected, and promoted as leaders

If sexual harassment occurs in the context of the Young Liberal movement, the only ‘mechanism’ to make a complaint about sexual harassment or bullying is to make an informal and confidential complaint to the President of the Young Liberals, Harry Stutchbury.

There is no clear process or guaranteed outcome. However, there are no clear ways to protect the victim from further harassment, nor are there any consequences beyond a conversation for this misconduct. This achieves little to nothing because perpetrators realise that there are essentially no consequences for their behaviour. It is also problematic that this informal mechanism shuts out the victim’s voice, and involves two men having a conversation to decide how women should be treated. This mechanism perpetuates a social structure where men only take other men seriously, and are prone to dismiss women.

Further, any action taken is contingent on the willingness of the Young Liberal President. That is not good enough. At one point false rumours were being spread about my romantic life at one point, I believe to paint me as so untrustworthy that I should be ‘rolled’ from any positions I might otherwise have been considered for in my local branch.

I complained but it took months before any action was taken, and by then it was too late. The damage to my reputation and mental health had already been done. I have heard about countless incidents like mine.

The responsibility of a Young Liberal President is to to watch out for, police, and deter problematic behaviour as it happens. But, where the possibility that their political relationship with the man responsible might be harmed, they are reluctant to act. Often it means they don’t act or they act too late, or their action is too passive to rectify the reputational damage the woman has suffered, or prevent repeat occurrences.

The recent ‘Tinder scandal’ involving the Young Liberals epitomises these cultural issues.

One past president has told me that he was not equipped or trained to handle the volume of complaints he received.

In his speech prior to his election as the Young Liberal President, Harry Stutchbury spoke of a number of goals to promote and advance the cause of women in the Young Liberal movement. Whilst the number of active women has increased, and this should be applauded, unfortunately the culture of the movement when it comes to advancement and power remains toxic for women.

There is rarely more than one or two young women on the executive of the Young Liberals, and one of those positions is reserved for women. I do not recall a time when women comprised close to, or the majority of the executive. The higher number of women actively involved only makes that reality less forgivable.

It causes women to turn against one another as they internalise the belief (founded on reality, and a lack of support from men) that the only position that they can attain is that one position reserved for a woman. There have been no clear pathways or processes put into place to ensure that more than one senior leadership position in the Young Liberal movement is occupied by a woman. The present culture of the Young Liberal movement is one that most concede is blokey, masculine and elitist.

Many women I know, and men too find the culture exclusionary and impenetrable. Many have said they find it puts them off becoming active members. If I wanted to succeed in being promoted to a position on the Young Liberal executive, I have been told I need to try to behave like these men so that they respect me as “one of the boys”. If I don’t, I won’t be “relatable”.

When I say that would not be believable for me to try and act like someone I’m not, they shrug their shoulders.

I have attempted to work hard within the movement, and expressed my desire to hold a senior position on the Young Liberal executive due to my passion for improving the Party. This resulted in rumours that I was too ‘aggressive’ or ‘bitchy’. This was because I overtly requested that others support me as opposed to male candidates for the same position.

One of the reasons I lobbied for support was a critique that men in the movement were not doing enough to improve the culture for female members. Then the labels I attracted were ‘negative’, ‘presumptuous’, and ‘disloyal’.

I felt I was in an impossible, lose-lose position. I believed I was being silenced from talking about issues I believed needed to be fixed as I was told not to vocalise my dissatisfaction and concerns with a political culture I believed was sexist, as it would come at the expense of my reputation.

I have heard many women tell similar stories when they recount efforts to be ambitious. I have become less active within the movement, and decided I will likely not run for any senior positions within the Young Liberals as a result. I do not believe that this culture is primed to support ambitious women to succeed.

Those who succeed are men who mirror the blokey social culture and they have no incentive to try to change it because it makes it easier for them to get ahead. No efforts have been made to change that culture. It is not surprising to me, or to many women, that the last female Young Liberal President was Natasha Maclaren-Jones in 2005.

There is no push for the next President, or more than one Vice-President to be a woman. I am unfortunately unable to say as I wish to that my generation is more likely to be responsible for active efforts and reforms to protect and advance women. It is clearly doing worse, as women were more frequently Presidents between 1985-2005, than before or since. Indeed, there has been discussion from time to time that the one Young Liberal Vice-President position reserved for a woman should no longer be reserved for a woman.

Victims of sexual harassment and sexism in politics are some of the most disempowered in NSW. If the harasser is the victim’s employer, there is no remedy. There is no clear way for a Parliamentarian to discipline another Parliamentarian (or staff of another Parliamentarian) who harasses a member of their staff, in the frankly rare case that they choose to burn their political capital with that Parliamentarian by so doing.

If the harassment occurs between members of a Parliamentarian’s staff, the risks are great in choosing to speak up. Given that most political staff are members of the same political party as the Parliamentarian, the decision-making calculus in choosing to dismiss or discipline staff for sexual harassment is never as simple as whether it can be proved that the victim’s allegations are true. That isn’t even getting to the cognitive bias in the minds of politicians that the clearly sexist culture in politics has created.

When I became active in the movement again, I lobbied for a sexual harassment policy for over a year. When victims have no assurance of any remedy, and there is a high risk of negative consequences for them in the context of their employment, their personal life, and their political career – as it is particularly hard to clearly demarcate between where one ends and another begins in political life – there is absolutely no incentive for victims to speak up. The cases of harassment in politics that have been reported barely scratch the surface of an endemic culture of sexual objectification and harassment.

Women are coerced into silence if they try and speak up about the issues, in spite of the risks

At the time I was harassed, I attempted to speak to a number of influential figures within the organisation. Their responses ranged from ‘Oh I feel sorry for him [the perpetrator], he was clearly just lovesick’, to ‘Are you sure you didn’t lead him on?’, to ‘You’ll be slut shamed and your reputation will be ruined if you ever speak out about what happened.’

The response to speaking about harassment which had deeply traumatised me was so silencing and disheartening that I stopped being involved in the Party for two years.  I returned after I had sought sufficient therapy and support to feel strong enough to do so. I am far from the only woman who has faded out of the Party either temporarily or permanently because of sexual harassment.

After I returned, I again attempted to raise my harassment with influential figures within the organisational hierarchy and members of Parliament.

The responses were dispiriting to say the least. ‘You do realise this is going to hurt Gladys, don’t you? You realise this is going to hurt the government? Why do you want to do this?’.

Another awkwardly laughed and commented on how bad my timing was, before telling me that if I wanted to publicly name the perpetrator and those to whom I had complained, he’d accept it, but he was wary about providing any public comment of support.

A female mentor brought me to tears because without responding to my recount of the harassment at all, she simply said that what happened between party members was no concern of the Party, and that if I wanted to solve the problem, the burden was on me to draft a policy myself and get it passed.

For a young woman in her twenties to come forward, and receive the response of either, or both being attacked and challenged on whether she cared about her party, and then dismissed with the glib ‘advice’ of being told to draft a policy herself – is abominable.

None of the influential people I spoke to have said that they would help me to write a policy or to get it passed. Nobody seemed willing to expend any political capital on touching the issue. Everyone seemed more concerned with fairness to the perpetrator than fairness for me – even though I told them I could furnish them with evidence I was telling the truth, including text messages from the perpetrator when I confronted them about the harassment.

Nobody cared about what it meant that somebody who was responsible for indecently assaulting me was in a position of influence in a senior Parliamentarian’s office – influencing serious political decisions – without any consequences.

Instead, I was told ‘You do realise you could ruin his life and he could lose his job, don’t you?’  No one seemed to care about my life, or my career. When I told them I’d not been able to bring myself to seek any other political work after my contract ended because of what happened to me and the trauma it had left behind, the only response was an awkward silence, and the person quickly changing the subject or looking away from me, as though I’d said something too obscene for the person to bear responding.

All of them treated me as a problem, and all questioned my motives. All of them lectured me on how I should be aware that if I agitated in favour of a policy, it would probably just be abused by lying women who wanted to hurt men for political reasons.

None of them have realised or seemed to care how much they hurt me. None of them seemed to realise how sexist and cruel their assumptions were of how women would behave if they had a legitimate grievance-handling process if they complained about being sexually harassed. Especially when the statistics are that over the past twenty years, only between 2-10% of allegations of sexual assault have been proven to be false.

There were a few exceptions to this rule. One man in particular has helped me have the courage to keep going when things have been tough. But even with the deepest care and concern he still felt the best advice that he could give me was that it was not likely to go well if I spoke publicly about what happened to me. I’d risk the harassment defining me throughout my career as it’s what people would see if they Googled me. I’d also risk being seen as betraying the party, at a time when it could afford no more negative press, as we face defeat at the federal election, and victory in the state election is by no means assured.

After being a member of my political party since I was 17, I am sick and tired of the advice, one way or another, that the only way to be a loyal and successful member is to suffer in silence without any help or support.  I did not sign a membership form with the condition that if an offence was committed against me, that it was my obligation to wrestle with the trauma and consequences on my own, or that all I deserved if I spoke up was to be dismissed and told I should just solve the Party’s cultural problem with sexual harassment on my own. The seasoned politicians who gave me this advice either did not think about, or did not care that they knew I did not have the political capital to make that happen, and what they were asking of me was impossible for me to achieve without them. I can’t decide which is worse.

What I believe we need to do now

These problems are far from exclusive to the Liberal Party, as recent stories broken by the media have made clear. They exist across the political spectrum. Whilst some factors that make harassment more likely, or keep women silent are unique to politics, in the end sexual harassment is about a most frequently male perpetrator choosing to exert power and control over a woman and her body without her consent. So politicians, political parties, and the media – all of whom share responsibility for how harassment in politics is discussed – need to stop framing every conversation about sexual harassment in politics around the political consequences.

Instead, these powerful actors must consciously start making the focus of the stories the victim. Her story. Giving her agency. Letting her decide what she wants, and what she wants to say about what happened to her.

Political parties, and perhaps bodies such as the Australian Human Rights Commission, must begin more concerted efforts to gather data about sexual harassment in politics, so that we can develop a nuanced understanding of all of the risk factors, and ensure evidence-based efforts can be commenced to protect victims, and ensure fairness for all parties.

The MOPS Act should be reformed. Whilst I appreciate that regulating how Parliamentarians go about employing their staff, or terminating their employment is complex, that does not mean regulators should not bother to solve that challenge, and that staff should be condemned to a position of disempowerment and vulnerability. Laws exist to deal with sexual harassment in the context of employment generally. There is no doubt in my mind that if a genuine effort was made to regulate harassment in political employment, that a solution would be found.

Political parties need to improve (and in the Liberal Party’s case, implement) policies that deal with sexual harassment. Parties have thousands of members, and they decide who will be preselected to run as candidates in elections – when those decisions usually translate into deciding who the next member will be in safe or winnable seats for that party. As a result, members and the general public have every right to expect that members of political parties possessing that degree of influence and power, have a great deal of responsibility to ensure that political parties are safe places.

It is truly bizarre to witness how many commentators and politicians scratch their heads about why more women do not run as candidates for major parties in elections more frequently, when women are forced to accept that they are vulnerable, and that if they are sexually objectified or harassed, that nobody is there to help them. It isn’t exactly an empowering environment that helps women to feel confident that they will succeed, or that their position isn’t precarious at the best of times.

Finally, what we all need to do is care. Care enough to assess our own biases. Care enough to take responsibility for the fact that if we aren’t actively making efforts to stop men from harassing women in politics, that we are complicit in enabling those men to harass women.

Women are important, and we are letting them suffer in silence at a time when it could not be more clear just how much Australia desperately needs more empowered female politicians in Parliament.

If you worry you might not make a difference – let me tell you now, not only is that not true, but it is also no excuse for not trying your best anyway when you know what’s happening now is not okay.

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