Everyone is talking about Australian senator David Leyonhjelm’s sexism and slut-shaming of a female colleague – but he shouldn’t be the focus of our attention.
It is an unfortunate fact that some men will always be more upset about “misandry” – perceived prejudice against men – than they are about misogyny, despite misogyny being a vastly more present, powerful and destructive cultural force. For these men – let’s call them the #NotAllMen brigade – hearing women talk about the abuse, discrimination and mistreatment they receive at the hands of men is infinitely more offensive than the abuse, discrimination and mistreatment itself. They interpret any critique of toxic masculinity as an attack on their entire gender, and can’t engage in conversations about women’s rights without becoming defensive and aggressive. They are, in short, the last kind of man you’d want to get stuck talking to at the pub.
For an extreme example of this kind of man, let’s look to Australia, where a politician is currently doing a media tour to defend himself against claims of sexism – derailing conversations about women’s safety in the process. Senator David Leyonhjelm, who represents Australia’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party in New South Wales, sparked a fierce backlash last week when he told Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young to “stop shagging men” during a discussion about violence against women.
Since then, he’s described Hanson-Young as a “serious misandrist” and “a sexist”, called a female TV host a “bigoted bitch” and a “misandrist” for criticising him, and refused to back down from his comments in a string of extraordinary TV and radio appearances. What he has not done is acknowledge the seriousness of the problem of gender-based violence – the subject that provoked this media firestorm in the first place.
What sparked Leyonhjelm’s attack on Hanson-Young? He claims she said “words to the effect that all men are rapists” during a debate about whether women should be armed with Tasers to tackle violence. The debate had been prompted by widespread discussions about women’s safety in Australia, after 22-year-old comedian Eurydice Dixon was brutally raped and murdered in Melbourne in June.
In response to Dixon’s death, right-wing senator Fraser Anning had called on the government to relax laws around weaponry, which would allow women to carry pepper spray, mace and even Tasers for “political protection”.
Unsurprisingly, Anning’s motion was rejected overwhelmingly by most mainstream politicians, who said it would make women responsible for defending themselves against violence, rather than addressing men’s crimes. According to Leyonhjelm, Hanson-Young “called out words very similar, if not identical to, ‘If only men would stop raping women,’ or ‘All men are rapists’” while another female senator was decrying the motion. He says he suggested she “stop shagging men” as a solution if she believed all men really were sexual predators.
Hanson-Young has denied saying anything like “all men are rapists”, and Leyonhjelm has admitted to having no evidence that she said it. Despite widespread condemnation, he has clung stubbornly to his position, saying he will only apologise to Hanson-Young if she releases a statement rejecting the idea that men have a “collective responsibility” to end violence against women. (She has, unsurprisingly, turned down this offer.)
When TV presenter Angela Bishop described Leyonhjelm’s remarks to Hanson-Young as “pathetic”, he lashed out at her on Twitter, calling her a “bigoted bitch”. He refused to retract that comment even when Bishop confronted him live on air on Tuesday (3 July), adding that he believed it was acceptable to call women bitches “when they’re acting like one”.
Even criticism from the Australian prime minister didn’t prompt a moment of introspection from Leyonhjelm. After Malcolm Turnbull said he thought he should apologise, Leyonhjelm described the PM as a “p***y” and a “soft c**k” for failing to speak out against misandry, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Hanson-Young has spoken out about how Leyonhjelm’s comments fit within a wider culture of slut-shaming in Australian politics, and called for his resignation. She’s not letting him get away with it, and that’s important. To be very clear: highlighting the fact that violence against women is overwhelmingly committed by men is not the same as saying that all men commit violence against women, and anyone who can’t grasp that simple fact probably shouldn’t hold public office.
But what is being overshadowed, amid circuitous arguments about the politics of language and whether misandry is worse than misogyny, is the issue that initially led to this dispute: the death of Eurydice Dixon.
It is a fact that physical and sexual violence against women is a serious problem in Australia (as it is in the UK, where over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted every year and more than 100 women were murdered by men in 2016). And so while Leyonhjelm’s comments are inexcusable, the posturing of one man shouldn’t be allowed to eclipse an issue affecting millions of women around the world. A similar pattern often unfolds in the States, where an offhand sexist comment by Donald Trump can easily get more airtime than the fact that his administration is slowly dismantling women’s reproductive rights.
We should call men like Leyonhjelm and Trump out, and hold them accountable. But we shouldn’t let them distract us from the problems that really matter. Here’s a clue: misandry isn’t one of them.
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