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Political Discourse or Sexist Abuse? Did Leyonhjelm Cross A Line?

By: Anne Rinaudo

Do men need to change their language? Senator David Leyonhjelm is refusing to withdraw or apologise for comments directed at Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. Those comments have widely been criticised as abusive and sexist. She is threatening to sue him. Is name calling part of political discourse or did he cross the line?

The episode has again raised public debate about the role of language in reinforcing bullying, even violent, cultural norms. Susan Sohn, writer and social media expert, warns that slut shaming and rape culture are ever-present. She says parents must discuss these issues with their children, not leave them to navigate such issues alone.

A crude statement

During a Senate debate about importation and use of pepper spray to help women fight rapists, Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW, David Leyonhjelm, made a remark about the private life of South Australian Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young. The remark has widely been described as ‘slut-shaming’; a crude statement about a female and her purported sexual activities which would never be made about a man.

Violence against women

Leyonhjelm claims Hanson-Young (or another Green Senator) said “all men are rapists” and his comment was in response. Hanson-Young emphatically denies making that statement and no one but Leyonhjelm seems to have heard anyone make that comment. Disturbingly, Leyonhjelm’s attempt to belittle and demean Hanson-Young came during a debate about the safety of women in the light of the recent brutal rape and murder of aspiring comedian, Eurydice Dixon, in Melbourne.

Doubling down

Senator Leyonhjelm has a history of making abusive comments on twitter and is a strong believer in removing barriers to individual freedom. What he said in parliament was quickly followed by media appearances, most notable on the Sky News Outsiders programme, which he used to repeat and even elaborate on his comments and court further publicity.

For her part, Senator Hanson-Young is planning to sue her colleague for defamation if he won’t withdraw and apologize for the remarks. She is looking at a legal remedy rather than letting this one go because she says as a high profile woman she has the ability to draw attention to a problem many women face. If she goes ahead with a defamation action she has pledged any money awarded in damages would go to charities that support women.

Sorry, not sorry, mansplaining

Senator Leyonhjelm has offered a conditional ‘apology’: if Hanson-Young agrees to a number of points including reading out a statement he has prepared. Commentators described the Leyonhjelm offers as “sorry, not sorry” and epic “mansplaining”, in other words, not an apology at all.

Disrespect and violence linked

Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has called on Leyonhjelm to apologise and withdraw the comments, explaining how damaging they were.

“We often talk about domestic violence and our concerns there and all the measures we are taking to address it,” he said. “I just want to say this as a reminder to everybody – not all disrespecting women ends in violence against women, but that is where all violence against women begins.

“We need to have respectful workplaces where we treat each other with respect, where we disagree, we disagree with respectful language, and that is why, as far as Senator Leyonhjelm is concerned, the remarks, he should not have made those remarks, they were offensive, he should have withdrawn them, he should have apologised for them. It is not too late to do so.” said the Prime Minister.

Unsurprisingly, Senator Leyonhjelm responded with a further tirade of disrespectful, sexist abuse, this time, directed at Mr Turnbull.

Racisism, sexism and bullying

Susan Sohn is a blogger, author, social media expert who sits on the board of Christian Media and Arts Australia. On Open House she shared with Stephen O’Doherty her thoughts on the importance of respectful conversations and the insidious nature of racism, sexism and bullying. She agrees Senator Leyonhjelm has crossed a line.

“He should never have said it. That’s first and foremost. Having said it he should have issued an apology immediately” she says.

Calling out ‘sideways’ comments

Sohn says the sort of comments Leyonhjelm has been making are common, insidious and need to be called out.

“We hear these conversations and these ‘sideways’ comments, I call them, and they are inappropriate on every level if it’s race or if it is to do with gender. What he said falls directly into line with rape culture. He slut shamed her and those behaviours are commonly associated with rape culture. [Rape culture] includes victim blaming, slut shaming, sexual objectification and trivialising rape and I think it is absolutely appalling.” she says.

Teach your children

Susan Sohn says things can only change if a stand is taken. “Good willed men (and women) need to stand up and have the conversation. They must make it clear it is not ok.” she says.

As the mother of two girls she says sometimes she feels like throwing in the towel, but for their sake she won’t. It is essential she believes that parents don’t shy away from difficult conversations with their children. She and her husband have made meal times an opportunity for the family to come together and talk.

“We have open, honest and, at times, extremely robust conversations. Our hope is that we have provided our daughters and our son with the toolkit, the language to navigate their way through a culture that can be racist or sexual.” she says.

Listen: Susan Sohn in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.

Article supplied with thanks to Open House.

Anne is the producer of Open House – a weekly three-hour live talkback radio show exploring life, faith and Hope from a Christian perspective.

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