The F Word Address

I was honoured to deliver the F Word Address at the Wheeler Centre this year. This is the speech as I wrote it but I spoke without notes so the actual delivery might have been slightly different. It’s a longish (10 to 15 minute read).

Podcast is available on The Wheeler Centre website

I think many of you know that I am going to be talking quite a lot about men’s violence against women. Obviously if it gets too much and you want to leave please don’t hesitate to do so. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds, so if you want to just tune out, think about something else or read something on your phone for a bit, please do. There’s going to be a lot of people tweeting so no one will notice. And if you need to talk or ask for help, you should. No one should ever feel shame about the feelings this stuff can provoke. Shame belongs only to perpetrators.

As Santilla said I am a journalist. I found some research a few weeks back that says journalists are among the least valued professions in Australia, we come just above politicians and priests.

I think that’s fair, we’ve earned it and we earned it the same way priests and politicians did. We’ve lost sight of our purpose.

One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of the purpose of journalism is that it exists to describe society to itself, and we do this by finding things out and telling people about what we’ve found.

It sounds simple, it should be simple but it appears that it isn’t. And people know. When we are describing a society that is not what people know to be true, they stop trusting us. I think this, in the simplest terms, is why people have lost faith in journalism.

There’s many different ways we’ve done this, politics and economics are the obvious ones, but my particular area is how women are described in the media. We are half the population and less than 30 percent of the news reported about our population.

The MEAA produced a report in 2016 on women in media. It’s a bleak picture of a profession rife with discrimination, bullying, harassment and underrepresentation.

Only 30 percent of content across print, online and broadcast media names women as the reporters. Less than 25 percent of expert and authority figures quoted in news are women. And most of that is concentrated in lifestyle and celebrity news, because there is news and there’s women’s news. Politics, sport, crime and finance are men’s news. Lifestyle, celebrity, social issues are women’s news and that’s where you find the strongest concentration of female journalists.

Even more disturbingly, 48 percent of women who work in media report that they have been subjected to intimidation, abuse or sexual harassment in the workplace. To give that some context, the human rights commission reports found around 25 percent of women in the defence forces and 40 percent of women in Victoria Police had experienced sexual harassment and bullying. And let me tell you, those two reports got a lot more air time than the MEAA report. As much as we don’t want to look in our own backyard, we certainly don’t want you doing it.

Crime reporting has always been the bread and butter of journalism. When we are reporting on crime what we’re doing is describing to people how safe they are in their community. To what extent are the people in your society abiding by the laws set up to protect you? And if some of them are not, what are they doing, where and to whom?

So what happens when a male dominated industry, built on a culture of toxic masculinity, reports on the crimes that men commit against women?

Nothing good.

I’m often asked which is the worst headline I’ve ever fixed. And my answer is always the same: all of them. Because they are all about a person and something terrible that was done to that person.

But some stand out because they encapsulated so many of the things that are wrong with reporting on men’s violence. This one has all of them. She’s not a person, her existence is defined by her relationship to a man and his status. So she’s described as a “doctor’s daughter”. Despite the horrendous crimes committed against her, the man who found her on the street, took her to his home, raped her and beat her to death is utterly invisible. All we are left with is her actions and the things we can use to blame her for the choices made by the man who attacked her so brutally.

There’s a reason I focus so strongly on headlines. I’m guessing most of you did not get your news today by reading a print newspaper from cover to cover. And only some of you would have visited the home page of your preferred publication. Most of you probably got links from social media, and the most likely source is Facebook. But regardless of the source, you probably do what I do. You run your eyes down the headlines in the feed and make microsecond decisions about what links you’ll click on.

This is how most people get their news these days. Something like 80 percent of the headlines we see, we never click through to read the article. And we’re not necessarily thinking very much about the headlines we don’t click on. But we see them. And without being consciously aware that it’s happening they are still describing something to us. When they fit our subconscious bias or when they’re underpinned myths about violence and repeat them over and over again, they reinforce them in our minds. But we don’t really notice that it’s happening.

And the things we don’t notice are far more dangerous than the things we do notice.

Tracy Connelly lived just around the corner from me. If she was standing here next to me you’d see some similarities, we’re both women, we were around the same age, similar colouring, living in the same community.

When the people who loved her talk about her, they talk about a woman who was fierce and vulnerable, strong and troubled. She was protective of the people she loved and sometimes suspicious of strangers – with good reason. She had a huge laugh and not much patience for bullshit. She was a mother, a sister, a lover, a friend and a daughter. Most importantly, she was a person, a woman, a human with all the same rights to dignity that you and I have.

She was murdered in her home one night in 2013 and this is how it was reported across the country the next day. These headlines were syndicated across Australia. The Daily Telegraph, the Courier Mail, the Canberra Times, the Brisbane Times, the Adelaide Advertiser, WA Today, Perth Now. Every major publication in the country.

What is this describing? It’s certainly not describing the person I just told you about. In these headlines she’s not a person, she’s just a “prostitute”. A St Kilda prostitute, just to make sure you know she exactly what kind of prostitute this non-person was.

Murder is the ultimate violation and, having suffered that violation, she was then denied her very humanity by my profession.

But if these headlines are not describing Tracy, they are describing something. It’s one of the most enduring myths about men’s violence against women – that women are divided into “good women” and “bad women”.

“Bad women” are sexually compromised, impure, and asking for trouble. They deserve whatever happens to them. “Good women” are pure, chaste, sober, conservatively dressed, conciliatory and demure. And they don’t ever get themselves into trouble. As Anne Summers said 40 years ago, we are Damned Whores or God’s Police. We are sluts or mothers, party girls or nice girls, harlots or Madonnas. Shrill harpies or dignified ladies. “Good women” don’t get raped and “bad women” can’t be raped. And if a man is violent to a woman it must be because she deserved it or provoked him because she’s a “bad woman”, such things do not happen to a “good woman”.

How many times have you seen a variation of this?

if a man and a woman meet on Tinder and he is subsequently violent you can bet Tinder will be the first word in the headline. If they met in a bookshop or a dinner party or a church, it wouldn’t even rate a mention. But Tinder? That’s the most important thing for you to know. Because she was actively looking to meet a man and probably hoping to meet someone she might want to have sex with.

Look at what happens to a woman who likes sex, looks for it and actively pursues it.  Look at what happens to women who are not passive objects of male desire but are actively pursuing their own desires.

That she was on Tinder is the problem and the focus, not that a man chose to assault her. Or event that he may have been on Tinder looking for a woman to assault.

If you haven’t watch Jackson Katz’ TED talk on violence against women I highly recommend it. He’s talking about the general conversation about men’s violence but he perfectly demonstrates the problem with the way the media reports this stuff. I’m slightly paraphrasing his examples but the principle is unchanged.

We start with a very basic sentence: “John raped Mary.” John is the subject, rape is the verb, Mary is the object.  Three words to describe exactly what happened.

The second sentence says the same thing in the passive voice. “Mary was raped by John.” The focus shifts from John to Mary but the sentence is still describing what happened.

The third sentence, John is invisible and all we see is that “Mary was raped” and now it’s all about Mary. John is gone and we’re wondering why Mary was raped.

“Mary is a rape victim” The last sentence has changed what John did to Mary into her very identity and John is no longer relevant to the conversation.

So which of these four sentences is the most accurate description of what happened between John and Mary?

It’s obviously not that last one. Mary is not a rape victim, she’s a person. She’s Mary. People who have been raped do not become what was done to them. It does not define them. It was a crime someone else chose to commit against them.

It’s not the third one, that only tells half the story. It tells us about Mary but nothing about John. If we are supposed to be describing society to itself we are failing when we only describe half an event instead of the entire event.

The second sentence describes the entire event but it does so in the passive voice – something we are taught in journalism 101 to avoid. In this case we are putting Mary at the front of the sentence, making her the subject and the focus, John trails off at the end.

So that first sentence, “John raped Mary” is the only one that accurately reported what happened. John is the subject of the sentence because it was his choice to commit rape and that choice is the only factor that caused the crime. That he chose to rape Mary is there and that it was rape it there. Three words is all it takes to tell you what happened.

But almost every headline about men’s violence against women is a variation of one of the other three sentences. The “John raped Mary” structure, the only one that is accurate and in the active voice journalists are always supposed to use, that’s the one you almost never see.

This is the basis for most of the work I do on FixedIt. The longer name for it is invisible perpetrators and blameable victims. Men who commit violence against women almost never make the headlines. They are erased from view and all we are left with is the victim and the crime – if we’re lucky.

Two weeks ago in Queensland a 26-year-old man was charged with torture, two counts each of rape, assault occasioning bodily harm and common assault after he allegedly held a woman in a house for three days. Police went in and arrested the man who they say knew the victim, and took her to hospital. This is how the Cairns Post and the Townsville Bulletin reported it.

The protection and investigation unit raid a house? They can’t even say the police were involved? And why did they raid a house? What did the house do?

The man hasn’t been convicted by a court, so you can’t call him a rapist but you can say he’s been arrested and charged. You can include him in the headline. You can make him the focus and the subject of the sentence.

It’s also worth noting that the gender of the victim doesn’t make a difference. When a 58 year old man was arrested for allegedly breaking into an 85 year old man’s house and sexually assaulted him – twice – he still didn’t make the headlines.

On the rare occasions the men who commit violence make it into the headline, the crime they committed often doesn’t. These men did not attack cars or houses. They attacked women.

This poor footballer had to watch the Grand Final in jail. How terribly sad for him. Over 130 charges, most of them related to domestic violence are not important here, what matters, what the Herald Sun most wants you to know, is that he’s a footballer and he can’t go to the Grand Final.

These are not cherry-picked examples, they were pretty much chosen at random. Violence and perpetrators erased and excuses for choices made by violent men.

That’s another constant in headlines about men’s violence. The things women do to cause the violence committed by men.

Horny. Lovesick. In need of comfort. An affair. Men are not responsible for the crimes they committed, a woman made them angry, lustful or sad. So ok, maybe it wasn’t right, but you can understand it, can’t you? This is the underlying message of these headlines and, too often, that message goes unnoticed.

What you’ve seen so far are just a very few examples. Anyone who follows the FixedIt project will know these come up every single day.

I don’t believe news editors are sitting at home stroking white cats and planning how they can remove men’s violence from public awareness. Despite my frustration, I don’t think it’s deliberate. But I do think the dominance of men in newsrooms and news audiences results in a subconscious desire to deny the level of violence committed by men. It’s like a constant NOTALLMEN cry coming out of newsrooms. I can almost understand it. If all the violent crimes committed by men were reported in the active voice with the perpetrators as the subject of every headline, if they were all the “John raped Mary” structure, it would be overwhelming. Because it is overwhelming.

But we are journalists and it is not our job to erase the truth so our audience is not made to feel uncomfortable. Our job is to describe what is happening in our society. And the sad truth is that around 90 percent of violent crimes are committed by men. Avoiding this fact doesn’t make it less true but it does make it much more difficult to address the underlying cause.

I am an unapologetic feminist. This, I’m told, means I hate men, I think every man is a rapist and should be put to death. And I find it ludicrous because it is feminism that says men are not born violent, that they are not incapable of being anything but rapists and wife beaters. Feminism says men can be taught to be this, they can choose to be this and these things happen too often, but violence is not inherent in masculinity. Violence, entitlement to women’s bodies, the idea that women are only sexual objects and the only emotions permitted to real men are anger and lust, these things are imposed upon men from the time they are little boys. Many men, most men, learn other things as well. Some do not. But, with very rare exceptions, violence is learned not born.

I could go on for hours on headlines about violence, but I think after a while it just gets too much so I want to just run quickly through a few other things about the way women are depicted in the media

The Prime Minister of England and the First Minister of Scotland meet to discuss Britain’s exit from the European Union. You’d think one of the most widely read newspapers in England would have something to tell England’s citizens about this meeting, right? Maybe the legal, economic and geopolitical ramifications of Brexit are a bit outside the Daily Mail’s skillset, but this is all they could come up with? The leaders of these two countries are women so the only thing we can do is reduce them to separate body parts and compare which one meets the standards of fuckability?

I would just like to point out here that when Mitt Romney was running for President he had 18 grandchildren. I looked everywhere, I couldn’t find a single headline that referred to him as President Grandpa or questioned his ability to fulfil the obligations of the presidency because he should be home caring for his grandkiddies.

One of these was an actual headline in The Sun this year. One of them I wrote and photoshopped in. Anyone have any trouble guessing which is which?

Most of you probably already know the Judi Dench one is the real one and you’d know this because the story was run in almost every major publication across the UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. It even made the news in Zimbabwe. And I found at least 60 comment pieces inspired by the original article. So I guess if we define news as events reported by the news media, then this is actually news. But why?

Judi Dench is one of the most beautiful and talented women in the world but she’s stepping outside the roles assigned to women. We are the objects of desire, we are not supposed to actively feel desires ourselves. And being the object of desire means fitting into the narrow definition of desirability – be young, conventionally pretty, white, slim and passive. Judi Dench refusing to comply with that requirement of womanhood is what made it news.

Is the Rupert Murdoch headline something we’d ever see? It’s highly unlikely. Apart from the fact that it’s usually the Murdoch press who run these kind of stories, a man in his 80s still having sexual feelings isn’t news. Older women are supposed to be sitting quietly by the fire knitting for their grandchildren, not running for president or getting their kit off for enthusiastic sexy times. Men are expected to maintain virility until they die. There’s a multibillion dollar industry dedicated to making sure men can maintain that definition of manhood and the idea that a man in his eighties still claims to do so would not be news.

As I said earlier, I live in St Kilda. It’s about half an hour on the tram from there to the Wheeler Centre. I counted once, in that one tram trip I saw around 70 sexualised images of women on billboards, tram stops, buses, and trams. And that’s without including all the images in shop windows along Swanston Street, which would probably bring the total up by at least another hundred. They’re so pervasive we don’t even notice them. And again, it’s the things we don’t notice that are dangerous.

How many women do you know who look like this? The answer is none because these women don’t even look like this. But these images are everywhere. Sexual. Passive. Objectifying. Demeaning. And inescapable.

When I showed this slide to a friend of mine, he asked me about the Sports Illustrated one. He agreed that they are still sexualised but said that they are not victimised as so many of the other images are. You could argue they are the same thing but I understand what he’s saying. They look happy and healthy, and young beautiful male bodies are also used to sell things. But where would you see the same image of three beautiful men touching each other so affectionately and casually? Only if the target audience were gay men. Heterosexual men would not want to see it and anyone else is irrelevant because these images are intended for straight men trained to see sexuality only in slim, pretty, white girls.

And these are the women we don’t ever see. The invisible women. Trans women. Lesbian women. Aboriginal women. Women with disabilities. Older women. Working women. Asian women. Black women. Women who are not a size six. Just women as they actually are when they are living their lives and being human.

There’s being misrepresented and then there’s not being represented at all. These women don’t fit the old white men’s narrative of womanhood so they are completely erased from public view. They’re dehumanised by not being allowed to exist. For these women, before they can have their voices heard, they have to fight to have their very existence acknowledged. The debilitating exhaustion of that is unimaginable.

And just to go back to the violence headlines for a minute, here’s another thing we never see. Men be warned! There’s a dangerous predator on the streets so stay home until he’s caught. If you refuse to stay home we will immediately assume you are out looking for trouble and judge you accordingly.

Men are never held to account for other men’s violence. The very idea that we should hold all men responsible for some men’s violence would be greeted with rage and derision. But when women are told to take responsibility for the violence committed by men, it’s just common sense.

There are two things I’m trying to achieve with fixedit. One is to push back on news directors and journalists, to remind them that words matter and ask them to think about the words they’re using. The other, and I think it may be the more important one, is to remind readers that journalism is no longer a one way communication.

These headlines might not look like a positive way to finish but there is something positive in them. The first one is from six months ago. These headlines were coming out every day. “Child sex”. In the headlines we don’t notice this is both damaging and dangerous. Sex is something that happens between two consenting adults. If one person involved is a child, it is not sex. Children cannot give consent so describing it as “sex” is not just inaccurate, it’s an implicit denial that abuse has occurred or that the men involved are committing horrific crimes. I started a sustained campaign on this and hundreds of other people very quickly joined it.

I have Google alerts set up and at the beginning of this year I was getting several alerts on “child sex” every day. After six months of pushing back and with all the other people who noticed it and shared it, the alerts almost disappeared.

Media outlets might not want to listen to one annoying feminist but they have to listen to their audience. The rivers of gold dried up a long time ago now and the only way they stay in business is if readers trust journalism to accurately describe their society. They need you far more than you need them. You have so many options available to find and consume journalism, they only have one audience.

Protests from the audience work. Last week Lauren Ingram objected to this Canberra Times headline, as did many other people. An hour later it changed.

Change is not just possible, with enough people asking for it, I believe it is inevitable. And you don’t even need to be an annoying feminist to do it – but I think you should be, it’s pretty great.

And I can’t think of a better note to end on than that. Thank you for listening.

FixedIt is an ongoing project to push back against the media’s constant erasure of violent men and blaming of innocent victims. If you would like to help fund it – even $5 a month makes a big difference – please consider becoming a Patron

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