We Need More Than Non-Apologies From Men Who Make Sexist Statements

This week has been an absolute doozy for people in positions of influence and power running their mouths about women.

It started with Barry Hall, a commentator who made a rape joke during a Triple M broadcast about fellow presenter Leigh Montagna‘s wife Erinn Byrne, in which he implied that the obstetrician enjoyed a particularly invasive procedure sexually. He was immediately fired, but the conversation around his comments and their acceptance was riddled with “it was just a bad joke” and “it’s locker room talk that has no place on air”.

Hall has since apologised for offence taken.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise for any offence taken from my commentary on Friday night’s Triple M footy coverage. It was a silly thing to say and it is not a reflection of who I am or what my views are. I am a proud father and dedicated partner and have nothing but respect for women.”

His partner Lauren Brant also defended him with this comment on Instagram.

“Barry was involved in a silly conversation on air where he made a stupid comment. Although it was completely wrong, it was not intended to be a malicious statement and there was absolutely no thought or substance behind it.”

Then, Senator David Leyonhjelm told Senator Sarah Hanson-Young to “stop shagging men” during a debate in the Senate. He says it was in response to a comment she made, which he can’t remember but allegedly implied that all men were rapists, and he has not apologised for it. He went on to call Angela Bishop a “bitch” on Twitter.

He’s refusing to apologise about either of these statements – likely because he is intending them to be inflammatory, appealing to voters who are firmly entrenched in the ingrained sexist culture prevalent in this country. His response to Bishop on Studio 10 reflects this.

“I mix with normal Australians all the time, and don’t think there is anything wrong with … calling somebody a bitch or a bastard. Calling somebody a pussy, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Here’s the thing. Sure, we use the terms bitch and bastard as Australians. Our vernacular is incredibly crass and littered with swear words. Sure, Barry Hall probably made his joke without thinking deeply about it. I would find it hard to believe a radio commentator would plan to make a controversial rape joke during prime air time.

But that’s not the point here. The point is, Leyonhjelm and Hall are people of influence. One is in parliament. The other on national radio. The things they say, like it or not, help shape our culture – including the way they react to criticism of their actions – and they need to understand that.

When men of influence start calling women bitches, say sexist shit like “stop shagging men” in response to criticism of policies, and make rape jokes – they’re contributing to the very much ingrained rape culture and sexism prevalent in this country. It’s the culture that leads to men thinking it’s ok to rape and murder women heading home from their night out, it’s ok to use gender-based arguments to shut dissent down (“she must be on her period”, “yeah OK you dyke”). And when their apologies are based around “everyone says this stuff’ and “it was a silly thing I said”, it minimises the seriousness of what these terms and jokes mean from the wider perspective of our culture.

These “apologies” from Leyonhjelm and Hall are actually not apologies at all. Hall’s is an apology about offence taken – but he considers the joke he made “silly”, as does his partner in her Instagram post. Leyonhjelm’s responses are, in effect, worse – they’re designed to pander to people who agree with him, which means he’s intentionally encouraging sexism and misogyny.

Non-apologies like these perpetuate this idea that casual sexism and rape culture is just fine, actually. It’s AUSTRALIAN. That “locker room talk” is just something that happens, just don’t put it out on the radio, OK? That “boys will be boys”. That calling a woman a “bitch” is fine, because that’s just the language we use and that language absolutely doesn’t feed this ingrained misogyny we have in bucketloads through this country’s culture.

And because these people are in positions of influence, the shit they say has even more weight than some dude on the street or some guy screaming from his car. Because their voices are projected to their thousands of fans, followers, and listeners. They’re even projected to people who have no idea who they are. That’s why Lauren Brant, Hall’s partner, saying “…solely vilifying Barry for this incident is not going to fix it. You have the wrong man for that” doesn’t hold up. We do have to hold individuals accountable for their behaviour, especially when they’re in a position of power, because what they say and do has influence and can actually help to dramatically change the culture – or perpetuate it.

That’s the problem here.

What we need to hold Hall and Leyonhjelm accountable for is an apology that recognises the seriousness of their behaviour. An apology that says they fucked up. The things they said fuel the insidious rape culture we have in Australia. They deeply regret perpetuating that culture and making it seem like it’s okay to speak like that to or about women. That there is no place for talk like that in Australia anymore, and they will actively aim to be respectful to women from here on out.

We all understand that shit happens. Mistakes are made, people say things they wish they could take back and can realise their error. But when the apology is less “I am so sorry, I will do better, I realise why my actions were damaging” and more “it was just a bad joke, this is what everyone says, this is Australian culture” it’s really encouraging people to view Leyonhjelm/Hall as victims, like their behaviour was fine actually, sorry if you were offended by it though. This sends the message that the behaviour is not the issue, it’s people’s response to it that is.

It’s got to stop. It’s time for people in positions of power to do better, to apologise with sincerity and with an understanding of the way their words shape and perpetuate the culture of a nation.