Everyday Sexism and Gender Inequality: The Conversation no-one thought Trump would be starting



Yes, I’m very embarrassed by it. I hate it. But it’s locker room talk, and it’s one of those things


After being caught on tape bragging about forcing himself on women, Donald Trump cited the “locker room” defence multiple times, as an apparent excuse for what most reasonable people understood to be sexual assault.  The event sparked outrage not just in the United States but internationally, right down to the NSW Parliament passing a motion, condemning Trump as a “revolting slug” unfit for office.  

 As the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah observed, this notion of “locker-room” talk, ‘dangerously conflates “sex talk” with “sexual assault talk”’.  Yet despite resounding condemnation, Trump’s most recent blunder in many ways resonates with the pervasive type of “casual sexism” that colours the everyday experiences of women. In a survey by the Australia Institute in 2015, 87 per cent of respondents reported experiencing at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment, with many having their first experience before they are 18 years old.

Everyday sexism comes in all forms. It’s averting your gaze when a look turns into a leer, its laughing off the unsolicited hand on your back at the bar, it’s swallowing your anger when a man cat calls across the street, because you’re afraid that if you react, he might turn his words into actions.  This behaviour is symptomatic of a deeper issue, speaking not only to a lack of respect, but to power and gender inequalities that create a culture where women are made to feel unsafe, and worse, feel pressured to accept or humour these unwanted gestures.

The ugliness of Trump’s comments aside, they have clearly helped reignite the conversation around sexual assault, bolstering the discussion with the sort of media furore that it seems only Trump can muster. But unless the conversation is translated into meaningful action, we are really just talking in circles. On September 14 2015, AHRCentre Director Andrea Durbach launched the Strengthening Australian University Responses to Sexual Assault Project. The project has two core components: a national student survey and the development of model practices and procedures. 

The national student survey was developed to collect data that will provide a comprehensive analysis of the extent and nature of sexual violence at Australian universities, the student reporting experience and accessibility and effectiveness of relevant student support services. The survey stems from research led by Professor Durbach and the AHRCentre's project 'Strengthening Australian University Response to sexual assault and harassment', in collaboration with the Australian Human Rights Commission, which is implementing the survey with Roy Morgan.  The survey was implemented in September 2016 by the Commission in partnership with Universities Australia.  

The intention is to combine the results of the survey, with comparative international research and and interviews with relevant stakeholders, to develop strong policy frameworks and protocols for universities, that will seek to provide students with effective reporting procedures, education and support services for victims of sexual violence. 

Of course, changing the underlying attitudes of coercion, power and inequality that sustain sexual violence will always require a holistic, multi-level approach.  However, universities provide a unique environment, populated largely by young adults, often not-long out of home and navigating newly found independence. At the launch of the United Nations “HeforShe” Impact Report, Emma Watson described a good university as being “like a tiny utopia. It’s a miniature model of how the whole of society could look”. It is not just about the experiences we cultivate here as students, it’s about the expectations that we take into life outside university, which in turn permeate our future workplaces, our homes and our social lives. 

In 2015, the National Union of Students conducted the “Talk About It” survey across Australian universities. Over 72 per cent of respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual behaviour while enrolled at their institution. Despite this, only 5.5% reported the incident to the university, and only 4.8% to the police. The most common reason for a woman not reporting an incidence was because she did not think it was serious enough (81%), while 23% of women said they did not report because they were unsure how. Then there are the students who have the courage to come forward, only to be ignored. One student told the NUS that when she did try to report, she was told: “I was simply too drunk and it wasn’t worth investigating’, while another student who reported incidents of non-physical harassment was told that its “just the culture”. When these individuals leave university, what expectations about society do they bring with them? That their personal safety, their integrity is not a priority; that sexual violence is something that society can both publically condemn, and willfully close its eyes to? What’s more, it imparts these same expectations on the perpetrators.

Students are adults, who –for better or worse – have autonomy in their decisions and their actions. A university is not a surrogate parent, nor is it some mere bystander to the goings-on of campus life.  The role of the university is perhaps better understood as a facilitator, guiding our education, which is so much more than simply what we get from the pages of a textbook.[1] Universities have a part to play in promoting initiatives that educate young people on consent, that aim to prevent sexual violence, and instill the sort of values that tear down, rather than reinforce “rape culture”.  When incidents do come to light, it is essential that universities have clear policies in place that enable an appropriate and transparent response, that reflects the severity of sexual violence in all its forms. Strategies like this can help foster an environment where victims feel safe coming forward, in the knowledge that they will be taken seriously. In turn, this may help shift the culture underpinning sexual assault and gender inequality; to encourage students to expect better from their peers, to expect better from our social institutions, and most importantly, to expect better for themselves.


This article was written by Jess Clarke, AHRCentre intern semester 2, 2016. To read more article from The Student Voice, click here.

Photo © Thomas Hawk via Creative Commons


[1] For an elaboration on the University as a facilitator, see Stanley Yeo, ‘The Responsibility of Universities for their Students’ Personal Safety’ (2002)