The furore engulfing one of Sydney’s most prominent criminal barristers has brought out the inevitable calls for the actual victims to shoulder the blame, write Seb Starcevic and Nina Funnell.
During Thursday night’s taping of The Bolt Report, The Australian columnist and men’s rights groupie Bettina Arndt gave her take on the spate of sexual harassment allegations levelled against high-profile Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet, as published by New Matilda.
And, predictably, it was a doozy.
Calling the accusations a “witch hunt”, Arndt questioned whether the whistleblowers (a combination of law students and paralegals who worked for Waterstreet) were being “vindictive”, and guilty of waging a “dangerous campaign” in coming forward with their experiences.
She suggested the burden of blame was on those who Waterstreet allegedly victimised for not doing their “due diligence” and reading the fine print before setting out to work with him.
Apparently if you’re a young woman hoping to break into Sydney’s legal fraternity – like 21-year-old law student Tina Huang who claims she was shown a masturbation video during her job interview with Waterstreet – then it’s unreasonable to expect not to be sexually harassed by your boss at some point.
Confusingly, Arndt then went on to ask why one of the women chose to stay in such a toxic environment, which she called “dancing with the devil”. Because there’s no reason why someone at the beginning of their legal career might feel like they have no choice but to acquiesce and endure the unwanted advances of a wildly powerful figure at the risk of being ostracised by their industry.
Nope, that’s definitely never happened before.
As Arndt opined:
“Whenever [Waterstreet] writes something he mentions the women he’s seduced, he’s always dropping in his sexual references, he loves outraging people about sexual content. And these young women, law students, don’t do any due diligence to find out this man’s history? There’s an Archibald painting of Charles Waterstreet with naked women crawling up his legs. I mean, it wouldn’t be hard to discover this man has a reputation. And yet they go for a job opportunity, and sure enough he’s a bit outrageous, he talks about sexual stuff and shows them sexy things.
One of them says she was a bit shocked by that, but he’s a really famous man. Talk about dancing with the devil – she went back willingly for another dose and only then resigned. I mean, come on, women, you have to have some responsibility for your own behaviour.
It’s a good thing [for the media to call out poor behaviour]if men have seriously been harassing women and misusing their power to push women into doing things they don’t want to do… But if we’re dragging into this net men who once put a hand on a woman’s knee and she was quite capable of saying no, I don’t want that to happen – I mean, this is a witch hunt… I think these sort of campaigns are really dangerous and they can be extremely vindictive, and promoted by women who have all the wrong motives.”
The message here is clear: women – not men – should know better. Women like 26-year-old paralegal Genevieve Wilks, who was given a book as a “first day of work present” which contained a nude photograph of her new boss. Women like Anita* who was allegedly shown a black double penetration sex-toy during a job interview with Waterstreet earlier this year. (Because what job interview experience is ever truly complete without the surprise emergence of a sex device?)
To make matters worse, as Arndt railed against these women for not taking “responsibility for [their]own behaviour”, Bolt sat sniggering on the sidelines.
And how nice it must be to enjoy that position of relative power, where one is so far removed from the threat of early-career sexual harassment that one can smirk at such matters.
Of course none of this is especially new or surprising coming from Arndt considering her victim-blaming discography, which includes such hits as insisting that women are duty-bound to have sex with their husbands even when they’re not in the mood; that a doctor who molested his patients – including a twelve-year-old girl – shouldn’t be criminally charged as he was simply doing what “in another context would be loving and pleasurable”; and that in addition to teaching “don’t rape”, university sexual consent courses should also teach “don’t get raped” to the floozy young women who continue to ‘cry rape’ in the wake of drunken “regret-sex”. Gag.
But in this case, Arndt’s wishful mythologising of Waterstreet as nothing more than a harmless eccentric with a scandalous sense of humour, only reinforces the fallacy that predatory behaviour from men can always be excused using the tired ‘boys will be boys’ trope.
Likewise, characterising his accusers as bitter, scheming shrews who ‘couldn’t take an office joke’ only confirms the anxieties of all women who have ever been sexually harassed by a male colleague in the workplace, only to suffer in silence for fear that disclosure would be met with scepticism or ridicule.
To be crystal clear: sexual harassment is never acceptable and should never be ‘expected’. And women’s acceptance into the workforce should not be granted conditionally on their willingness to forgo their sexual, professional or moral boundaries.
Yet perhaps what’s most absurd in all this is how, in re-writing who the victim is in this scenario, Arndt completely ignores the significant power disparities which exist between Waterstreet and the young women who have applied to work with him: he is an established, powerful barrister – they are at the beginning of their careers; he is famous – they are unknown; he is connected to people of influence and status across multiple industries (including being friends with the Prime Minister and his wife) – they enjoy no such privilege or connection; he is in a position where he can employ or fire young women at will – they are desperate for work.
So it’s a little difficult to stomach the claim that Waterstreet is the persecuted minority in all this. (Waterstreet has made similar claims to The Daily Telegraph, arguing that he has been “victimised” by Ms Huang).
Right now, the serial harassers who haunt Australian workplaces wear their entitlement like armour, safe in the knowledge that the heat will be kept off them as long as the likes of Arndt continue to fan the flames of victim-blaming.
And it’s high time we acknowledged that if there really is a “witch hunt”, as Arndt suggests, paradoxically it’s often the victims – not the men – who face being burned at the stake.
*Name has been changed.
• If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault or harassment support is available by calling 1800 424 017 and speaking to a qualified trauma counsellor at the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.
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