If you’ve ever wondered why more women don’t speak up when they’re subjected to dubious behaviour from their male superiors, look no further than the Briggs debacle currently unfolding before us.
We’re not privy to the specifics of the incident in question, which were detailed in the report that led to a Cabinet subcommittee concluding that the Minister for Cities and the Built Environment Jamie Briggs must go.
We do know that Briggs’s chief of staff told one media outlet that the woman complained that night that Briggs was standing too close to her and he suggested she stand next to him instead.
What also seems to be undisputed is the minister put his arm around the woman at some stage during the evening, kissed her on either the cheek or neck, and offered her a compliment about having “piercing eyes”.
We also know the woman put her concerns about the minister’s behaviour in writing and that the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade forwarded it to his minister, Julie Bishop.
The matter was then referred to an independent investigator. The Cabinet subcommittee considered the investigation report and then Briggs was given his marching orders.
That should have been the end of the matter – Briggs paid the price not only for making unwanted advances towards a woman but also for abusing a position of power.
This wasn’t a case of some random guy with beer goggles getting his signals mixed up across a crowded bar. Briggs was a minister of the crown who – in his own words – behaved inappropriately but not “illegally” towards a female subordinate.
Yet despite his carefully worded statement of contrition, the disgraced former minister does not appear to be remorseful and his supporters are now retrospectively trying to excuse his behaviour through actions that are tantamount to blaming the victim.
Barely two days after Briggs’s resignation, a photo of the woman posing with the minister’s chief of staff on the evening in question was leaked to a sympathetic media outlet, The Australian, along with her text messages sympathising with the chief of staff for losing his mobile phone that night.
This none too subtle move was clearly intended to undermine the woman’s claims of being distressed by the minister’s behaviour by showing she was enjoying herself that night, and that she didn’t initially raise her concerns with the chief of staff the following morning.
Right on cue, comments started to appear on social media sympathising with Briggs, bemoaning that a man can’t get fresh with a pretty girl these days without being accused of sexual harassment. Suddenly, and reprehensibly, in some quarters the leaked photos and texts pivoted public discussion of the event to the woman’s behaviour instead of the man’s.
This is known as blaming the victim or, in the popular vernacular, slut-shaming.
Lest there is a notion that the leaked information to the media was nothing more than Briggs’s over-protective colleagues standing up for their mate, keep in mind it was the former minister who first circulated the photo.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Briggs said he sent the photo to colleagues “prior to the complaint and following”.
Why after? Why would you send around a photo of someone who has complained about your behaviour? Was it to show she couldn’t possibly have felt harassed if she was seen later enjoying herself, flashing a peace sign?
If anything, the distribution of the woman’s photo by Briggs reinforces a negative interpretation of his earlier behaviour towards her. Apparently without her invitation or permission, the then minister stood too close (even if it was a “crowded” bar), made an overly personal compliment, put his arm around her, kissed her (on the cheek or neck), and then forwarded her photo to others.
Clearly standing too close or making this kind of physical contact is not a crime, but when done without consent it’s unacceptable.
Equally unacceptable is what has happened subsequently.
When the Australian published her photo and texts, the publication suppressed the woman’s name and pixelated her face to “protect” her privacy. But it nevertheless published her job title and place of employment, so it’s really only a matter of time before someone tracks down the woman’s name and start poring through her social media accounts.
Any photographic evidence of her partying or behaving in anything other than a modest fashion will likely be paraded as evidence that she probably led the poor minister on. The victim will then become the villain.
If this prediction seems overblown, peruse the missives of the Abbott camp, which is trying to twist the question of Briggs’s unacceptable behaviour towards a woman as some sort of leadership test for PM Turnbull.
It’s no secret Turnbull only begrudgingly appointed Abbott-supporter Briggs to the ministry, and would have welcomed an early opportunity to show the accident-prone junior minister the door.
And there’s no avoiding the PM used Briggs’s resignation as a way to take the edge off negative publicity for having to stand aside his own supporter, Mal Brough, from the ministry until the outcomes of the Slipper federal police investigation are known.
But the Abbott camp is doing itself no favours trying to use the Briggs’s matter to undermine Turnbull. In doing so it is simply exposing its inherent bias towards casual sexism.
Despite the camp’s claims that Turnbull has treated Briggs more harshly than Brough, there is simply no equivalence between the two cases of bad behaviour. Making a woman feel distressed enough to make a formal complaint is NOTHING like procuring a political competitor’s diary.
One conservative columnist mansplained Briggs’s inappropriate behaviour as not being sexual harassment but simply a “social indiscretion” – a term surely more suited to farting in a lift than making uninvited advances.
Another has suggested female diplomats should be shielded from potentially frisky visiting ministers by restricting their interactions to business hours only. This advice completely misses the point: it should not be about where the public servant is, or when, but how the minister behaves.
Following the committee’s findings, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, no less, tweeted in sympathy for Briggs, calling him a “decent, hard working and capable contributor to our cause”.
And the Australian reported that the committee established to investigate the complaint was “deeply troubled by the implications of imposing such a hair-trigger standard of accountability” on Briggs.
One of the members of that committee, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, later inadvertently sent a sexist jibe to News Corp journalist Samantha Maiden, labelling her a “mad f***ing witch.
There are a lot of troubling elements in this whole sordid tale, including the festival of bad behaviours that have since been put on display. However the most concerning is that the matter is far from over, and the longer this runs, the greater the risk the woman’s name will become public and her employment position potentially untenable.
This is the fate that potentially faces any woman who speaks up when a man takes liberties without her consent – regardless whether that behaviour is labelled indiscrete, inappropriate or harassment.
Until we accept this reality and men pledge to do something about it, women will carry the burden of calling out the men who harass them.