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HARRIS’S KICK WILL DRIVE REAL CHANGE

March 26 2019 By Patty Kinnersly, Our Watch CEO

In recent days, one of our top sportswomen found herself caught up in a media tempest. Instead of cowering, Tayla Harris harnessed the power of the storm and took a stand on online abuse that I believe will drive much needed social change.

Tayla Harris kicking a football Image

Harris’s gutsy, intelligent response to the disgusting trolling she experienced deserves a place in the annals of sporting history, right alongside the goal she kicked.

The saga began with a photo of the AFLW forward in full flight, delivering a phenomenal kick. It had all the hallmarks of an iconic image, but within minutes of it appearing online, instead of admiration and awe, a swarm of gross, misogynistic responses emerged.

But there is good news. When the image was pulled offline in response to the offensive comments, there was an immediate and extensive backlash, with thousands of footy fans – both men and women – demanding that it be re-posted. Many argued that it’s the trolls who ought to be censored, not an athlete at the top of her game. I could not agree more.

By coincidence, the day this story broke, I was speaking at an Our Watch/RMIT University forum on the topic of the sexist online abuse copped by women who work in the media on an almost daily basis.

Not surprisingly, Harris’s story was at the front of everyone’s minds. What struck many of those who commented and showed their support for Harris, was how strongly and effectively she highlighted the link between attitudes and behaviour.

Harris noted that many of those who made disgusting comments about the photo showed in their online profiles that they had women partners and young daughters. She said this particularly distressed her, leaving her to wonder what might go on behind closed doors in those households.

“This is the start of domestic violence,” Harris said.

She couldn’t have said it more clearly. We know, from a huge body of research, that disrespect, condoning of violence and male peer relationships that emphasise aggression are all drivers of violence against women. We know without doubt that there is a link between the kind of attitudes that say it’s ok to post threatening comments online and violence against women. 

The panel of outstanding speakers at the forum last week included author Ginger Gorman and journalist Jamila Rizvi, both of whom made the point that much of the reaction to Harris was clearly victim blaming.

As Gorman said, for many women, especially those working in the media, the internet is their workplace. Everyone has the right to feel safe and respected in their workplace.

And to be clear, this is not ‘thin-skinned’ women whinging about a few ‘harmless jokes’. Much of the abuse that women experience online is extreme, vile and highly disturbing, and routinely includes threats of rape and murder. Harris labelled many of the repulsive comments “sexual abuse”.

The lack of understanding about the seriousness and frequency of online abuse is deeply frustrating. In standing up to the trolls and calling out the attitudes that drive this unacceptable behaviour, Harris has done a huge amount to focus attention on this abuse and on gender equality in general.  

As a community, we need to ask ourselves whether we want to allow such abuse to continue. If not, then we need to work together to drive change in these attitudes, and in the social and cultural norms that continue to support or excuse them.

This is not about a few rogue individuals. The alarming level and frequency of this abuse shows that we need broad, sustained social change. We also need men and boys to be part of this movement, challenging their mates, and modelling healthier forms of masculinity and respectful relationships with women and girls.

This kind of meaningful social change will only be achieved by working right across our society, in schools, universities, sporting clubs, the media and a wide range of workplaces.

We must all work together towards a new normal, where the reaction to a photo of a woman doing something as impressive as Harris’s kick is awe, admiration and respect, not abuse. It’s been heartening to see so many people, including many men, throwing their support behind Harris in recent days. But this saga is also a powerful reminder that there is still a very long way to go.  

Harris has shone a light on this problem and we can seize the momentum to work together for change.

Image credit: Michael Willson, AFL Media