Recently, it was reported that some 50 people have come forward, alleging workplace sexual harassment, assault and/or bullying by Don Burke. Burke, known for his gardening television show, promptly appeared on A Current Affair to present a baffling mixture of denial, pseudo-acceptance and blame.
These allegations are a bit closer to home than Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. Don Burke had a prime-time gardening show for years. He’s a well-recognised Australian public figure. And now, the denial has started. I’m not talking about Burke’s responses:
“Maybe I was a bully… I’m a perfectionist… Not that sleazy, sex stuff… I have (self diagnosed) Aspergers….”
What I’m talking about is the public response.
So far, there is a lot of support for the women that have come forward. There is also a lot of criticism. There’s a belief out there that Burke and men in similar positions are being subjected to some kind of witch hunt. In fact, Burke himself used that very term.
Historically, however, witch hunts were literally used as a way to subdue, torture and execute women who stood out from the crowd for dire crimes like intelligence, healing skills, being opinionated or standing up for herself. Because being a witch in the magical or demonic sense is not a real thing.
Being a bully and a sexual predator, however, is very real. It’s kind of galling that men accused by multiple people of sexual harassment, assault and bullying co-opt the term “witch hunt” to paint themselves as victims.
“I’m an Asperger’s person”
Don Burke blames self-diagnosed Asperger’s for his behaviour. Kevin Spacey tried to deflect the accusations against him by discussing his sexuality. Weinstein plead sex addiction. Louis C.K. kind of acknowledged what he did but then blamed his ignorance of structural power. I could go on and on but you see the despicable theme, right? “Yes, I am guilty of sexual harassment/abuse/assault against her/him/them BUT, it’s not my fault because of x, y or z!”
All these justifications are setting eyes rolling across the globe but it still seems to come down to the victim in the court of popular opinion.
“Why did they wait so long to speak up?”
So often, I see and hear this question asked when discussing historical allegations like those made against Don Burke. Cases like Bill Cosby, Robert Hughes and many more.
If a victim didn’t speak up at the time, their story is somehow more likely to be made up. They just decided, decades later, to see if they could make up a story to ruin some poor man’s career. It doesn’t matter if dozens of women come forward telling identical stories; we should give the offender the benefit of the doubt.
I’ve seen and heard people casting doubt on those coming forward with that very question- why did they wait so long? Whether it’s Don Burke or Donald Trump, the fact that their accounts are not recent is somehow a way to invalidate their experiences.
But if a tree falls in the forest and no one finds it for a century, it still bloody well fell over.
Damned if you do
You can complain, and potentially lose your job. Whether the employer finds a way to fire you or the culture in the workplace becomes untenable. You can complain and then leave your job, perhaps, and struggle to find another. If you are victimised by a high-profile man, you can speak up and have the added bonus of the publicity potentially haunting you (and disadvantaging you) for years.
Damned if you don’t
Or you can try to avoid the harasser and get out when you can. You can speak up when it is safe to do so and perhaps find out what it’s like to not be believed. To have people rush to the defence of the person that harassed or assaulted you. That’s the price you may well pay for self-preservation.
Damned either way
In the case of Don Burke, a number of complainants did speak up. Swimmer Susie O’Neill, for example, spoke up about his vile behaviour towards her in her own home. She told her manager, who spoke to Burke’s manager. What happened? Nothing. He allegations were swept under the proverbial carpet. She may as well have stayed silent because speaking out made no difference at all.
Can it be proven, in a court of law, that Burke is guilty of sexual harassment or assault? I don’t know. There are dozens of accusers and witnesses, so maybe it is possible. Could it have been proven then? When people knew and were unwilling to do anything about it?
This is why women wait to speak up about sexual harassment
TV execs have come out now saying that they knew what Burke was like. They’ve called him a “disgrace “, a “dirty old man” and a “grub”. They knew. And when complaints were made, nothing was done.
It’s not just in the Burke case that people knew. For example, it was common knowledge with Harvey Weinstein. It was also no shock to the comedian community when 5 women came forward to accuse Louis C. K.
When the allegations involve multiple victims over a long period, it often stands to reason that someone else knows about it. Much like the Catholic Church, who would simply move pedophile priests to new parishes rather than report them to the authorities and support the victims.
Complaining back then literally meant taking enormous risks only for nothing to be done to support or assist you.
Speaking out now, when it’s safe, when more people will actually believe you, makes a lot sense if you stop viewing this through the patriarchal lens that would protect the Burkes, Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world. Instead of trying to discredit victims, give them (and not the accused) the benefit of the doubt. It’s a good starting point.