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How Sarah Hanson-Young's Win Changed My Life

Every woman with an interest in politics will know that last year former Senator David Leyonhjelm made a series of sexist remarks about Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

These comments were absolutely disrespectful and something I would never have expected from a member of Parliament.

They were comments that I found simply shocking like:

Telling her she "should stop shagging men".

“I think you're mischaracterising it as sexist abuse when it's just abuse."

“I am an Australian. I will tell people they're bastards or bi**hes or to F off, irrespective of their gender. If I think they should shut up I'll tell them to shut up. It is a normal Australian behaviour.”

When I saw this interaction last year it struck me: how is it possible, in this day and age, for a woman to be on the receiving end of such humiliating treatment at her workplace?

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and former Senator David Leyonhjelm. (Image: AAP)

I’m a councillor at my university’s student representative council. I didn’t know it then, but as a young woman heavily involved in politics, I was watching how Hanson-Young was treated and made a mental note to be very careful about what I said and did to prevent public shaming happening to me.

Unfortunately, shaming of women in politics has a long history. It’s something that girls and young women are well aware of.

Plan International Australia, the charity for girls’ equality, this week released new research showing 90 percent of young women think female politicians are not treated fairly compared to their male counterparts. And 77 percent of young women say female politicians are treated unfairly by the media, while 70 percent say female politicians are treated unfairly by their male counterparts.

Senator Hanson-Young said that Leyonhjelm sought to slut-shame her. And that’s why she felt there was no other choice but to take him to court, even if the risk was a huge financial loss and the grueling emotional burden this process entails.

After her win, Hanson-Young said she "did it for every woman and girl across the country who has ever been told to stay silent". (Image: Getty)

Slut-shaming is no joke. In the words of authors Janet W Hardy and Dossie Easton, it is: treating someone as less-than, or insulting or harming them, because they have sex (or sexually behave, dress, etc.) in a way that the speaker thinks is wrong or excessive.

I know one very inspiring young woman who is the only female member of the executive leadership of a student council. She is the centre of the most intense criticism. I have seen people mock her about her appearance, the way she dresses, even her driving. She works harder and does longer hours than some other executives.

This is a common thing for women. Research released last week shows that women often have to work harder than men to get ahead. They also have to take better care of their appearance because they are so heavily scrutinised, according to the Ipsos and King's College London international study.

I am sure this starts very early in life, and I’m certainly seeing it all around me.

There are powerful men out there who use slut-shaming to bully and shame women. This behaviour is not accidental. It’s not a joke. Men who do this (regardless of their intention) intimidate women so that we change our behaviour and remain silent and in check because it is humiliating for us.

When it comes to recognising this problem, Plan International’s research showed young women were twice as likely to believe sexism is a big problem in Australian society in general (44 percent of young women, compared to only 23 percent of young men). So it’s clear that something needs to change.

As a young woman heavily involved in politics, I was watching how Hanson-Young was treated and made a mental note to be very careful about what I said and did to prevent public shaming happening to me. (Image: Supplied)

On Monday, Senator Hanson-Young won her court case setting a precedent that empowers women to speak up against this kind of disrespect. She will donate any damages received to women’s and girls’ rights organisations, including Plan International Australia.

Her incredible speech after the verdict was handed down made me realise that I had subconsciously changed my behaviour around men in power because I’d seen how they can treat women. She said: “I did it for every woman and girl across the country who has ever been told to stay silent, made to stay silent, made to feel as though speaking out would cause more harm.”

These words mean so much to me. We endure so much but feel so disempowered to speak up about it, to challenge it.

A couple of years ago, I was volunteering with an organisation and I started to receive too much unwanted attention from another male volunteer. I held back from reporting him to my bosses, because I was afraid I might be slut-shamed. Instead of going through that, I made the decision to stop volunteering with them.

I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that my uneasiness I felt was absolutely valid, that I had every right to demand respect and decency and that I could continue to be a leader in that space.

Fortunately, there are brave women like Hanson-Young who don’t stay silent, and those women are empowering the rest of us to stand up for our rights, to demand respect. Great women are rising up and bringing other women with them and this is how we make change.

It’s a very exciting time to be a young woman in Australia and we cannot underestimate just how important this defamation win is to those of us who are finding our voices.