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Policy report

Public discussion of speech expressing contempt for women has intensified in Australia in recent times. Such speech may often be said to constitute hate speech against or vilification of women. That is, it may be said to be directed at women for being women, or on the basis of their actual or perceived female sex, in the sense that it is about all women, even as it is directed at particular women.

Despite the current surge in interest, sex-based vilification is nothing new. Such speech typically accompanies violence committed against women and occurs prolifically in pornography, advertising, popular culture (including film, music, literature, and other visual and performance arts) and mainstream news and tabloid media reporting.

This paper provides an overview of this pressing policy challenge, focussing on how such speech represents a crisis of democracy through its silencing of women and limiting of their democratic participation. It sets out proposals for a ‘multifaceted counter-speech’ approach to addressing sex-based vilification, combining both legal and non-legal regulatory measures.

Key points:

  • The communication of contempt for women is nothing new. However, the proliferation of digital and online media means that the prevalence and severity of sex-based vilification is increasing and is more easily observable and documented than before.
  • Although the extent of the relevant harms cannot be assessed with precision, one need only look at the vitriol encountered by women, particularly those with public profiles, in Australia and overseas, on Facebook and Twitter, in news and tabloid media, and even in parliaments, to appreciate how prevalent the problem appears to be.
  • If the legitimacy of democracy rests on political equality (i.e. equality of opportunity to participate fully in democratic processes), sex-based vilification impedes women’s participation and represents a crisis of democracy itself.
Publication Details
Access Rights Type:
Governing During Crises Policy Brief No.15