14 Mar, 2013 Last updated: 30 Mar, 2015

By Jerril Rechter, VicHealth CEO

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter

We’ve seen some pretty poor taste fashion over the years, but nothing compares with the most offensive menswear to ever muddy the internet last week. 

A line of t-shirts produced by a Melbourne designer with charming slogans such as ‘Keep Calm and Kill Her’, ‘Keep Calm and Rape Them’ and ‘Keep Calm and Hit Her’ emblazoned on the front made headlines when they were discovered on Amazon.com. 

Notwithstanding the fact that no-one in their right mind would wear a garment with the words ‘rape, ‘kill’, or ‘choke’, how could anyone possibly think this was a funny idea?  Intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to ill-health, disability and death in Victorian women aged 15 to 44-years-old. There’s absolutely nothing funny about that. The t-shirt slogans fly in the face of decades of progress towards gender equality and are just offensive to women and men everywhere.

A statement was on the company’s website offering an apology, blaming the slogans on a random word generator.  It’s a tall order to expect us to believe this series of slogans were the product of a technical glitch. At no point throughout this 750 word apology does the owner mention ‘violence against women’. Whether or not this is an intentional omission is a moot point. This is clearly a case of a product line that has been created to trivialise and glorify an extremely serious and prevalent crime.

It seems we aren’t the only people who feel this way. The Age reports that the company responsible is on the brink of closure, as word spreads about the t-shirts and customers boycott the website in droves. The Facebook and Twitter pages for the company no longer exist, suspended, no doubt because of the public fallout. So the public has spoken. We’ve had enough of sexism in all its forms. VicHealth’s research shows a very strong link between sexist attitudes and behaviours and violence against women. The more women are objectified, laughed at, and discussed as deserving of violence, the more likely it is that men will use violence against women.

With this most recent incident, it is heartening that so many people around the world stood up and took action in response to sexism. As a result, a very clear message has been sent: it’s just not acceptable. This is precisely what we need to see more of.

Recently, VicHealth surveyed Victorians about their willingness to intervene in situations of sexism and violence against women.  Our research shows one in three Victorians have witnessed sexism but many didn’t act because they didn’t know what to do.  The good news is that the majority of the Victorian community view sexual harassment and verbally abusive behaviour towards women as never or rarely acceptable. But while there is widespread condemnation of physical and verbal abuse, there is a level of community acceptance of sexist attitudes, slang, comments about number of sexual partners and sexist jokes.  And this is something we need to turn around. Silent bystanders are an untapped resource and have a greater role to play in the prevention of violence against women. The public response to this latest incident shows how easy it is to be part of the solution to ending violence against women, rather than standing back and being part of the problem.

A simple message like ‘that’s not OK’ and ‘that’s not funny’ can work online, among friends, at work, at the pub, or in the sports club – all areas where sexism occurs. And when more and more people stand up, the message that violence is unacceptable is loud and clear. Recently, the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched a fantastic campaign called Anti-Hate, to erase discrimination from our lives. Part of that is their Spray Back campaign, which provides advice and templates for people who want to tell someone who is being inappropriate online to stop.  Social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to misogyny. 

On the one hand, it gives the narrow minded minority a platform from which to spout their vitriol, but on the other, it provides an opportunity to mobilise the wider community to object to this behaviour enmasse.  We need to be smart about how we respond to these incidents and also equip ourselves with the knowledge and networks to shut down this type of hatred.  Collectively, we can work towards a future where every woman can enjoy her right to a life free from violence.

- Jerril