I’ve worked at parliament for three different MPs over five years. For the first time, I’m now working for a woman MP, and the kind of messages sent to her online are shocking.
“Hey, what are you up to tonight?”
“Is that your boyfriend?”
It’s 9.37pm and I assume my MP has had the gall to go out in public, as these messages have just appeared in her Facebook inbox. Surprise, surprise: It’s from a man.
I’m a little worried, so I let her know that she’s under surveillance by a presumably creepy dude.
It’s 9.50pm. I think he’s a bit grumpy that he hasn’t had a response. The messages continue for a few days, growing grumpier and nastier. Thankfully, he eventually gets bored and the messages stop.
This sort of thing goes with the job if you’re a Member of Parliament who happens to be a woman, especially if you’re young, especially if you have a profile.
It shouldn’t be.
I’ve worked at parliament for three different MPs for around five years now. This is the first time I’ve worked for a woman.
My job title is Executive Support and Research. It’s a pretty complex job: I balance the diary, conduct research, produce comms material and do pretty much anything else my MP needs. This includes managing and responding to traditional letters and emails; it also means dealing with the wonderful world of Facebook messages – the one part of her social media where my MP has relinquished control to me.
The most jarring difference between working for a male MP and working for a female MP is these Facebook messages. I shudder to think what she receives on the likes of Instagram and Twitter.
“fucking horrible dressing style but nonetheless the best looking woman on planet earth”
The messages my male bosses received were sometimes confrontational and angry. Someone is angry about a newly announced policy or someone’s a little pissy that our party voted for a bill they didn’t like. At the end of the day though, this anger is about the MP’s work or something they stand for. For every grumpy message, there’s usually a few supportive ones – or people asking for help or information.
Things are a bit different if your MP isn’t a man. They still get the same types of angry messages and supportive, kind messages (always welcome). But they also receive a smorgasbord of comments about the way they dress, their sexuality, what their hair looks like, how they need to smile more and, worst of all: physical threats and sexual harassment.
And it’s not just via Facebook messages. The bile comes in through traditional forms of correspondence as well: the snail mail, in angry phone calls and sometimes even in person.
It’s my job to deal with these messages, but they aren’t directed at me and I’m not dealing with the consequences of them. Parliamentary Protective Security aren’t wanting to install an alarm in my house. I can go out and not have to worry about some creepy dickhead watching me.
This is a taster of what too many women have to deal with on the regular and something that aids in a little bit of healthy introspection.
This one’s pretty harmless isn’t it?
I’ve sent a lot of these in my past. To friends, to someone I’ve just matched with on Tinder, or even via Facebook message in an attempt to strike up a conversation with someone I’ve met at a party. It’s a lazy conversation starter at best. At worst, from someone you don’t know and whose intentions you can’t fathom, it’s threatening. I know now why this never really worked – it’s a potential can of worms that women are reluctant to open and it’s creepy – particularly when unsolicited. Women know from experience what ‘Hey’ can mean – a precursor to a romantic and/or sexual advance, the denial of which leads to abuse so much of the time.
My boss gets a few of these sent to her official page every week. What do they want, given they’re messaging her in her official capacity? We very rarely find out, but it’s easy to guess.
Every time my MP gets a Facebook message, it sends them a very professional automated response telling them that she or I will respond as soon as we can. But these guys don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to her. The prospect of talking to someone in an official capacity stifles their enthusiasm. There’s very rarely a follow up and these days such messages usually end up marked as spam.
“Why are you ignoring me”
I guess like movie stars and popular musicians, our MPs, particularly those that aren’t men, are considered public property. They all seem to know this. They know that when they go out in public – for dinner with a loved one, to pick up the groceries, even to check their mail – they’re in the public eye. I think a lot of people will say “it’s their job, they’re paid for it”.
But here’s the thing: so much of what I see in my MP’s inbox has nothing to do with their job and everything to do with their gender. The ‘love’ isn’t spread evenly either. Men just don’t have to put up with being constantly sexualised and harassed by other men – and it is pretty much always other men.
And this isn’t just parliament. Parliament is a microcosm of our wider world (granted, a somewhat warped one). Women in all walks of life encounter this.
This is one of the few things where individual action can have a real impact. There are some simple things we as men can do to change this really nasty culture. We can look at our own actions for starters and how they impact the lives of others. Don’t be a fuckwit. If you’ve been a creep in the past, learn from it. Help your friends do the same if they need it. That might look like just giving them friendly advice on how to Tinder without being a dick, or you know, maybe suggesting they don’t try and hit on members of parliament via Facebook.
It’d be a start, wouldn’t it?
The Spinoff politics section is made possible by Flick, the electricity retailer giving New Zealanders power over their power. With both spot price and fixed price plans available, you can be sure you’re getting true cost and real choice when you join Flick. Support us by making the switch today.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.