The recent “alleged” sexual assault-harassment of Camilla, a female contestant on Big Brother 2006, has provoked wide public discussion in Australia these past couple of days, both in the media and in political circles. But has that discussion been about the right thing?
This is of course not the first time that Big Brother has been the talking point for these kinds of issues. Last year, Big Brother 2005 contestant, Michael, committed a similar and equally repulsive act toward female housemate Gianna. Another less publicised incident in that series occurred where one of the female housemates was “turkey-slapped” (the colloquial expression for when a male slaps his penis against a female’s head).
The political discussion following both this season’s incident, and the incident involving Michael in 2005’s Big Brother, has been almost identical: conservative politicians enter the public fray, calling for the show to be axed.
Following the incident on the weekend, conservative senators John Fielding and Barnaby Joyce, made vocal calls for the show should be axed from the air. The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, and the Prime Minister, John Howard, have joined Senators Joyce and Fielding in calling for this series to be the last. Even Democrats’, Senator Andrew Bartlett, while condemning the pro-censorship position of other politicians, has not taken the discussion beyond that topic.
So, is whether or not the show should be cut really the issue?
Following the incidents that occurred during last year’s series, Channel 10 engaged two consultants to “review production processes and strengthen guidelines for the behaviour of housemates, including their sexual conduct”. Why then has this happened all over again? Is it simply because Big Brother is still on the air?
Sexual assault and harassment are serious and abhorrent acts. However, while it is imperative that the individual perpetrators of such conduct be punished, it is of utmost importance that sexual assault and sexual harassment be recognised for what they are - societal problems, deriving from ingrained and derogatory gender stereotypes and ideas of appropriate sexual behaviour.
By questioning whether the show should remain on the air, and not discussing the incident itself and what it means for Australia’s young people, Australia’s politicians have conveniently sidestepped confronting the real, and contentious issues that this incident could have brought into the public limelight.
The incident should have prompted a re-assessment of Australia’s sex education curricula, and a re-evaluation of efforts made by Australian governments at all levels - local, State and Federal - to ensure that derogatory gender stereotypes do not persist with today’s young people.
Senator Fielding has been quoted as saying: "I'm a father of three and I think any mum or dad would be appalled with this latest incident… It's not accepted anywhere in the community ... and it's sending the wrong signal to the community and our kids." However, while Big Brother is certainly not an entirely accurate representation of Australian society, as a reality television show, it does, at least to some degree, reflect our society and its members’ behaviour.
Moreover, the type of behaviour that occurred on Saturday is by no means limited to the television set and the timeslot of Big Brother. The past few years have seen scandal upon scandal involving Australia’s “professional” sportsmen and their treatment of women, to the point that a number of teams now receive mandatory training on appropriate attitudes toward women and the definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
We need look no further than the recent scandals involving the Pacific Sky cruise ship and the interview provided by one of its staff to know that people frequently turn a blind eye to sexual assault. Senator Fielding, if you think this behaviour is not accepted anywhere in the community, you are evidently wearing blinkers.
When repugnant events such as this occur, knee jerk reactions to ban the show are the least appropriate response. It would seem that a number of Australia’s leading politicians would prefer to have this “silly” show cut (to quote our Prime Minister) than to face up to the harsh reality of the occurrence of sexual assault and sexual harassment in Australian society.
It is extremely unfortunate that this terrible incident has been dealt with in a manner that treats it as a one-off occurrence, rather than being recognised as a symptomatic manifestation of the sexual attitudes held by at least a proportion of Australian young people.
Unfortunately, the public discussion that could have been had, where issues of what constitutes consent to a sexual act are addressed; what constitutes the offences of sexual assault and sexual harassment; and whether or not Australia’s young people on the whole - and not just on one reality television show - engage in healthy, respectful and consensual sexual behaviour, has not been had. For this, our politicians are to blame.