This week there have been revelations of poor behaviour by Members of Parliament across the political spectrum beginning with the news of Andrew Falloon, a former MP from the National Party, allegedly sending pornographic images to multiple young women, including a 19-year-old.
These issues speak to poor decisions on behalf of the members involved, and of a cultural problem in Parliament – one that links to issues more widely in New Zealand society.
In the case of Andrew Falloon, the story has been spun to be one of a man suffering mental distress and of drinking to cope with this, resulting in making bad decisions. This spin is an attempt to elicit sympathy and to excuse his actions. By not addressing the actual behaviour in question, it does nothing to indicate that he views himself as accountable for it or to show he understands what actually might have led to these bad decisions – which would be a step towards changing his behaviour.
Firstly, on the mental health line: mental distress is not a risk factor for sexual harm.
Most people who suffer mental distress and illness do not engage in sexually harmful behaviour towards others. It is important that society does not lean into this idea, because to do so would risk creating a myth that people with mental health concerns might be at risk of sexually harming someone – and of course, the vast majority will not. It’s not only offensive and unhelpful, it also risks adding to the already long list of unfounded assumptions that create stigma around mental illness and therefore inhibit society’s understanding of it.
Alcohol has also been mentioned as a contributing factor in at least one of the instances and is another issue that distracts from the central one.
There is a link between alcohol and sexual harm: in New Zealand, 50 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol, and 50 percent do not. This shows that alcohol does not directly lead to harmful sexual behaviour. Any adult who has drunk alcohol can work that out: most adults have experienced having too much to drink, and they did not do sexual harm as a result.
So, if not from an individual’s mental health and if not from alcohol, where does the urge to send unsolicited pornography, or to do any other sexual behaviour without consent, come from?
Well, it is embedded within our society. We live in a culture in which pornography is becoming increasingly accessible, increasingly widely used, and often normalises harmful behaviour.
Alongside that, the idea of sending these images to others has become a normalised behaviour. Where there is consent from everyone involved, image sharing and use of some pornography can be OK, but other pornography, as well as a lot of mainstream entertainment, normalises and glorifies a lack of consent.
To add to this, women are often sexualised in the media, in advertising and in everyday interactions. These societal influences combined can result in individuals seeing some of the harmful behaviour depicted in pornography as normal, seeing women as sexual objects, and not valuing asking for consent as an ordinary part of most interpersonal interactions, leading to them taking actions like sending pornography to women who have not requested it.
Does this mean we can say Falloon was a product of society and as an individual it’s not his fault?
No. Ultimately, he chose to take those actions, intoxicated, distressed or not.
We all live in this same society and most of us do not do sexual harm. Harmful messages are pervasive and those certainly do influence people’s behaviour, but ultimately, we do know what is right and wrong. As part of the work of RespectEd Aotearoa I work through these issues with groups including teenagers, community groups and professionals. While I have heard and experienced a range of harmful attitudes in these group settings, it’s extremely rare that an adult, or even a 14 year old, thinks that sending pornography without someone’s consent is an OK thing to do.
Ultimately this is about someone in a key national leadership role using harmful sexual behaviour. This person’s actions have shown disregard for the women to whom he sent the pictures and he should be held accountable for his actions. Of course, issues around his mental health are real too, and when this topic is being discussed in the public arena, that can add additional stress, so there needs to be support around him at same time as he is held accountable.
Falloon’s actions have occurred within a wider context of many stories of poor behaviour from Members of Parliament in terms of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and inappropriate relationships – including today’s news of Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway conducting an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.
Just as an increasing number of workplaces around the country are already doing, Parliament, as a workplace, needs to undertake comprehensive work to ensure its members understand not only what bad behaviour is but also what good behaviour is.
Parliament should lead the way towards a healthier positive culture in New Zealand, by looking at its own culture, and taking action to support other organisations and communities to do the same.
This opinion piece was originally published on Radio NZ.