On Friday morning, former INXS frontman Kirk Pengilly’s name and face were awash the news cycle.
A single quote – a ten-second line – was the focus.
“I really loved the ’60s and ’70s when life was so simple and you could slap a woman on the butt and it was taken as a compliment, not as sexual harassment,” he told AAP at a Movember charity event in Melbourne on Thursday.
Pengilly may be surprised, this morning, at just how quickly a story becomes, well, a story. Like a contagious sneeze that spreads between news sites – when one catches on, the rest quickly follow.
In a climate where allegations of sexual harassment are now national conversation, we’ve suddenly no room, time or patience for those who want to veer off the seriousness of narrative.
Men are starting to feel they can’t even pay a woman a compliment because it could be seen as sexual harassment, he said. It’s tough terrain, he feels.
You can almost imagine the quiet cackle that came as he spoke, pining for the good old days where jokes were always funny.
When people stopped getting so damn offended.
When the world was free and the traps that catch you out less frequent.
The public mood was predictable. There were half-serious, half-joking calls for the former musician to “get in the bin”, there were more aggressive demands for him to **** off and then a few more who mocked his comments with a lighter sentiment of, ‘Oh Kirk.’
All the criticism had its place.
But before we shout him down, laugh him off stage and run away together in our tight bubble of progressive ideas and a steadfast desire to stand on the side of women, we need to slow down.
Because while Kirk Pengilly’s comments are worthy of your eye roll, they represent a bigger picture.
The reality is that there are many men nodding along with the INXS frontman this Friday, fuelled by similar frustrations and a lack of understanding about modern day boundaries.
While this kind of confusion probably doesn't deserve our sympathy, it deserves a little of our time. Because for men like Pengilly, there was a time when a slap on the ass was intended as a compliment. There was a time when an inappropriate joke was only meant in jest. In truth, these men probably still live in that time.
So it's important for us to turn around and tell them that no matter their intention, and no matter their rose-coloured view of history, it was never a compliment.
It was never - not once - a compliment.
Because the impact is almost always more important than intention.
And there's data to prove it. According to a new study from Binghamton University and Rush University, most men confuse sexual interest with consent. The premise of this study was a simple one: The paper looked at 145 straight male students attending a large university in the southeast United States, presenting them with various hypothetical sexual examples.
The study found most of the men confused sexual interest from a female partner with consent. In short, if a partner didn't say no, the men in the study seemed to think that meant yes.
"Our findings also suggest that some men were earnestly attempting to determine whether consent was given, but were nevertheless relying on questionable sexual scripts to disambiguate the situation," Binghamton University Associate Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson said in a press release.
Listen: How and when do you call out the group?
In the '60s and '70s, when men like Pengilly gave a woman a quick slap on the ass, they might have been met with silence - perhaps a nervous giggle. That, to them, was consent. Because that was what they were made to think at the time. And so they went along their merry way, slapping and joking and wolf-whistling the years away, ignorant to the power that afforded them the right to be.
Ignorant to the inability for women to speak, to report, to complain.
Kirk Pengilly said a stupid thing on Thursday night that put a sharp and jarring focus on how far our conversation about sexual harassment still has to go.
Because it was a stupid thing that is a common sentiment.
And while the last few months have been a total reckoning - a remarkable period for women to feel strong and empowered and listened to - it's easy to forget that not everyone is listening. That not everyone is riding that same tsunami we're powering along with, that not everyone is on the momentum train that's not stopping at any stations.
Some people are left behind. And often, they are the ones that needed to be with us in the first place.
So while we move forward, let's look behind. We can do just as much good pushing forward as we can by keeping an eye on the ones lagging behind.