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Are there any progressive men out there?

It's a problem which occupies me.

How to be good: how to be a decent human being and contribute to more than just my family and myself, how not to get distracted by stupidity.

I know that there are many others who feel the same way, including some of the people who attacked Leigh Sales this week, through a series of utterly appalling tweets, a couple of which included suggestions that Sales virtually engages in oral sex with politicians in the Liberal Party and another that she had become "angry since your husband left you". The tweeters didn't think Sales treated Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten equally harshly in interviews. I wonder if they've ever seen any of her interviews with Tony Abbott.

I have always read the tweets of both the tweeters: @EdwardJWHunter and @FightingTories and have observed tweets from these accounts which appear to support progressive values. I also assumed that progressive values would mean they would do their best to avoid sexism and misogyny, no matter how hard-wired it is.

Usually tweets like these are water off a duck's back. Not this time. I read both tweets in a matter of minutes and found myself in the bathroom, crying. Not that Sales isn't capable of standing up for herself. Of course she did.

I am crying because it is relentless. Because no matter what women do (and it's not just prominent women like Sales, it's also young women who speak up for themselves), the tide of online abuse is not turning. All the heartfelt pleas for this to stop, all the pathetic and useless attempts by  social platforms, have no effect. And nowhere is that more clear than in the attacks on Sales by these two accounts.

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I tweeted both these accounts on Wednesday. By the time I filed this story, only @EdwardJWHunter had replied. And what he wrote broke my heart. Here's what he said.

"The sexist comment was a measure of how angry I was at Sales' treatment of Morrison and Shorten. It caused outrage among many, because of the leniency of how Morrison was treated vs the interrogation of Shorten. Count the interruptions by Sales; from memory, there was just a handful on Morrison, but repeated interruptions of Shorten."

In summary, he was angry because he didn't like Sales's interviews of the two politicians so he thought he could be sexist. As he points out, he did apologise.

"I should not have said it. Criticism of her interviewing is fair, making a sexist comment was not."

Hunter admits he did the wrong thing – but only after the event, only after his original tweet spread widely, only after he sexualised a woman doing her job.

The frustrating thing for me, the heartbreaking thing, is not the attacks. As any number of women in any number of fields will tell you, this is constant, unrelenting, a tidal wave; and worst for women journalists. What is more frustrating is that men who consider themselves progressive forget about their values when it comes to disagreeing with women. Their progressiveness, their desire to "be good", to do good, only goes as far as being courteous to people with whom they agree. It also turns out that the collective memory is erased.

In the wake of the tweets, I noted a number of people who claimed Sales received more support than Julia Gillard did, when she was attacked by people such as Alan Jones. Tweeted @vogrady: "I am still astonished at the silence by ALL journalists at the misogynistic remarks made about Julia Gillard. Especially the "Brough" Menu. Lets have some balance here please."

A conspiracy invented right there – somehow Sales could command an army of journalists to defend her against hatred. But a simple online search would reveal a thousand column inches/pages/stories devoted to supporting the former Prime Minister after Jones suggested she was "destroying the joint" and that her father had "died of shame", in publications as diverse as the Northern Star, the Guardian, the Hobart Mercury, MX (as it was), the Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times, the Daily Telegraph and a raft of online publications. So many.

So what to do? First, recognise there is a truckload of research about how this is worse for some sectors than others. "Most of the female journalists we interviewed had experienced negative audience feedback that went beyond mere critiques of their work and, instead, often took the form of harassment, targeting them personally with a focus on their gender or sexuality," say researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, in research published just this week. I note that today the Australian Human Rights Commission is launching its fourth national survey into workplace sexual harassment and has increased the survey sample from 2000 to 10,000. It will also be the first survey to provide data on sexual harassment within major industry sectors. I hope to God those who answer remember that for many of us, the online space is also our workplace. Remember that when you get asked if you've ever been sexually harassed at work. 

And as for progressive men, men who we could trust to do good, men we can trust to treat women as decent human beings, I wonder how many there really are.

Jenna Price is a Fairfax columnist and an academic at the University of Technology Sydney.

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