The controversial writer and media commentator Bettina Arndt has been recognised in this year’s Australia Day honours list for services “to gender equity through advocacy for men”.
The journalist, author and sex therapist was made a Member of the Order of Australia on Sunday – the third-highest rank under Australia’s civic honours system.
In 2018, Arndt was criticised by sex abuse survivors for conducting a 17-minute interview with convicted paedophile Nicolaas Bester in which she described the behaviour of female students as “sexually provocative”.
Bester had been jailed for grooming and repeatedly raping his 15-year-old student when he was a 58-year-old teacher in Tasmania. He was convicted of possessing 28 pieces of child pornography and committing up to 30 sexual assaults.
On an internet forum in 2015, after being released from prison, Bester wrote that his crime was “awesome”. The paedophile was then convicted a second time as a result, and for sharing further child exploitation material.
“The majority of men in Australia envy me,” Bester wrote in 2015. “I was 59, she was 15 going on 25 … It was awesome.”
In 2017, Arndt interviewed Bester following both convictions, in a YouTube video titled “Feminists persecute disgraced teacher”.
“Over the years I’ve talked to many male teachers about sexually provocative behaviour from female students,” Arndt said. “Sensible teachers of course run a mile from these girls, but the teachers are still really vulnerable because they can easily be subject to false accusations if they reject or offend the young woman in question.”
She added that young women needed to “behave sensibly and not exploit their seductive power to ruin the lives of men”.
In response to Bester’s comments that his crime was “awesome”, Arndt laughed and said it was “pretty stupid” but that “I can imagine how easily this happens”.
Arndt first rose to prominence as a sex therapist and the editor and publisher of sex education magazine Forum, starting in 1973. In later years she authored the book #MenToo, about discrimination against men, and launched a university speaking tour about the “fake rape crisis”.
In 2018 the woman Bester abused, Grace Tame, criticised Arndt for being “willing to support” the paedophile, “trivialising” his crime and “laughing off” his offending.
Segments of the interview were also aired on current affairs show 60 Minutes that year.
Under Tasmanian state law, Bester had been able to speak about his conviction, but Tame had been prevented from sharing her story, or being identified, until the law was overturned this year.
“Ms Arndt never reached out to me in the pursuit of balanced journalism; never heard my side of the story; was not present at any stage of the abuse; did not attend any of the court hearings; yet confidently labelled me a ‘provocative’ teenager who used her ‘seductive powers’ to ruin a man’s life,” Tame told news.com.au in 2018.
“That she is so willing to support a twice-convicted offender, trivialise the details of his heinous crimes and even laugh off aspects of his offending is quite disturbing.”
Arndt issued an apology in 2018 for the tone of the interview and said it had been selectively edited.
“I conducted the interview not because I condone his past behaviour but because I am concerned about vigilante justice,” she wrote on her website. “I apologise to those I have offended by the relaxed tone of the interview, particularly in the segments of the interview shown by 60 Minutes which were carefully selected to damage my reputation.
“I find it difficult not to get along with people who are willing to have an honest conversation with me, even those who have made grave errors in their lives.”
Arndt told Guardian Australia on Friday that she was “delighted” to be on the honours list and that focus on her interview with Bester “misrepresented” her more than 45-year career.
“It is very encouraging to receive this acknowledgement of my work,” she said. “My campus tour last year was pretty successful in drawing attention to the illegal campus kangaroo courts. I’m also working hard to get our national suicide policies to properly address why six out of the eight people killing themselves every day are male. And to get proper support for the one in three male victims of domestic violence.”
“If people are unhappy about my receiving an award because of the Bester issue, I suggest they acquaint themselves with the background to the video,” she said. “Perhaps they should think about why this issue is being used to misrepresent my very long career. After all, I’ve been out in the media for over 45 years promoting all sorts of controversial issues, seeking fair treatment for both men and women.”
Arndt said her supporters had lodged complaints to the Press Council over previous reports of her interview with Bester due to “media manipulation”.
“The quiet Australians aren’t happy about the constant male-bashing in our society and I’m working to try to change that.”
Arndt was recognised for her “significant service to the community as a social commentator”, the awards council said.
She has written for newspapers including the Australian, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. She was president of the Royal Women’s Hospital Foundation in 1999 and has been a member of the national advisory committee on ageing, the family law pathways advisory group and the child support review ministerial reference group.
According to her résumé, Arndt has also been an “online dating coach” from 2001 to 2017 and a contributor to “Jordan Peterson’s thinkspot” since 2019. Arndt is also the author of What Men Want: In Bed (2010), The Bettina Arndt Guide to Lovemaking for Men (1982), The Bettina Arndt Guide to Lovemaking for Women (1980-1984), The Bettina Arndt Guide to Lovemaking (1982) and #Men Too (2018).
Concerns have been raised over the honours selection process in recent years.