Nearly 20 years later, this argument sounds more wretchedly hollow an apologetic than it did in the mid 1990’s. Since then the political and social climate has changed somewhat, cause in part by the sickening and frightening level of misogyny directed at our first female PM. The comments about a candidate’s sex appeal by our current PM, the dearth of women in senior cabinet positions. The revelations following the conviction of Rolf Harris and the number of women who claim to have been indecently assaulted by him, without mentioning his sexual assaults on underage girls. In light of these changes to the discussion of sexual politics, Helen Garner’s apology for inappropriate sexual contact sounds as offensive as the ‘uncovered meat’ comments which caused a great public outcry a few years ago.
Two things initially struck me when I read this book. Garner’s appalling naivety when it came to relations between men and women in institutions of power, especially between teachers and students. Her willingness to assume that men are helpless moths when it comes to female sexuality and that in an uneven power relationship female sexuality is some form of weapon which can be deployed. The work assumes that because a woman is over the age of consent that she must be mature enough to handle the reactions that her physicality provokes in men.
Several times Garner questions female passivity when indecent assaults occur, why do women become passive and silent once a men twice her size and strength forces unwanted sexual advances upon her? I don’t know Ms Garner, perhaps, and here I am speaking as a small statured women who has found herself as many other women have in uncomfortable situations, fortunately none which I was not able to handle myself, we are afraid that if we resist the man will become violent. Unwanted sexual attention, especially physical attention carries with it the threat of violence. The underlying message which accompanies such action is one which says: submit or I will make you submit. I don’t see all women as victims of male violence nor do I see all men as potential rapists. However, once you start to make apologies for males who use their physical, economic or emotional power to manipulate a situation to suit them you make it more difficult for women to speak and for men to see when they cross the line.
The second thing which struck me was her assumption that the physical beauty of one of the complainants equalled sexual maturity. I know Ms Garner will find this very hard to believe, but not every young women with prominent secondary sexual characteristics is sexual mature or experienced. Mesomorphic women, you know the ones, the women who look out at you from Norman Lindsay paintings, the Greek statues. The ones with the large busts and the broad hips, who look like they would give you a good time, are not born with a fully developed sense of their sexual power. These girls shoulder the double burden of emergent sexuality and a body which sends out sexual messages that they are not yet equipped to deal with. Often these women have been receiving unwanted male attention since their early teens, first from boys at school in older grades, from boys her own age, and later out in the world, from men whose age and sexuality is both intimidating and for girls whose sexual experience is only at the kissing and touching phase, frightening. For these women it can take a long time to learn how to harness and use the sexual messages that her body gives out, for she has to learn not only how to discourage unwanted attention, but also how to encourage wanted attention, without causing confusion. When Garner is mystified at one of the complainants comments that the harassment made her feel like a useless sex object, I knew that she had no idea about what it is like to be this girl. For those beautiful girls, their sexuality is not a badge that they wear with pride, but an anchor which can weigh them down, hobbling them so that they are neither listened to nor considered to have a value beyond their physical assets, for an intelligent young women, this is a frustrating situation. It makes her feel frustrated and silenced; it makes forming satisfying relationships with men difficult, and can hinder their relationships with other women. Physical beauty is neither the shield nor the sword that Helen Garner thinks it is.
Ultimately this book rather than being one which challenges male power and authority, or even questions it in great detail, quails before the old men of the collage. Men who in quiet emotionally neutral situations, have the power to intimidate the author, who in turn cannot see how much more they would intimidate women 30 years her junior. What this book is, and what I am sure Garner never intended it to be, is an illustration of how male power operates, how it is abetted by some women in order to silence others. When we ask ourselves questions like those being asked in the wake of the Harris conviction, how did he get away with so much for so long? This book offers some answers. It happened because no one listened; no one wanted to listen, so much so that the deafness and inaction of those in authority ensured the women could yell themselves hoarse before falling silent from exhaustion and resignation.