On sexual harassment: Revisiting Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’

14 May

Helen Garner The First Stone

Published in 1995, Helen Garner’s account of the scandal surrounding the then Master of Melbourne University’s Ormond College, Dr Colin Shepherd, after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him by two female students, is agonisingly current all these years later, and ought to be read and re-read by anyone interested in feminism, sexual harassment, and power in human relationships.

The book opens with the transcript of Dr Shepherd’s first police interview, after the women lodged complaints of indecent assault against him. Ultimately, the charges against him were dismissed, it being concluded that it was a question of “oath against oath.”  Shepherd subsequently lost his job, became “too hot” for anyone to employ, and his wife and children suffered appallingly as a consequence of the media circus.

Throughout the book, Garner asks the question, why did the women take this matter to the police as a first resort?  Melbourne University did at that time have procedures in place to address complaints of sexual harassment. Garner interviews the outgoing Women’s Officer of the Student Union:

“I asked her my forlorn but crucial question: how and why did the police get involved in this case? She answered me with a firm statement.

‘The procedures here didn’t lead to justice…The procedures at the moment,’ she said, ‘are structured so that you get an apology and you get the behaviour to stop – and that’s all.’

‘Isn’t that already quite a lot?’

She looked at me narrowly. ‘I’m against people having to go through conciliation before there can be retribution.’

‘Retribution?’ The Old Testament word took my breath away. 

‘If you want some form of justice,’ she went on, ‘for the harasser to be punished, you’re seen as asking too much. You’re being “nasty.”‘

‘What sort of punishment would you envisage?’

‘In the industrial award for academics,’ she said, ‘there’s a clause that deals with serious misconduct. Dismissal is appropriate if the charge is found to be proven – and if it’s harassment that constitutes an assault.’

‘Assault?’ I repeated, confused. ‘Dismissal.’

The Women’s Officer, Christine G-, explains “icily” to Garner that young women don’t have the knowledge or power to control exchanges between themselves and harassing lecturers and tutors.

‘As you get older,’ [says Garner] you begin to understand that a lot of men in harassment situations are weak. You realise that behind what you saw as a force, all those years, there’s actually a sort of terrible pathos. Blokes who come onto girls are putting themselves out on a limb – their self is at risk. You start to learn that women have got a particular power of their own, if only they knew it.’

‘A girl in her first tute,’ she [Christine G] said stubbornly, ‘doesn’t know that.’

‘That’s true – but our job as feminists is to teach them this, surely. To a woman of my age, blokes who behave as Colin Shepherd was accused of doing aren’t scary, or powerful. They’re just poor bastards.

She bristled. ‘They may be “just poor bastards”, but they’ve abused their power. Sexual harassment is ultimately not about sex. It’s about power.’

Of course these problems are real, Garner writes. Every woman knows it. But this constant stress on passivity and weakness – this creation of a political position based on the virtue of helplessness – I hate it.”

Garner incurred great feminist wrath on the publication of her book. She encountered great feminist wrath throughout its writing: doors were slammed in her face by women close to the situation, and she was never able to interview the two women at the heart of the matter. As Garner makes clear many times, she wanted to understand the experiences of the two complainants. She wanted to hear their side of the story, and why they had acted as they did, for example, refusing to take the matter to the Equal Opportunity Commission until after it had been dealt with in the courts and dismissed, rather than before. At every turn, she is met with hostility, rage and icy dismissal. She writes:

“What sort of feminists were these, what sort of intellectuals, who expected automatic allegiance from women to a cause they were not even prepared to argue?”

During the writing of the book, Garner takes a job with Time Australia, reporting the trial of a man accused of having murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. She writes:

“The horrors I heard in the Supreme Court each day threw the Ormond story into merciless perspective…it seemed the site of an absurd, hysterical tantrum, a privileged kids’ paddy.”

Garner is unable to obtain an answer to her question as to why the complainants:

“…charged past conciliation into the traditional masculine style of problem-solving: call in the cops, split off the nuances of character and relevant context, and hire a cowboy to slug it out for you in the main street at noon, with all the citizenry watching.”

Garner’s book sprang into my mind yesterday, after thinking about how the matter of the offensive tweets I posted yesterday was handled, and after reading commenters’ responses to that post. The situations hold different positions on a continuum: Dr Shepherd was charged with indecent assault after allegedly fondling a young woman’s breast. Garner reports that the young woman:

“…told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to, here?”

Perhaps what needs to be said today was said by Garner at the end of her book, in 1995:

“…I know that between ‘being made to feel uncomfortable’ and ‘violence against women’ lies a vast range of male and female behaviours. If we deny this, we enfeeble language and drain it of its meaning. We insult the suffering of women who have met real violence, and we distort the subtleties of human interaction into caricatures that can serve only as propaganda for war. And it infuriates me that any woman who insists on drawing these crucial distinctions should be called a traitor to her sex.”

58 Responses to “On sexual harassment: Revisiting Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’”

  1. samjandwich May 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Yes, agree that this book still has currency.

    And I’ll concede that it’s been ages since I read it and that I’m aware there are question marks surrounding the extent to which “creative non-fiction” was employed. But my lasting impression was of the writer, who had believed in and participated in the movement towards gender equality, having seen this new creation in action in this case, realising that a monster had been created, which apparently had a tendency to trample over the lives of all and sundry in its attempts to achieve equality… and urging a little more temperance.

    We have matured somewhat since then I think, but Garner’s message is certainly one that needs to be continually revisited


    • samjandwich May 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm #

      In fact check this out: http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/dl-opinion/what-cleveland-tells-us-about-the-cycle-of-abuse-20130513-2jhow.html

      Some of us may have matured but others apparently still subscribe to ideology and naive optimism.


      • Jennifer Wilson May 14, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

        Yikes I just read that for the first time. What’s your reaction?


        • samjandwich May 15, 2013 at 11:53 am #

          Oh no, bit busy today, and I feel as though my reading on this topic is not quite up to the level where I can do justice to this with an adequate degree of rigour.

          So perhaps I can start with some quotes…

          From Socrates via Sophie’s World – “Wisest is she who knows she does not know”.

          From Elisabeth’s citation of Helen Garner below – ‘What the book invites from the reader is openness-an answering spark. But I found that many people, especially those who locate their sense of worth in holding onto already worked out political positions, are not prepared to take the risk of reading like that. Perhaps they can’t anymore.”

          And from HG below… though this is probably more strongly worded than I would have put it – “Apparently the authors of this trope imagine that women are all sexual submissives and cannot imagine sexual equality on a interpersonal level.”

          Essentially my objection to this article, as indeed to the very notion that domestic violence, rape, child abuse, warmongering, and any other example of the worst kinds of human behaviour can be understood through appeal to, as in this case, a contention that the “driving force isn’t sex, but power and control”, is the imagining on behalf of the person taking this position that they have a greater insight into the thinking of perpetrators than do the perpetrators themselves, or even their victims… or anyone else for that matter. This in turn leads appears lead to the dangerously simplistic suggestion that solutions can be arrived at through the development and application of institutional approaches… as if these approaches can somehow negate or subsume the emotional and interpersonal elements of responding to such an offence (As The First Stone shows to be a nonsense). I just think Clementine Ford puts far too much faith in the solidity of understandings of phenomena and institutions that are inherently malleable and subject to diverging interpretations, to the point where it risks having us lose focus on what’s really going on:

          “Whether it’s confronting casual sexism or reporting incidents of violence or assault, everyone can play a part in combating the violence inflicted on women in all of its degrees. From a more practical point of view, our judicial system needs to figure out a more effective way to deal with perpetrators. If the (rarely applied) penal sentences aren’t working, what’s being done with rehabilitation programs? Why are we discovering evidence that the victims of intimate partner homicides – particularly when they’re Aboriginal, like Andrea Pickett – are being failed by police and community services? Why did state governments in Australia drag their feet for so long in creating Domestic Violence Death Review Panels to assess the risk factors for the roughly 55 per cent of female homicide victims murdered by an intimate partner, of whom Indigenous women are overwhelmingly represented?

          These are just some of the questions everyone needs to be asking themselves – not how it is a man could kidnap three women and hold them hostage for a decade, as if we don’t live in a society that routinely turns its head away when confronted with the reality of ritualised violence against women.”

          CF’s article shows very little evidence of the kind of self-examination or reflexivity that Garner regards to be so important when approaching complex interpersonal issues. And I think this uncritical engagement carries with it a tendency to “normativise” the view that victimhood is a passive, unified, and natural state, instead of an active concept within a dialectic…

          … again referring to Elisabeth’s comment below – “You are not responsible for men’s behaviour towards you, but you are responsible for your own.”

          This is not to say that victims are responsible for putting themselves in a dangerous position, or for managing their own recovery (in fact I would argue that this is the responsibility of the whole of society, *including* the victim). Rather I think it indicates that each situation is unique, that there is more to them than what can be discussed in institutional (or dare I say it, “patriarchal”) terms of the type employed by Clementine Ford, and that if we try to assume that we understand on a global level why violence occurs, then we are already consitutively in the wrong.

          D’you see what I’m getting at? Happy to revisit later if you like…


          • Elisabeth May 15, 2013 at 12:20 pm #

            Such a terrific discussion on a issue dear to my heart, beginning with Helen Garner’s First Stone, which I once explored in depth and now today’s thoughts about gender inequality and gender based violence. Here follow some related thoughts:

            Gender inequality comes out of language. As Jackson Katz points out in his TED Talk using the work of feminist linguist Julia Penelope, it’s easy to drop men out of discussions about decreasing violence again women. We might begin with the simple sentence, ‘John Beat Mary’. Here John has a role but quickly John is distanced in the passive sentence whereby ‘Mary was beaten by John’. John’s name and role disappears altogether when we consider the next sentence whereby ‘Mary was beaten’ and given that beaten is synonymous with battered the sentence then shifts to ‘Mary was battered’, and finally in the common everyday language of the media Mary becomes ‘a battered woman’.

            Thereafter it’s easy to get into victim blaming. Why does Mary let this happen? Why do women like Mary go back again and again to men like John who abuse her? What’s wrong with Mary?
            Katz argues we need to ask different questions like:
            ‘Why is domestic violence still a big problem?’
            ‘Why do so many men abuse physically, emotionally, verbally and in other ways, the ones they love?’
            ‘What’s going on with men?’
            ‘Why do so many adult men sexually abuse little girls and boys?’
            ‘Why is the sexual abuse of children such a common problem in our society?’
            ‘Why do so many men rape women in our society, why rape other men?’
            ‘What’s the role of institutions that help produce abusive men? religious, sporting, pornographic, class, race etc?

            It’s not in the perpetrators or the victims alone, Katz argues. It’s in the bystanders those people like you and me and others, those who represent the institutions.

            How can we then be transformative?

            Adopt the bystander approach, namely call the abusive behaviour when you see it.

            Stop shooting the messenger, shouting down the women who complain about it. Get men who are not abusive to speak out against men who are.

            It’s not a battle between the sexes. We live in this world together. We are all boys and girls, women and men, traumatised by men’s and in some instances women’s violence towards others.

            These sound like generalisations and simplistic and to some extent they are but to my mind they’re worth considering.


            • samjandwich May 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

              Hello again!

              Well, firstly I was just going to say, that whilst making myself a cup of coffee just now I thought of a more succinct way of putting what I was trying to say above:

              The driving force of sexual violence is power and control.

              The driving force of seeking to define and harness the driving force of sexual violence is also power and control

              So, If all forms of violence are on a continuum characterised by power and control, then *thinking about* sexual violence as being driven by power and control is on the same continuum as acts of sexual violence.

              Therefore, saying that the driving force of sexual violence is power and control *is* an act of sexual violence.

              And you can’t put out a fire with a flamethrower!

              Elisabeth, yes I do think that developing a culture of the “bystander approach” is very effective.

              But for me, let’s say, as a bloke, I find campaigns such as White Ribbon quite offensive, because the inference is that men aren’t capable of independently coming to the conclusion that violence is wrong and that we all need to practice a bystander approach.

              And so to head off the prospect of men having a tendency to feel patronised and to disengage with such campaigns, I think another line of questioning we need to pursue is “what is the relationship between John and the bystander?”. or “Why is John so different from Paul, and George, and Ringo?”

              As above, my current inclination is to think that being irreflexive and saying that sexual/gender-based violence is attributable to a very limited set of phenomena is itself an act of sexual violence towards anybody who doesn’t think or behave violently (and in fact is probably a misinterpretation of what second-wave feminism’s foundational positions are – ie “Visionary feminism is a wise & loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.”)

              Instead, I think we need to engage in the concept of violence in a much more nuanced, sophisticated and fearless way.


            • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

              If you want somebody to answer all those questions for you then I think the answers should look more like responses to the question “what should perpetrators understand to be wrong about their actions?”

              It’s the self/other thing again whereby how much I take on board about what you tell me I shouldn’t do is limited by the extent to which I see you as an extension of myself rather than some “other” in a power relationship that I may even resent.

              If you look at how and why people are motivated and the extent to which the most extreme criminal behavior comes from psychopaths then I think it all feeds into that kind of understanding.


          • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

            Wherever we’re called upon to make any kind of judgement I think understanding motive will form some part of that where it is possible to do so. I don’t see how at least attempting that kind of understanding is to be avoided.

            Time pressure may be upon both of us in different ways…. Was it Doug who offered me the following?

            “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short” – Blaise Pascal

            I take very little issue with many of your points, but lack the time to explore each in detail.

            As to your quote of mine, perhaps a certain sense of sarcasm in the original is lost when it’s quoted out of context.


        • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

          I think she’s extrapolating from something more serious to something a good deal less so in a way that is in grave danger of being seen as not comparing like with like. Or at least that when presented with an emphasis on ideology and an absence of serious analysis fails to sift the relevant facts from the obvious outrage in a way that corals emotions from rationality and other from self for the worse when it comes to honing our sense of justice.


  2. Susan in Regional NSW May 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm #

    Living in rural Oz at the time this wonderful book came out I raced into town asap to buy it once I heard all the brouhaha its release had created discussed on RN’s books and arts morning programme.
    Even now many years later,I still find I am stirred by conflicting emotions having recently re-read it and many many questions still plague me about the whole situation.


    • Jennifer Wilson May 14, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

      I agree, Garner’s honesty leaves no stone unturned, her marvellous recording of her own uncertainties reveals the complexities and ambiguities. I think she is quite brilliant in this book.


      • Luna August 24, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

        I will let Moira Rayner the actual Commissioner for Equal Opportunity involved in the Ormand affair, reply for me here:

        Click to access firststo.pdf


        • Anonymous December 28, 2014 at 7:41 pm #

          Thanks for posting this Luna. Seems to shed more light on things for me anyway.


      • Anonymous May 10, 2015 at 12:19 pm #

        Seriously Jennifer, why would anyone involved in a court case, after reporting a crime, consent to being interviewed by someone writing about it., who was clearly not on side? It was obvious to the women who laid charges that Garner was not trustworthy, despite her persistence in wanting them to open up to her.


  3. Bailey's Mother May 14, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    I have always loved this book, partly because anything Helen Garner writes makes me think very hard, but also because the scenario resonated with me as a gay woman who has had, at times, had to deal with office “humour” re my sexuality. The standout has to have been a younger female colleague who would make continuously stupid jibes like ” do you think Bronwyn Bishop and Pauline Hanson might have an affair” during the time Hanson had just entered parliament. Inanity extraordinaire from a young woman in social work practice. Was I such a delicate petal that I would need to lodge a formal complaint with the Anti Discrimination Commissioner? I chose not to, mostly out of my own pride that I was the grown up here but also because I had been in far darker places due to others’ reactions and violent actions to my sexuality. This young woman’s behaviour was not violent, it was manifestly stupid. The issue was resolved through discussion and counsel by older colleagues. It resulted in an apology. It also resulted in a young practitioner realising that the ethics of her profession applied to the entirety of her life, not just to clients. The alternative was a formal process that had the real risk of damaging her career. She is a 40 year old practitioner now who does good work with passion and care. All it took was an apology and a cessation of her behaviour. And I am possibly a little more gracious than I may have been if I had wanted a victory in which another was punished.


    • Jennifer Wilson May 14, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

      Oh, yes, this is so heartening. This is exactly how we should deal with such things, with wisdom, and grace.


      • paul walter May 14, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

        I like it too.That is the sort of grit my football team showed when it was winning premierships.


      • Garpal Gumnut May 14, 2013 at 9:19 pm #

        I tend to agree with Foucault, that sex is central to our existence. I find the abuse of the concept of normal sexual desires by a unconstructed green left feminism, with a history of trauma, not useful. As a I would have argued against Methodist ladies if I had lived 100 years ago.



      • Anonymous May 10, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

        She says from such a privileged position. Sounds so honorary male.


  4. doug quixote May 14, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Thank you Jennifer. Retribution and Vengeance are what many people mean by justice, and too many seek to exact vengeance because they can. They are empowered by the law and the current political climate, to seek “justice” in ways that were not possible even twenty years ago.


  5. Mindy May 14, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    I must read Garner’s book. Does she mention if she was ever in a position where she was harrasssed? I have seen a harrasser in action and the result of those actions. There is no power for the harrassed person. None at all. Nor is there anything in conciliation. Sexual harrassment destroys lives, and rarely for the harrasser.


    • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

      I think you’re right to say that in cases where harassment of any kind is ongoing and becomes a problem then it will inevitably emerge that the chosen victim will be somebody who was dominated in the power relationship and failed to fight back.

      Perhaps the very notion of vulnerability itself implies that some women must be less vulnerable, more inclined to fight back or less likely to be targeted for harassment. That then raises some interesting questions about what the right way to empower women might be, assuming of course that there is such a thing and that it probably won’t look very much like a one size fits all solution.


  6. Elisabeth May 14, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

    I’m with Bailey’s mother, apologies in situations like this go a long way, but when apologies are not in the offing people can become even more enraged.

    Elsewhere I’ve part quoted Helen Garner’s wonderful response to some of her critics of The First Stone. Maybe here I can include it in toto. It applies elsewhere as well:

    ‘What the book invites from the reader is openness-an answering spark. But I found that many people, especially those who locate their sense of worth in holding onto already worked out political positions, are not prepared to take the risk of reading like that. Perhaps they can’t anymore.

    What is not made explicit for readers like these is simply not there. Being permanently primed for battle, they read like tanks. It’s a scorched earth style of reading. It refuses to notice the side-paths, the little emotional and psychological by-roads. It’s a poor sort of reading that refuses the invitation to stop reading and lay down the page and turn attention inwards. And it’s always easier or more comfortable to misread something, to keep it at arm’s length, than to respond to it openly…

    There’s been a lot of talk triggered by the book, about symbolic mothers and daughters. But what sort of mother, literal or symbolic, would insist to her daughter that an early experience in the rough adult world, no matter how painful or public, would blight the rest of her life? That is the kind of mothering that doubles the damage. A decent mother, when the dust had settled, would say to her daughter:
    ”Right it’s over. Now we can look at what’s happened. See how much has happened was other people’s responsibility, and try to see how much of it, if any, was yours. Take responsibility for your own contribution, be it small or large. You are not responsible for men’s behaviour towards you, but you are responsible for your own. Pick yourself up now. Wipe your tears. Spit out the bitterness and the blame before they poison you. You’re young and clever and strong. Shake the dust of this off your feet. Learn from it and then move on.’


    • helvityni May 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      What a wonderful response from Helen Garner, I have read most of her books…for me she is my favourite Australian writer. I like what she says and how she says, there is no artifice…

      I’ll take a second look at The First Stone…The Children’s Bach is first class.

      Thank you Elisabeth for posting the above.


      • helvityni May 14, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

        says it


    • Forrest Gumpp (@ForrestGumpp) May 15, 2013 at 9:34 am #

      Thank you, Elisabeth, for garnering such encapsulations!

      And now a little blast from the timeline of the past, by way of context:


      • helvityni May 15, 2013 at 9:51 am #

        Well said Commander Wilson HMF.


  7. hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    I haven’t read The First Stone, but based on what’s been said here I’d like to venture some thoughts about the nature of where I think the treatment of sexual harassment intersects the previous topic about justice.

    To start with a conclusion for a change, I don’t like dobbers. I think it can be problematic in terms of the way justice is pursued. It’s not all dobbers, but sometimes I find myself being critical of people who given the choice between confronting an issue themselves or pursing a less direct solution will try to get somebody else to do the hard part for them. I think our willingness to accommodate this kind of behaviour may in some cases lead to an injustice even while I fully realise there are many cases where support for the weak against the strong is one of the better and more just things we do.

    Most of the time I think that we manage to sniff out the differences between genuine grievances and what turns out upon investigation to be malicious dobbing. Most of the time our common sense works but perhaps when it fails us it comes to the loaded issue of sexuality, and I think that’s what Garner’s exploring here.

    There’s nothing at all wrong or unclear with saying that men should own their faults and own up to their transgressions, but when it comes to weighing those faults then putting coercion on the same level as violence or sexual inappropriateness on the same level as assault then equating the lot with rape is a complete overreaction. Surely completely failing to see that, does an injustice to sexuality itself that we might want undone upon reflection.

    Part of it is said by Garner in terms of the insult to the suffering of those who have met real violence. But another part of the equation is assuming gender biased things about one another in a way that is basically sexist. So that if justice is to be done then the burden of proof that should have to be met becomes almost non-existent, such is the outrage we’ve given permission to. The mere accusation is enough to create a lasting stain of disrepute, and the power that gives women to treat men as “others” is itself divisive and becomes the very antithesis of any pretence to a more harmonious kind of feminism that has gender equality as its goal.

    The harm done in wanting punishment and revenge for something that a certain kind of feminist trope has blown out of all proportion is that instead of measured chastisement that the victim of some minor groping is empowered to deliver herself, any chance that she could ever coexist harmoniously with a mildly transgressive colleague is destroyed when she takes her problem to a higher authority. In relinquishing control of the situation to authority either we question women’s state of empowerment in sexually inappropriate situations or we assume that she would not act unless it was quite serious, perhaps even more serious than it is. Since even as I write I’m concerned to add that I don’t want to remove protections from women in more serious cases I find it becoming clearer that we can’t just shrug this off as the odd case of poor judgement.

    What we find just and unjust, permissible and criminal is framed in terms of social values that change from time to time, and have changed from being empowering in the case of sexuality as liberated from some formerly oppressive state prior to the sixties to becoming somewhat overprotective in a way that on reflection turns out to be disempowering for both genders. The upshot of all this being a condition whereby authority appears to pursue a sexually neutered ethic that renders anything and everything vaguely sexual to be inappropriate (NSFW perhaps), is effectively a return to the oppression of sexuality that a more progressive version of feminism once celebrated the demise of. And that version of sexual equality that relies on sexual repression to level things out by disempowering everyone is what I call an injustice to sexuality itself.


    • Elisabeth May 15, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      I recognise what you’re saying here HudsonG but I think it may be more complex. The women who complained were alluding to a certain power imbalance, not simply offended feelings. They were concerned about a patriarchal culture that at the time was rife at Ormond.


      • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 10:37 am #

        I completely agree that they were responding to a power imbalance but as I see it their whole relationship with the “other” was skewed in the way that some relationships often are by things like patriarchal culture and the poor assumptions that went with that.

        The problem was that in choosing to subvert what they probably rightly saw as an imbalance they pursued their grievances in a way that mistook something approaching vengeance for justice. Two wrongs ultimately never make a right, and the harm that comes out of women only being empowered insofar as they’re able to manipulate outrage or insist that the only appropriate form of sexual behaviour is suppression are clearly temporary and furtive attempts that are ultimately doomed as soon as “others” realise how short that fall of justice in any real sense of the word.

        I think the word I’m looking for when it comes to articulating the relationship between self and other described by this episode is “selfishness”. They could take an initiative that wrested an imbalance of power away from the “other” so they did.

        I hope I’m articulating a view that takes the next step in saying this was ill advised because it very much involved seeing men as “other”. The collective patriarchy that gets the blame in these cases is not beyond justifiable criticism, but the law (along with a more nuanced and I would say properly egalitarian view of life) does not hold social tropes to account, it tests cases on their merits. So that where retribution becomes the sole aim of justice we’re apt to fail in proportioning punishment commensurate with the offence in question.

        I nevertheless wanted to go beyond that and to say something about the truer nature of empowerment towards gender equality such that the power a woman has to reject sexual inappropriateness is not underrated or, as in this case, effectively totally ignored were it not for their appeal to outside authority. If the only solution to empowering women is by proxy in the form of this appeal to authority and by extension for authority to impose repressive standards of sexual appropriateness, then what we get is the complete and utter failure of sexual equality in the form of an imposed asexuality.

        When we merely wind up subverting and driving those patriarchal attitudes underground we do a couple of things wrong. We reinforce their acknowledged existence and we fail miserably to persuade society to replace them with a better more enlightened and empowering view of sex and gender. It’s a stillborn version of feminism indeed that settles for that result!


    • doug quixote May 15, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      The problem as I see it is that the penalty imposed – loss of a well paying job as well as publication of the offender’s name and the following opprobrium, and its flow-on effects on his family and loved ones – is far in excess of what is really required to redress the offence.

      The women in question are in the right to take action to seek redress; the penalty will flows is excessive.

      I’m not sure just how we can correct that situation. I generally oppose the idea of secrecy and suppression orders, but perhaps there is a case for requiring anyone who makes such a complaint not to further publish the subject matter.


      • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 10:49 am #

        In a world where simply being outed in public as a sexually inept old groper was punishment enough then women would far more readily have their just desert for minor transgressions. Somehow we failed to modify our attitudes so that they’re empowered to take that view of the situation.

        As it is half the time the patriarchy closes ranks against them when it transpires that elevating inappropriateness to some more serious level of misconduct carries too high a penalty and indeed too high a burden of proof.And clearly the mere errant fumble of a breast shouldn’t have to be blown out of proportion in order for the woman to have means to redress it.

        Maybe if we truly wanted gender equality then men would be more willing to own their transgressions, including minor ones, and accept social rather than legal consequences. And maybe if women weren’t fed notions of men and some enemy “other” then they’d come to regard empowerment as something obtained as a matter of personal responsibility rather than appeals to authority.


        • doug quixote May 15, 2013 at 1:23 pm #

          It may be mischievous to say so, but it is not beyond one’s imagination to get rid of an obnoxious boss, to deliberately set out to destroy a boss, or even to remove an obstacle to one’s own promotion, by using the machinery available. An example which springs to mind is James Ashby’s disgraceful attempt to destroy Peter Slipper.


          • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 2:19 pm #

            In this context it probably is mischievous to say it, but then for a minute there I thought you were merely referring to the movie Horrible Bosses.

            Maybe the Ashby thing was more about politics than normal?


            • doug quixote May 15, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

              And what is normal? The woman who tried it on with the David Jones exec, hoping to land a small fortune? Or do you mean the more genuine claims which actually did deserve to get up?

              Part of the problem is that published excepts are often “moderated” to not offend sensibilities of the readers, which leads to copycat claims which are woefully deficient.

              The result of the failure of these deficient claims is further outrage against the system, and on it goes.


              • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 8:12 pm #

                Perhaps I should swap normal for “might otherwise be the case”. But I think you took it more or less the right way.

                The thing is though that I wouldn’t be reaching for the salacious or the sensational in terms of using them as my examples here.

                What might otherwise be the case with the greatest of frequency and the least degree of fuss are any number of unheard of cases where nothing is done either because escalation is unwarranted or because it’s just too difficult for all involved to pursue it further. Or indeed as mentioned it often goes the other way and someone’s career suffers because a charge levelled however irresponsibly, perhaps even vindictively leaves it’s mark even when the process followed doesn’t culminate in any kind of formal finding.


              • Anonymous June 20, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

                …”the woman who tried it on with the David Jones exec. hoping to land a small fortune? Or do you mean the more genuine claims…..did deserve to get up?……that woman had every right to to hold the David Jones exec, serial sexual harasser accountable. You clearly have limited understanding of how women experience sexual harassment & because of that are complicit in enabling it.


                • hudsongodfrey June 21, 2015 at 12:55 am #

                  It’s been a while since we visited this topic, but I think the context of what said was to do with the legalities of the thing.

                  I think one can be simultaneously sympathetic with women’s perspectives on sexual harassment while acknowledging that a legal tort attracting a large payout requires evidence of a commensurately serious kind of harm. Offering the observation that harm occasioning loss of income or status would border upon or perhaps even include sexual assault doesn’t deny women’s’ experience of sexism or any other lesser kind of harassment. Yet to say somebody is a sexual; harassment enabler because they agree with the courts’ sense of proportion in these matters is either simply inaccurate or tantamount to saying they don’t know that sexual assault is wrong.

                  Since you haven’t added to the sum of our supposedly “limited understanding”, it wouldn’t do to let your accusation go unquestioned.


                  • Anonymous June 21, 2015 at 9:32 am #

                    spoken like a true lawyer….fuck off


                    • hudsongodfrey June 21, 2015 at 12:05 pm #

                      Since the veracity of an harassment claim is a matter that would go before the courts I think legal distinctions are appropriately drawn. I’m sorry you’re not thrilled with the language that entails, but then your own use of language leaves a lot to be desired…..

                      By all means feel free to take your own advice.


  8. paul walter May 15, 2013 at 3:45 am #

    It really frustrates me, this ability to lose a posting on some thing that has sparked my interest.
    I initially avoided the thread starter, not feeling confident to approach a tendentious issue possibly requiring something akin to a formal response and genuine mental effort and empathy. I almost let the post slip by.
    Then I read it, a bomb of recognition went off, I got curious and googled then started writing, then lost the previous post.
    Sufficient to say I got lucky on the Google and found a short intro that fleshes out Jennifer Wilson’s considered approach and intro.
    This was “The Daughter’s Reply” by Anthea Taylor, from the Uni of WA online journal “Outskirts”, vol 15.
    I’d say pretty much current although I couldn’t find the exact date.
    It dealt with a raft of factors that add to the complexity even at this twenty year detached distance, the differing takes in the coverage as to significance and the intense conversation it provoked as an issue in itself, as different viewpoints attempted to discern meaning, given certain contexts and contingencies.
    Why, I remember an intense afternoon of it on the ABC Sunday show as well as a 4 Corners and heaps of stuff in the newspapers.
    The factors involved intergenerationality, class and background, gender and sex, political and cultural viewpoints and involved people like Virginia Trioli, Kathy Bail, Sarah Maddison, Anne Summers, odious (to me) Bettina Arndt, as well as Prof. Chilla Bulbeck, an Adelaide uni academic who did a small but significant good turn as to me personally when I first started studying at the place.
    I won’t comment further for now, but hope the thread keeps kicking on, there are many misconceptions and ambiguities and I think Dr Wilson feels it’s time men and women talked on these things instead of retreating into mutual suspicion.


    • Jennifer Wilson May 15, 2013 at 5:24 am #

      Yes, I’m appalled at the current state of suspicion, fear, resentment, hatred, mistrust etc that is inevitably affecting heterosexual relations. The apparent loss of the ability to make measured judgements on the seriousness or otherwise of offences in some quarters leads, as HG points out, to a repression of sexuality that many feminists have fought against.


      • paul walter May 15, 2013 at 6:06 am #

        You must be up early and I’m night-owling.
        As usual, HG gets closer than many, but he was lucky not to underplay the grievances the students may have felt concerning the (tipsy) ageing academic comfortable sure of his prerogatives in a cultural environment that had not yet changed in response to a huge alteration in demographic as to women on campus.
        Its precisely difficult because the incident is not black and white, unless you were there and studying the situation intently.
        The evidence is unclear as to whether the girls overreacted or Shepherd actually copped fair grief for imposing himself on them to an extent that we underestimate- maybe somewhere in between?
        I should say, I thought Elisabeth’s take was great as well.


        • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 8:55 am #

          My attempt was to avoid judging what I’m not in a position to judge. I started with a distrust of dobbers, and I think Garner started with a distrust of how the incident was handled too. She went off and researched a book re-examining the case, I just wanted to examine my own ability to articulate what it is that might be wrong with the basic assumptions that make this kind of dobbing dangerous.

          There shouldn’t have been any overplaying or underplaying of grievances in what I wrote other than a very basic acknowledgement that either can occur and the former will occur if we make generalised antipathy towards sexuality our default position.

          Prudish BACWA groupthink and the hijacking of feminism to promote it have a bit to answer for here in terms of how sexist it truly is to assume men are disproportionately empowered and women therefore disempowered by sexual situations. Apparently the authors of this trope imagine that women are all sexual submissives and cannot imagine sexual equality on a interpersonal level. The personal was never more political than when people’s activism is all about what others are supposed to change in order to accommodate them, but never ever about what they need to change about their own behaviour to do justice to others.


          • doug quixote May 15, 2013 at 9:26 am #

            Excellent HG : Your last sentence ought to go up in lights :

            “The personal was never more political than when people’s activism is all about what others are supposed to change in order to accommodate them, but never ever about what they need to change about their own behaviour to do justice to others.”


          • paul walter May 15, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

            No problems with this..all those years ago, “dobber” was my first reaction also.
            This was also mentioned in the Anthea Taylor paper, with older feminists a bit scornful of the much younger entitlement princesses on campus and out there in general, self-presenting and seeking to score brownies with the sisterhood.
            Yet it must be fair comment that for someone little better than a kid, to be bailed up by a big gropey bloke must be disconcerting; apparently this is a feature of many workplaces today also..”come across, or I’ll pay you out”.

            As for being paid out by pseudo- feminists, is there a bloke who tries to do the right thing alive that hasn’t copped some of this sort of nastiness anyway?
            To think of two women immediately, Anne Summers and Jennifer Wilson, the wonder is that in some cases the attitude is not LESS forgiving than it is.


            • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm #

              I think you’re going towards the other/self dichotomy that I wanted you to avoid though Paul. The ease with which we can all recount the times we felt ourselves badly done by is too seldom matched with any kind of ease when it comes to accounting for what we’ve done wrongly towards others.

              If the truth is that we’ve never had in our personal experience any problem with sexual inappropriateness that was in any way out of control then the reason may well be that we own our behavior and set reasonable boundaries for ourselves and others. What that then says about how we regard the behaviour of others, their motives and their actions probably informs some kind of empathy we have for one side or both of any given situation when we reflect upon ourselves and our own experiences. Reasonable people may also hold opinions that are informed by more experienced sources of information about a subject that as you say don’t retreat into mutual suspicion.

              If we’re left with those few problems cause by the ill-informed, unreasonable and inexperienced then the least we can do would be to recognise how unqualified they are to take the lead in such matters.


              • paul walter May 15, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

                Who, me??


              • Garpal Gumnut May 15, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

                Thanks hg
                I am reminded of Emile Cioran’s quote,
                “Sperm is a bandit in its pure state.”
                There is a danger in over intellectualising reproduction, sex and lust.


                • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

                  Damn I wasted the Tim Minchin Video. It would have been absolutely perfect for this comment, “Fuck I like boobs though!”


              • samjandwich May 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

                It might be worth acknowledging here also that we are (presumably) relatively mainstream middle-class whitefellas, and therefore less likely than most people to have been sexually molested in any way, and consequently less angry and less intimately informed… and less passionate about speaking out. Despite whatever “failures” might exist in this debate, it’s probably still worthwhile noting the effect of one’s status on one’s collective of experiences.

                Sure I’ve been groped a few times in what people of my generation used to call a “mosh pit”, but at the time I put it down to a case of mistaken identity…


                • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 5:51 pm #

                  Go the other way then, ask who you see and being the victim and see if generalisations about the background or ethnicity of women who are more or less likely to have been groped or more seriously assaulted actually figures in this.

                  I’m not sure that it does nor that making those kinds of generalisations is ever really very helpful. I think education may be a factor, perhaps for both victim and offender, but I really have no hard evidence for it. I just think some people know better than to behave in the ways they suspect of leading to problems for themselves or others. I don’t think that I’d consider the effort we’re putting into thinking this through as worthwhile if I didn’t think that.


          • Beste May 15, 2013 at 7:07 pm #

            What do mean by BACWA?!?!


            • hudsongodfrey May 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

              Banning And Censoring Wowser Agenda. I think someone here made up the acronym and will probably chastise me because I forget every time who it was 🙂


            • doug quixote May 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

              The Banning And Censoring Wowser Agenda.

              as perpetrated by Fred Nile, rightist Christians and Collective Shout in particular.


      • Anonymous June 21, 2015 at 11:56 am #

        And who decides what a measured judgement is….the blokes on Sheep?….give me the feminists anyday


  9. Nick (@nick__nobody) May 20, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    I enjoy reading your work JW, having discovered your blog during the MTRsues time, but I respectfully disagree here. I read The First Stone, and the many answers to it, at the time and still think Garner went too far. She fictionalised her account in significant ways and ultimately it all comes off as a well written kind of victim blaming, and a generational closing of ranks. Mark Davis in ‘Gangland’ placed it appropriately in a baby boomer trend to shore up their entrenched power by denigrating and attacking younger people’s politics, feminism, writing, arts and culture.

    Garner never spoke to the women involved, she announced her sympathy for the male academic very early in the piece and they were justifiably suspicious of her and chose not to meet her. Her emotional reaction to this reads as intensely self important and indulgent. Her account is inevitably one sided without access to the women’s perspective. She completely fails to deal with the power imbalance involved in the situation between an academic and students whose study and career outcomes he could affect, because it suits her attempt to trivialise and dismiss their experience of harassment.

    The book was widely read because she enjoyed a reputation as an excellent writer, and because it received blanket positive reviews and publicity by her boomer friends with power in the media, but it still seems vampirical to me, a text of generational warfare, victim blaming, anti young feminists, and overly self important. It permanently damages her value as a writer for me, marking her as conservative and anti-feminist, and as yet another boomer circling the wagons, and I am surprised to see it still defended.


  10. zerograv1 May 21, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    The only conclusion I could draw from the incident back then was that Melbourne University were very unprofessional in not having a suitable process for dealing with the complaint. Any large organization has an impartial process that calmly reviews the statements and facts and prevents publicity outside the interview room and a need to know. Appropriate apologies, staff relocation or dismissals or warnings for false claims and other remdies are available, reserving police notification for the more serious incidents. Choosing to use the complaint as a big stick to support an ideology by initiating immediate police action is not only a gross over-reaction, it completely ignores due process and natural justice and belongs in a playground. It is unprofessional and inadequate as a response and does nothing other than fan the flames of various pro and anti-ideologists. Result? No change in the risk of it re-occuring especially from those that like to garner attention by filing outrage. The University had to have the provision to not reward complainers so gratuitously so the matter could be investigated in a neutral and professional context. It was manifestly far short of this standard regardless whether the complaint had merit or not.


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