some questions about sex and power

Just finished reading Helen Garner’s book, The First Stone. Garner sits in some “questions about sex and power” from the vantage point of an ‘old guard’ feminist from the 70s who is facing a new crew of younger feminists in the 90s. The Master of Ormond College at Mebourne Uni is accused of sexually harassing and inappropriately touching two female students. The girls eventually go to the police, and Garner wants to know why.

The 90s, evidently, was a time when sexual harassment was big on the public agenda, and a lot of feminist energy was directed at the issue. I don’t think that we’re that obsessed with sexual harassment today. Garner describes some of the ways young women were responding to sexual attention – feelings of repulsion at being looked at; worthlessness when touched against their will. There seemed to be a feminist discourse that emphasised the invasive, almost violent sexual will of men, who exerted themselves over powerless female victims. This idea is familiar to me, because I’ve played into before – using it as a way of painting myself as an innocent victim, rather than an active player in a dicey situation.

While we use this framing of power play from time to time, it’s not a dominant idea for my generation. When I’ve used that discourse, I’ve been aware of how disempowering it feels, and how actually, I would feel far more whole if I took responsibility and admitted that I was not powerless, but chose to act in a certain way. Garner riles against the idea of female powerlessness, and when I look around today, I see that women are taking up that power more. There are some strong assertions of female sexuality, and perhaps a recognition of the responsibility that comes with that. I’m not sure that women of my generation have that same discomfort at the male gaze, or whether a grope would be internalised as a sense of ‘worthlessness’.

One thing, though, has not changed. And that is the odd passivity that washes over many of us, like an icy shower, when we are subjected to something sexual against our will. Garner described it in her book using examples from her own life and the lives of lots of other women – women who are, at any other time, strong, assertive individuals. And that is how I would describe myself, yet as I read these stories, I can relate so whole-heartedly to them it’s almost eerie. It happens so fleetingly you convince yourself it was an accident and press on as if nothing happened. Or, it happens so gradually that you don’t even notice it, until you’re in the midst of it and you don’t know how you got there. Or, it happens and it would be somehow inappropriate to say or do something, as if what had transpired was appropriate! The feeling is so bizarre, and you bustle off in a state of shock or denial, and afterwards you go, “Why didn’t I just…” But you didn’t. Somehow, you never do, until later.

I wish I could tap into that female power in those situations – to ‘slap ’im’ or make a scene. But I just freeze, and then simply try to escape the situation. Garner suggests that what we do, in these situations, is work to protect him. What is with that? What do we have to gain?