IN MY early 20s, I moved to an area of work where I was the only woman among a group of senior men: a desk of subeditors. I was uncertain of my welcome in such a male enclave. I was not uncertain for long. A big, stony-faced man I had never met came over and threw a story on my desk, saying in a voice audible to all, “Sub this, moll.”
In genuine disbelief, I asked, “What did you say?” He repeated himself. I stood up and kicked him hard, once, on the shin. “Don’t call me a moll,” I said. And I sat down and took up my pen with trembling fingers.
Luckily for me, he took it like a man. He held no grudge and we later developed a straightforward, easygoing relationship. A boundary had been set and was respected. It seems like an advertisement for Helen Garner’s advice in ‘the first stone’ to girls being harassed: try a stiletto heel on his instep.
But I would never try such a tactic now. Now I know it’s not always that simple. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s not always that simple has been almost obliterated from view by a decade of media hysteria over “the Ormond College affair”.
The case’s notoriety has made “sexual harassment” a household phrase, but for all the wrong reasons. It has created a social atmosphere so fraught that it has in some ways become harder to deal with the problem.
This is because the public debate was conducted mostly around the terms Garner set. Why did the young women go to the police over minor allegations of touching? Why did they let it get to the point where a man’s career was destroyed? What lay behind their “ghastly punitiveness”?
The point Garner failed to get her head around is the same one that remains obscured today, and the one I had no sense of the day I administered that kick. It is the question of institutional power.
The direct-rejection approach is fine with your average drunk at a party. But it could backfire disastrously with a man who controls your work life or university career.
What if he takes it not like a man but like a weasel? He could go on to play “How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways”. In an office, he could confine the woman to low-status or difficult work, block her pay rises or promotions, or post her to the workplace equivalent of Siberia. On a university campus, he might compromise her marks, her scholarship or bursary prospects, or her references.
If a man grabs a woman’s breast at a party, it is indeed, to use Garner’s term, just a “nerdish pass”. But if the man is in a position to punish the woman for her knockback by manipulating her circumstances in a formal organisation to which they both belong, that is sexual harassment. This is particularly so if he goes the grope in the first place partly because he knows he has one over her.
The serial sleazebag with delusions of modern-day droit du seigneur poses the biggest moral dilemma for a young woman. If she stays silent, she knows her passivity will leave him free to harass other women. If he holds a position of trust – doctor, priest, the person overseeing pastoral care at a boarding college – his job offers him a bulk warehouse of potential targets.
But why should she be the sacrificial lamb?
Because that is the main lesson from the Ormond affair: that everyone will be scalded and nothing resolved, with the man’s career destroyed and the woman demonised as vindictive, unnatural and unwomanly.
Mass media that had been largely uninterested in sexual harassment issues gave splatter coverage to the first book on the subject that affirmed male anxieties. Commentators seized upon the story in ‘the first stone’ to call the Ormond women bitches, monsters, femi-nazis and man-hating harpies. Garnerism became a magnet for misogyny the way Hansonism became a magnet for racism.
Yes, everyone is more conscious of sexual harassment now. Observation of the gender niceties in many workplaces is the best it has ever been, although this is probably due as much to women’s increasing numbers as to raised awareness. But serious abuse is still not uncommon, according to the Equal Opportunity Commission, and harassment complaints have been steadily rising in the decade since Ormond.
Complaints that reach the commission are complaints that have not been resolved by employers. They are management failures.
I suspect the most profound lesson taken from Ormond has been “Cover thine arse”. A lawyer I spoke to last week told me that while many companies have terrific written policies, their complaints procedures often collapse quickly because managers’ first instinct is still to quash an allegation rather than investigate and resolve it.
The number of women reporting that they were victimised in the workplace because they dared to lodge a formal complaint has skyrocketed in the past couple of years, from 209 in 1997-98 to 346 in 1998-99.
Analyses of the Ormond affair trawled the women’s psyches and motives. But where was the analysis of the male-dominated group dynamic that dictates an organisation’s response to harassment complaints? This was, after all, the reason the Ormond affair was taken to so many arenas: the women believed they did not get a fair hearing.
The real question is not: Why can’t women just let it go? The real question is: Why can’t bosses deal with this without either party being shamed or losing their jobs?
Until that changes, there will continue to be women who limit discussion of dirty deeds to urgent undertones in the ladies’ room; who cop it sweet or handle it one on one, despite the risks of retaliation; who resign from workplaces where they were otherwise happy because they couldn’t bear to make a fuss. There will be women who shield male misbehavior from view and bear its consequences themselves, as women have done for centuries.
This means public spaces such as work and university are still dotted with “no-go” signs for women. Because that’s what harassment does; it tells women that this is a male place where they are interlopers. The unwanted touch and the sexual epithet amount to the same message: You’ll be judged here not on what’s inside your head, but on what’s inside your undies.
Is that what we want for our daughters?
First published in The Age.