Love, marriage and housework: navigating the minefield

PROFESSOR Ken Dempsey recalls interviewing married couples about how they shared the domestic load. One husband said with pride: “I always do the Sunday night dinner.” Says Dempsey, “When we came to interview the wife, she just laughed and said, `On the way home from golf, he buys a pizza’.”

This couple is not necessarily destined for the Family Court, although Dempsey points out that American research found that the more housework a man did, the less often his wife thought of divorce.

But he believes women’s resentment about housework is a key barometer of a marriage’s health, and his latest research suggests that even women who see themselves as happily married are more dissatisfied with many aspects of their relationships, including the emotional ones, than are men.

It is mainly female unhappiness that fuels divorce, with up to 75per cent of divorces now initiated by women. This makes the issue as much a matter for community inquiry as bedroom argument.

Is it that men are reluctant to give up male privilege? Or is it that women are trying to force female standards of housekeeping and emotional response on their men?
The research by Dempsey, associate professor of sociology at La Trobe University, is published in the latest issue of Family Matters, the journal of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It confirms earlier findings that the number of women racing to work clutching briefcases still far exceeds the number of men willing to race about the house brandishing dunny brushes.

Some households with working wives continue to run on 1950s norms: “Many men demanded explanations from wives for not having carried out household or personal care tasks for them, such as having a meal ready the moment they walked in the door from work.”
But women’s response to this is complex. How they feel about the division of labor is not determined solely by how the division works, Dempsey says: “When women say the division is fair, what they are really telling you is how they feel about the marriage generally.

“If a husband is great with the children, which is a high priority for the wife, she tends not to mind doing more of the work. There’s almost no chance she will say the division of labor is unfair even if she’s doing 99per cent of it. If he delivers in other ways that are important to her, she will make rationalisations such as, `Oh, I’m better at this than him anyway’.”

Which throws into some gloom Dempsey’s finding that more women than men thought the following the following areas were unfairly divided: housework (71per cent, 10per cent); child care (64per cent, 4per cent); and leisure opportunities (40per cent and
5per cent).

Both men and women believed that men got the better deal from marriage, with many women describing their husbands as being like another child they had to pick up after. It might be this resentment as much as exhaustion that explains the lower libidos of working mothers reported in a different study last week.

Dempsey’s sample of 85 was small, so it was not representative. But Professor Pat Noller, director of the University of Queensland’s Family Centre, says it is a common finding that women have more complaints, and that many of them revolve around men’s distance from housework and child care.

“Men’s lack of involvement is seen as a lack of equality, because even women who are working full-time are still carrying the major burden at home. But the fact that women are more dissatisfied than men doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of women who are satisfied.” The problem is that those who are unhappy often find their husbands don’t take their concerns seriously. “Typically, he doesn’t see her unhappiness and doesn’t hear her saying she wants change. A study done in Sydney interviewed former couples about why they were divorced. The men all said it had surprised them, but the women all said, `We told him and told him and told him’.”

Noller has sympathy for men’s emotional style, which she says defines intimacy as sharing sex and companionship. “The classic story is where the women tells the therapist that her husband never shows her he loves her, and he says, `But I wash her car for her every week’.”

She says this century has seen a “feminisation of love”, with the female preference for emotional openness and deep talk becoming the yardstick for intimacy. “Men don’t always have the emotional awareness to be involved in this. You ask them how they feel and they don’t know. I think there is a certain degree of unfairness (in that expectation).”

On the other hand, a man’s “not hearing” a woman’s distress in a relationship can be a power play. “If you like the way things are but your spouse wants change and that change centres on you, chances are you’re not going to want to talk about it. That maintains the status quo but it leaves the partner helpless and can destroy the relationship, but men seem willing to take that risk.”

Quinn Pawson, director of counselling education with Relationships Australia, says many couples arrive in therapy stuck in a pattern where he withdraws every time she makes a demand.

“I am confident that men do engage emotionally – we see it week in and week out. But the question is how to engage them … (while) not leaving the woman with all the responsibility for maintaining the relationship, including the emotional housework.”

Another researcher has suggested that the unspoken expectations of wifehood influence the labor sharing in a relationship. Janeen Baxter, associate professor of sociology at the University of Queensland, has found that de facto women do 3.5hours less housework a week than wives.

“For women, it is not just the presence of a man that leads to spending more time on housework and having greater responsibility for more of the household tasks, but it is the presence of a husband.

“It appears that the institution of marriage exerts influence on men and women to behave in particular kinds of ways, independently of the social and economic differences between married and cohabiting women, which we know lead to women doing more housework (for example, having young children in the household, women spending less time in paid work and women contributing less of the family income).”

Her study of 179 people in cohabiting relationships and 1231 married people found that even women who lived with their partner before marriage did less housework after marriage than women who had not lived with their partners beforehand.

But marriages overall have changed from the rigid gender role division of work that used to exist. Baxter says American research found that women had cut their housework almost in half since the 1960s (although they now spent more time on shopping and child care), and that men’s share of housework had almost doubled in that time. It’s just that the figure for men started from a low base.

“Basically, what it comes down to is that in another 100 years things might be equal,” she says.
Table: Perceived problems in marriage

Females % Males %

Partner does not provide enough emotional support 53 15

Communication a problem 38 18

Partner makes too many demands 25 15

Insufficient time with partner 51 23

Insufficient interest in physical love making 2 33

Too busy with work or outside interests 71 30

Insufficient initiative in planning joint activities 76 48

One or more facets of the marriage reportedas unfair to respondent 76 15

Making three or more complaints about partner 67 28

Wanting to change one or more aspects of marriage 58 30

Source: The Melbourne marriage survey, 2001

Magic circle of female friendship



I HAVE a friend who goes back far enough to remember my worst sartorial excesses. She mortifies me with reminders of the lime-green hotpants and white plastic boots (Abba ruled, OK?) that made such a fetching combo with my metal-rimmed glasses and the steel braces on my teeth (at least something matched).I retaliate with her own history as a fashion tragic: also hotpants, this time electric blue velvet, with lurid matching eyeshadow. Romeo’s Juliet might have been a romantic heroine at 14, but we were more like extras from Muriel’s Wedding.

Now when we get together we often end up singing – badly, mockingly, wistfully – to the exuberant, romantic music we used to dance to in her chenilled teenage bedroom. Those were the days, my friend.

A shared history can be a big ingredient of friendship because old friends know you in a way new friends cannot. It’s like the difference between the war correspondent and the historian – one shares in the immediacy of the moment, while the other can only glimpse its outline through the haze of time.

Sydney journalist Suzy Baldwin has written a book of interviews, Best of Friends, in which she asks a dozen women about female friendship. Baldwin asks whether intimate friendships are more important to women than to men, or is it just that women are better at them? What are friendship’s limits? And what happens when intense friendships collapse?
Women friends occupy a different place in the heart to husbands or lovers, and friendship’s freedom from sexual entanglement leads to hope that it will be more enduring. As the artist Mirka Mora says, “A lover is like a flying bird – in and out – but a friend is forever.”

But Mora is ambivalent about friends and in another part of the interview announces that her only friend is her work. Baldwin asks whether she had friends as a little girl. Mora stops to think and realises, “They were all burnt in Auschwitz … Maybe that has something to do with it. When the war came I lost all my little children friends.” Her aloneness contrasts painfully with the optimism of women like art lecturer Elizabeth Elliott, who is confident she will make new friendships right into old age.

Female friendships are like the little girl with the little curl: when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad they are horrid. Little girls’ cruel magic-circle games – embracing someone as best friend one day, ejecting her as social leper the next – make parliamentary politics look stable and beneficent. Big girls’ emotional intensity can make for a sense of loss and betrayal when the tide goes out on a close relationship, as sometimes it must.

There is no consensus, in this book or in life, on crucial questions such as whether a friend has a duty to tell unpalatable truths. Would you tell your best friend if her partner was cheating on her?

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith wavers about how best to deal with a friend in trouble: “I’m not sure which is more important: for one person in her life to sit down and gently, gently, try to make her see what the problem is, or for her to have one friend who, through thick and thin, lets her be deluded when she needs to be deluded.”

Mary Vallentine, managing director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, made a hard call on that one. When her friend, the conductor Stuart Challender, became so weak with AIDS that his performances became dirge-like, she told him it was time to stop. “Oh, how hard it was to say that, because to him it meant, `Stop conducting and you will die.’ Which is, effectively, what happened.”

I once helped nurse a dying friend whom I had long thought of as my other mother. She invited me into her death the way she had invited me into her life, with confidence that this, too, would be better done together. At the time I thought it was something I was doing for her. It was not until afterwards that I realised she had offered me a blessing. There is nothing like a deathbed watch to make you face the truth about your own life, including the fact that not even the most treasured friendships can last forever.

Best of Friends, by Suzy Baldwin, Penguin, $19.95.

First published in The Age.

The midlife crisis? It’s a bloke thing

THE male midlife crisis is indeed male, according to research that has found women turning 40 are more confident and fulfilled than men the same age. The only area of life in which men and women feel equally dissatisfied is sex, with widespread unhappiness in the bedroom due to men’s increasing anxiety about their ability to perform sexually as they age.

The author of the report, social researcher and Age columnist Hugh Mackay, says many men interviewed for the study, Turning 40, complained their wives were not interested in sex.

“Then you’d hear about it from the other side of the fence; women were saying that around 40 their men seemed suddenly quite anxious about performance and were demanding sex more frequently … to affirm their sexual potency. It was quite a poignant aspect of the study. The women said everything would be fine if he would just relax and stop trying to be an adolescent.”

Mackay says women discussed the issue “with a lot of hilarity, but I think there was also an underlying sadness and difficulty about it”.

Women were suffering from the loss of the intimacy they craved; they were turned off by encounters based on an effort to shore up their men’s faltering sense of masculinity rather than a desire to connect.

“That’s the opposite of romance or intimacy,” Mackay says. “So the classic male behavior is then to wander, even if it’s just for a fling to find a younger woman with whom you can prove you are still a stud.”

Mackay and three other researchers interviewed eight groups of men and eight groups of women from lower-middle to upper-middle Australia. The interviews were conducted in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Wagga Wagga, the Blue Mountains and Bathurst.

The “spontaneous discussions” that resulted suggest that turning 40 means different things to different people; those content with their lives see it as an interesting milestone, while the unhappy experience it as a wake-up call to change. Typically, however, turning 40 signals a round of fresh doubts for men and a surge of relief for women.

While both sexes worry about physical decline, women are able to minimise their concerns as mere vanity, while for men it has darker implications about their potency generally, Mackay says.

“Women are superficially more concerned about the cosmetics, in that `drooping body parts’ sense. But leaving aside the beauty question, they have a really obvious sense of being ready to take off. It’s like a second wave of liberation.

“It’s a much more assertive point for women; they square their shoulders and say, `I know who I am. If people don’t like it, tough. I won’t be intimidated by anyone who thinks differently.”‘

Men also reflect and reassess at 40 but they are much more likely to go on as they are, “perhaps with an air of resignation”, Mackay says. He attributes this partly to the continuing strong cultural expectations of men to be the breadwinners.

“They doggedly press on because they have got families that are depending on them, so they can’t do anything dramatic. Some of the women in this study were disarmingly frank, saying, `This is great for us because it means we have the flexibility to make dramatic changes in our lives.’ They’ve got the freedom to do all this because he hasn’t.”

Mackay says 40-something women admit they talk about equality but are frightened by the idea of being the main breadwinner.

“They’re quite happy if they have a male partner who’s prepared to shoulder most of the responsibility for income.”

Men were also extremely conscious of the workplace scrapheap and the fact that making a change might leave them unemployable.

Said one: “Last year, I lost my job after 11 years with the one firm. I found it very, very difficult to get another one. That’s when you realise that 40 is no longer good for employment. I used to think it was 50.”

Mackay says experiences of the recession and unemployment have left these younger boomers questioning materialism and determined to teach their children there is more to life than possessions. Their twin terrors are that their children might be lured into drugs or develop depression and suicide.

“Even the mildest recreational drug use, which they themselves have engaged in, is somehow to be feared far above alcohol, although they are also concerned about alcohol.”

This commitment to family and concern about social problems has translated into a new understanding of what constitutes heroism, says Mackay.

“It’s more internal; it’s to do with psychological states and the quality of our relationships.

“It’s seen as people who are able to hold together a family under the very difficult conditions that would tend to fragment a family today, or people who are prepared to devote themselves to community needs at a time when we are ashamed of the extent of poverty and drug abuse and homelessness.”



‘I might have more wrinkles on my face, and parts of my body are heading south, but I don’t give a rat’s arse what anyone else thinks of me. For the first time in my life, I really fell sure of myself.’

‘Now I’m a bit more determined to make things happen. things have just been happening to me, and I think I’ll go out and do it now.’

‘Gravity is pulling down on everything. And don’t you find the mirrors at shopping centres cruel?’

‘He’s said a few times that he mightn’t be able to do it much more. And I say, “Some men go through to 70 or 80 having babies. What are you worried about?’

‘My grandmother was right. She used to say men are just big babies.’


‘Your body sends you message you can’t ignore, even though you’re still 18 in your head.’

‘Sex after marriage? There isn’t any.’

‘You don’t know what’s expected of you these days by your wife and your children. You have to be everything, the hard-working man, the hard-working housewife, the hard-working father.’

‘I suppose the days of coming home and sitting down and opening up the newspaper are gone.’

‘I know if I see a job application coming across my desk and the age is 43 or 44 I start to question if they’re too old.’

‘Feminism has made blokes softer. When I was 18, a bloke was a bloke, but now you have to hold back a bit.’

First published in The Age.

When your partner dies

Nancy’s husband, Al, had been in hospital for two weeks with heart trouble. The
day after he was discharged, he spent some time chortling with a neighbor as he
sat in the back yard in the sun. Later, she left Al watching football on the telly, while she went to grab something from the local shopping centre.

“I started down the escalator and I got the most awful feeling,” she recalls. “It was horrible. I thought for a minute I was going to faint, and I hung on to the banisters and went down. I went home as quickly as I could. I was only away about half an hour.

“I opened the back door and said, ‘I wasn’t long, was I?’ There wasn’t a sound. You get the most awful feeling. There’s just still air.

I went into the bedroom. Al was just lying back on the bed in his pyjamas and dressing gown and he had just gone. He had some bits of pill, white pill, on his tongue, just on his lip. He had evidently had a pain, taken his pills and gone to lie down and that was it.” They had been married for nearly 50 years.

It was stories like this that prompted Sydney journalist Richard Stanton to begin researching what life is like for widows. He had two friends in long-standing marriages lose husbands in quick succession, and the two women had very different reactions to the event: one was devastated, the other relieved to be rid of a man she no longer even liked. It made him curious about women’s responses to widowhood: how do they cope – emotionally, financially and practically – after they lose the partner around whom they had built their lives? What keeps them going? How does the rest of the world regard them?

In his new book, When Your Partner Dies, Stanton interviews 10 widows about their experiences. Some, such as Nancy, are older women for whom widowhood might have been traumatic, but for whom it is more expected. Others, such as Michele, lost their husbands young.

Michele’s husband, Denis, was diagnosed with cancer when she was four months pregnant with what became their only child. He had six months of chemotherapy: “Denis finished his treatment a couple of weeks before I was due to have the baby. He was terribly ill. In fact, he was hospitalised and the doctor said later his blood was at such a dangerously low level they were going to lose him that week.

I hadn’t known that. At the same time, my own father was dying and I was doing the shuttle between hospitals. My doctor was getting angry with me because my blood pressure was going through the roof.”

Her husband went into remission, but the cancer returned and he died when their daughter was three. Michele spent the last two years of his life frantically photographing and videoing his times with his daughter. She contained her weeping, and the begging on her knees to God, to the times Denis was out of the house. After his death, she concentrated on raising her daughter and re-training so that she could teach at night school.

Stanton says that what struck him most about the women he spoke to was their strength and resilience; their ability to survive loss and get on with life alone.

Men who lose their wives tend to re-partner much more quickly because they cannot bear to be on their own, he says: “Very few of these women said they were looking at a new relationship,” he says.

The perception that they would be trawling the remarriage market was an issue for many of the younger widows, who felt they were excluded from social functions because other women feared they would poach husbands. Not so, says Stanton: “They are seen as a threat at the dinner table in the same way as divorcees. But widowhood is very different. They didn’t leave a relationship to go and look for someone else. The last thing they want is someone’s else’s husband. They want their own husband back.”

While it is true that Stanton’s interviewees display strength, their stories also expose their vulnerabilities. Several talk of feeling lost when their husband died because he had made all the big decisions, or chosen all the major purchases. They remark that they only began to mature into independent personalities when they lost the marriage they had sheltered in.

One spent the two years after her husband’s death largely closeted in her house, frightened even at the prospect of facing the local shopping centre. Another so feared strangers learning that she lived alone with her daughter, that she kept all the household mail in her husband’s name.

Stanton believes another difference between men and women who lose spouses is that women, because they are less likely to be the primary breadwinner, are more likely to be left financially vulnerable. Some of the women in his book, such as Annabelle , found themselves struggling to work out which friends were providing trustworthy financial advice and which were trying to rip them off.

Michele was one of those who felt that being forced to provide for herself by returning to part-time work and study helped her recover from the loss: “I would recommend that anybody in this situation should try and hold on to their independence. It provides a feeling of satisfaction and (re-training) gave me something to aim for, something to focus on, a new career and a feeling of achievement. While I had a good part of myself focused on my daughter, it wasn’t a healthy thing to be 100 per cent focused on her.”

For many, their husbands are dead, but not gone. They still dream about them, hold conversations in their minds with them, and try to imagine what their husband would have wanted in significant matters such as dealings with their children.

Says Nancy, “I remember Al lost a pruning knife that he used and I found it years after he died. I dug it up in the garden. I stood up ready to go inside and say, ‘Al, look what I found’. You know, for a moment, he was back again. You never sort of lose them, in a way.”

· When Your Partner Dies:
Stories of women who have lost their husbands, by Richard Stanton, Allen and Unwin, AN EDITED EXTRACT FROM ANNABELLE’S STORY:

“I think of him every day of my life. I dream of him a lot. Less and less, but the dreams are now becoming very strange. When I make a decision I still think, ‘Gee, I wonder what Alex would have thought’. It has been very hard to get used to making any sort of decision on my own, but I think after seven years I am getting better at it. Never needing to consider remarrying is one of the hardest things to explain. You’ve had a good marriage for 15 years and if you never marry again it doesn’t matter. No one can live up to Alex. No one could be as caring for us.”

· Annabelle’s husband, Alex, was aged 40 when he had a massive heart attack. He died three doors from home, leaving Annabelle to raise their two children alone.

First published in The Age.

Hi Mum, I’m gay

Here is a tale of two sons. The first, Peter Wood, is a 57-year-old gay Catholic priest. He works in AIDS pastoral care and education in the Northern Territory, and has co-authored a new book on the issues parents face when a child announces that he or she is gay.

Wood describes the defining moment of his life this way: “I was cursed by my mother. She was not an evil woman – on the contrary – and certainly didn’t intend to do anything so crude or so cruel. Nevertheless, that is what it felt like: a curse.

“One evening, when I was about 15 and we were gathered in the kitchen … she said, in response to nothing in particular that I can recall, that she would rather her sons dropped dead, right there and then, than grow up to be queer.

“I had three brothers and I was the one who had (well-founded) doubts about my sexuality and who eventually came to understand myself as a gay man. I could never bring myself to tell her who and what I was. I feared she might have meant exactly what she said.” He now lives a celibate life.

The second son is the product of a different time and a very different family, although they, too, are Catholic. Andrew Dutton, 21, had known he was gay since he was 13 or 14. He did not come out until the end of secondary school. Like Peter Wood, his defining moment centred around a family meal.

He had invited his parents, Sylvie and Graham, to a restaurant, telling them he had something to announce. But when the time came he froze. Says Sylvie: “We were urging him to tell us and he shrank in his chair and looked terrified. He looked so sad and that’s when I knew … And I said, ‘You just answer yes or no to a few questions’.”

She made them silly ones, to make him laugh: “I needed that look to go away.” Did he want to become a priest? Was his girlfriend pregnant? Had he killed anybody?
Was he gay?

“He said this little ‘yes’,” she says, the thought of his distress upsetting her even now. “He couldn’t talk.” Her own first thought was of AIDS: “I’m going to have a dead son soon.” Her second was full of love: “If Andrew is gay, then gay is good.”

The foundations of this close family remained unshaken. Andrew was interviewed for this story in his parent’s home, his partner Douglas Leitch beside him, and his mother, father, sisters, aunt and grandmother all present. They are unswerving in their support of him and can laugh now about the funny aspects of his coming-out (Andrew’s aunt had asked him, “Why don’t you try kissing a girl?” to which he replied, “Why don’t you?”)

Andrew says his story is exceptional; he knows of few other gays whose coming out has been so untraumatic.

Peter Wood and his fellow author, Joan Golding, spend much of their time counselling parents who are struggling to cope with shock, rage, grief, guilt and shame. Their book, Coming Out, Coming Home: Growth in freedom for the parents of gay and lesbian children, is designed to inform and help people work through what is, for many, a complex process.

Joan Golding nursed her son Martin for three years before his death from AIDS in 1989. Martin was in his early 30s. Since then, his mother has become a volunteer worker with the Victorian AIDS Council, the Churches AIDS Pastoral Care and Education Program and the Victorian Department of Human Services.

Wood asked her to share writing the book, which includes chapters such as “First Reactions and Second Thoughts”, “God, Goodness and Gays”, “Homophobia” and “Parents of Gay Children”.

Golding says some parents, particularly fathers, react with extreme anger. “I remember a boy whose father went to his flat when he was out, took all his furniture out and burnt it on the nature strip outside.

“Some men feel there’s something terribly evil about homosexuality and they want to destroy anything connected with it. They also want to demonstrate that their own masculinity hasn’t been diminished by the revelation that their son is gay.”

While Golding says this is the worst response she has encountered, Wood believes that: “Anger expressed in action is probably easier to deal with than the ongoing coldness of ‘you are dead to me’.”

Both are critical of medical or religious figures who claim to be able to change a person’s sexual orientation. Wood once knew a man who had been a gifted pianist until his wealthy parents sent him to the United States for “treatment” for his homosexuality. He was lobotomised, his personality and his gifts destroyed.

Wood met him in a NSW psychiatric hospital: “The staff had a record of him playing the piano when he was a prodigy and that was the only thing that would quieten him when he was in his mania.”
Golding says some psychiatric treatments, such as aversion therapy, are sometimes as devastating to the subjects as surgical procedures: “They end up not knowing who they are.”

Golding and Wood’s book focuses on helping parents adjust to their child’s sexuality and to be wholehearted about it. In her list of unhelpful parental responses, Golding includes: “We told him we loved him anyway.”
She writes: “Better to say nothing at all! Families should love their children because of who they are, in every sense, otherwise their love cannot be said to be unconditional, which is the only sort worth having, isn’t it?”

Wood is similarly critical of his own church’s official attitude to gays, which is that homosexual activity is sinful and that homosexuals are deserving of compassion. “We don’t want compassion, we want respect,” he says.

But the book is also sympathetic to parents who find themselves pressured to deal with situations for which they are not ready. Children, says Golding, are often “not at all conscious of that and expect parents to snap to and be accepting”.

Wood writes: “I remember one fellow, who was himself very straight-looking and held a responsible job, who fell madly for an exotic and flamboyant character whom he insisted on taking home to his very middle-class parents for Christmas.

“He came to me in distress because the occasion had been extremely uncomfortable for everyone, loaded with pregnant silences, feigned attempts at joviality and even, at times, his mother weeping in other rooms. (His parents) had actually travelled quite a distance, but they had their limitations. We all do, in one way or another.”

Sylvie Dutton knows what hers are. She spent the first little while after Andrew’s coming-out in her own closet: “I told myself I was all right, but I was too scared to tell anyone.” So she joined P.Flag, a support group for families of homosexuals.

Now she has come to terms with homosexuality – Andrew jokes that she is more involved with the gay community than he is – but she finds homophobia extremely painful. “My child is hated by a lot of people and this has put a knife in my heart,” she says.

“I am still really sad that Andrew is gay, because he is in a minority group and no one wants their child to be in a minority group. And I worry about his safety; I would love for him and Douglas to be able to walk openly, hand in hand.”

But there is one place they are always welcome. Douglas’s parents are planning to come down from Queensland for a holiday soon. The Duttons will be having them to dinner so the families can get to know each other. It’s so nice when in-laws get on.

· Coming Out, Coming Home: Growth in freedom for the parents of gay and lesbian children, by Joan Golding and Peter Wood, Spectrum Publications, $14.95. P.Flag (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) offers information and support and can be contacted on 9511 4083.

First published in The Age.

You & me, can we be partners?

It’s a romantic story. They met in 1948 in a queue outside a theatre in Exhibition Street, waiting to see Vivienne Leigh and Laurence Olivier in The Skin of Our Teeth. Mark Rowan was a shy country boy who really rather liked the look of the tall young man with blue eyes who seemed so urbane standing near him. Later, inside the the theatre, a mutual friend introduced him to the young man, Robert Jeffrey. “It was somehow important to have an introduction,” Rowan recalls.

They have been together now for 50 years. Their life together has been like that of any other longstanding couple. They own a suburban house together and have joint bank accounts. They used to love to share the gardening and the book club membership. They have grown old together, Rowan losing his hair, Jeffrey, his health.

For them, the Equal Opportunity Commission’s proposal to offer gay couples the option of formally registering their relationships, submitted to state parliament today, has come too late.

“For many years, I would have wanted that,” Mr Rowan says. “Robert didn’t care a fig. But there are so many weddings to which we have taken gifts and good wishes, and we have never been able to have that for ourselves. Just the other day, I had a cousin who had been married for 25 years, so I called him up and congratulated him. But I thought, ‘I’ve been with my partner for twice as long as you’ve been with yours’.”

He believes the length and closeness of their relationship is its own testament, there would be no point in formalising it.

“Now that we are in our seventies, it’s not a significant thing. What is significant is that we have loved each other for so long. We don’t need marriage to codify that.”

But the commission’s proposals to recognise same-sex relationships are about more than emotional fulfilment and social recognition. They will change the legal rights and responsibilities of gay couples, to bring them into line with the standard that already exists for heterosexual de facto or married couples.

The commission’s research suggests there is considerably more common ground between conservative lobby groups and homosexuals on the issue of gay rights than there used to be. Commissioner Michael Gorton says that, for the most part, even conservatives who opposed such options as gay marriage and adoption supported the general notion that same-sex couples should not be discriminated against in other ways.

“If you remove ‘marriage’ from the equation, it takes away the sensitive religious issues,” he says.

“We take great heart from this report,” says Janet Jukes, co-convenor of the Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby. “I think society has made enormous shifts in the past 10 or 20 years.

“I think gay men and lesbians should have the right to marry in the same way any other couples can . . . but I think the committee has been very pragmatic, recognising that this is a very emotive issue, and that many of the same aims can be achieved in other ways.”

The proposal seems to have satisfied most parties to the debate. Mary Helen Woods, national vice-president of the Australian Family Association, feels that what she sees as the special qualities of heterosexual marriage have been protected, as have the rights of children to a mother and a father: “I think there are plenty of single parents who do a wonderful job, but I think when it comes to IVF and adoption it is important to consider the needs of the child and limit it to the ideal.”

Lesbian mothers “Sally” and “Jenny” are pleased to see any step forward in gay couples’ rights. They each have two children from previous heterosexual relationships. The children still see their fathers, but Sally and Jenny are effectively co-parents of all four, who are aged between nine and 14.

“Jenny” is delighted by the proposal to extend de facto recognition to gay partners. “That sounds great. One of the problems we have as a couple is that, because we are not recognised, if one should die with no will in place, we would have big problems over the property rights and over the children.

“And something that worries both of us at the moment is that if one of us is injured and in hospital, the other one won’t have the right to be next of kin. If a fuss is kicked up, that means that the person I love may not have the right to be beside my bed.”

Greg Brown, president of Homo De Factos, says his group’s objective was to obtain equality for gay couples, and this had never meant aiming for the right to marriage. He says the Equal Opportunity Commission proposals adequately address the main concerns.

“It gives legal protection to those who register and a safety net (de facto recognition) to those who don’t. There had been concerns, all the way through the inquiry, that people who chose not to register would be left legless, but that won’t be the case.”

The changes should help eliminate or minimise problems such as those Brown suffered when his partner of 10 years died in 1994. “I had assumed that we were covered under superannuation, but we weren’t,” he says.

His partner had been a federal public servant. “I took the Commonwealth to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and I lost. The court decided that we had lived in a marital relationship but that they couldn’t give me the payout because we were the same sex. Heterosexual relationships are recognised automatically and rubber-stamped through.”

Jamie Gardiner is a long-time gay activist who was instrumental in getting homosexuality decriminalised in Victoria. He says the report has achievable aims, which is important because “social change is about persuading people” but, at the same time, it does not compromise any future claims, which he believes must eventually include marriage and access to adoption and IVF.

“It’s not a question of whether rights should be granted but a matter of justifying continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to same-sex couples,” he says.

He is optimistic about the long-term prospects. “It was only 30 years ago – in 1967 – that the US Supreme Court ruled that there was no ground for continuing to deny the legal form of marriage to mixed-race couples.”

Gardiner says recognition is very important on an emotional level for gay couples, because it means society acknowledges and respects the reality of their relationship ties instead of denying them: “It’s the sense of not being derided as outlaws.”

* Fictional names have been used for some people to maintain their privacy.

First published in The Age.

Loving dilemmas: office romance and dangerous liaisons

One of the greatest legacies of Bill Clinton’s presidency might turn out to be the way he has brought a whole new meaning to “current affairs”.

Nightly TV bulletins about the reported predilections of the presidential penis have brought a wicked frisson to gossip around the water cooler in American and Australian workplaces.

If it’s OK to talk in detail about oral sex on the news, then it must be OK to laugh about it at work, mustn’t it? And who could feel harassed by harmless jokes about a politician’s “smoking trousers”? (Apart from their owner, of course.)

Some American commentators claim the Monica Lewinsky affair has turned the tide against political correctness in the workplace. It has certainly reignited debate about appropriate behavior for male and female colleagues. Is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of blue humor? If it comes to that, is there any harm in the mutual enjoyment of each other’s bodies?

According to US opinion polls, Americans are far more concerned by the possibility that Mr Clinton lied or conspired than they are by allegations of sexual encounters with underlings.

In Queensland, the claims of illicit sex and financial rorting by Government ministers are controversial largely because at least one of the gentlemen concerned is alleged to have indulged his pleasures at the public’s expense. That age-old phenomenon, the office affair, seems to have lost some of its scandalous cachet.

It is, after all, the way many people find their life-long partner. According to Rosalie Pattenden, a senior counsellor with Relationships Australia, it is the second most common way Australians meet their future spouses (the first is through friends and family). She believes office affairs have become more prevalent as women have joined the workforce and as work practices have changed.

“People are working longer hours and they are working, often, on intense projects with a small number of people or one other person,” she says.

“Sometimes, when they get very involved, when they need to meet often and understand each other’s feelings about an issue, the excitement can be mistaken for something more romantic, and the relationship slips into intimacy.

“There are also all sorts of extra-curricular activities in the workplace: people go to conferences together, to rural meetings. They have more time out of their real world and can start having romantic fantasies. It’s particularly likely to happen if one person is unattached or attached but unhappy.”

Psychologist Dr Janet Hall, who has made a study of sexual politics in the workplace, says that colleagues are most likely to fall into each other’s arms after office Christmas parties or conferences for which they are away overnight: “They have a few drinks and stay up until two in the morning and end up sleeping in the wrong beds.”

Dr Norman Rees, a Sydney-based clinical and organisational psychologist, says the typical woman who embarks on a workplace affair has an impoverished personal life and is rather lonely. She has invested a lot of time and energy in work, so that is naturally the place she tends to meet romantic prospects.

The typical man, he says, is aged between 45 and 50, is experiencing problems in his marriage and is possibly also shaken by challenges to his position at work. An adoring acolyte boosts his flagging self-esteem.

Office affairs can become nightmarish for the lovers, their colleagues and the corporation if the sexual dynamic becomes entangled with the power dynamics that swirl through every workplace. Dr Rees says: “If people are from different departments, or have relatively similar levels of status, it’s much less complicated. If it’s a relationship between a subordinate and a superior, particularly if it’s a younger woman and an older man, that brings in the whole question of advantage and control.”

Dr Rees believes that companies should educate managers about their responsibilities towards younger staff and encourage them to make mature assessments when juniors seem attracted to them.

Some relationships are built solely on the difference between the lovers’ workplace status. In mediaeval times there was a brutal custom known as droit du seigneur (the right of the lord) or jus primae noctis (the right of the first night). The lord was entitled to ravish the bride of any of his servants on the wedding night. Ms Pattenden says some businessmen still operate on this principle.

“The values in our society are changing, but there’s still a percentage of men who are very patriarchal and believe that men should be the dominant sex,” Ms Pattenden says. “They believe that they have every right to whatever they want and that women should fall in with that.”

Many Americans believe that any sexual transgressions Mr Clinton might have committed while on the job (so to speak) are solely a matter for himself and his wife, Hillary. Certainly personal morality is just that – personal.

But Attracta Lagan, the director of consulting services with the St James Ethics Centre in Sydney, argues that every workplace affair has the potential to cause professional conflicts of interest. Her bottom line is one that many would baulk at: ethical employees should reveal their relationship to the employer.

“Ethics are about considering how your actions affect others,” she says. “Where you put your own interests before the company’s, you are in a potential conflict of interest. Colleagues might be concerned about what they see happening – will the secret they confided to one be revealed to the other during pillow talk? Organisational life becomes less transparent. Despite the best will in the world, partners will support each other when in a group, such as a committee.”

And what happens, she says, if one party is assigned the task of nominating redundancies – will a current partner be unfairly protected or an ex-partner be punished?

Ms Lagan practised what she preaches. Ten years ago, she found herself bonding with the CEO of her company. They both acknowledged the attraction, but she refused to allow it to go further until she left for a job elsewhere. “The idea of anyone thinking that I got anywhere because of someone else was anathema to me,” she says. “I felt that my career progress would be compromised. Women can’t afford to let anyone cast doubts on their ability.”

Acording to Dr Hall and the chief executive of the Equal Opportunity Commission, Diane Sisely, neither women nor men can afford to let Clinton-inspired steamy e-mails and suggestive remarks become the new office norm. Dr Hall says: “Once the tone is lowered, you open up opportunities for sleazes to take things too far. Two women I know who were seriously sexually harassed say it started with dirty jokes that everyone condoned.”

Ms Sisely warns that people who engage in such banter should be certain that they know the person they address extremely well; if the other party is offended, it becomes sexual harassment.

But neither supports the idea of a formal ban on office romance. Human nature cannot be utterly constrained, and nor should it be. Remember Ms Lagan? She’s been happily married to that CEO for 10 years now.

First published in The Age.

Battering truth from domestic violence

Some American feminists argue that half of all married women experience battering; some male commentators retort that research shows women are as violent as men. Who is right? Karen Kissane reports.

IN THE United States, they call it battered-truth syndrome, and it is women, they say, who are battering the facts. The debate on domestic violence, fuelled by the murder of O.J. Simpson’s wife, Nicole, has led to an intensified scrutiny of the facts and figures about who beats whom, how often and how badly. The conclusion: in the war between the sexes, as in other battles, truth has been an early casualty.

In the US, as in Australia, there has been a sometimes poisonous debate about whether violence in the home is done mostly by men to women, or whether women are just as physically aggressive as men. The extreme has the radical feminist, representing the analysis that “all men are (at least potential) beasts”, in one corner of the ring, and an angry man contending that “men are victims, too”, in the other.

Each side cites research to try to prove its case; sometimes each uses the same studies to try to prove opposing points. Work by the American researchers Straus and Gelles was used by the federal Office of the Status of Women in the 1980s to argue that one in three wives are battered. More recently, male commentators such as Don Parham and Warren Farrell have quoted the same research to argue that women hit men as much as men hit women.

In fact, the truth lies somewhere in between and is more complex than either analysis would suggest. At issue is the difficulty of discovering the truth about something that has long been hidden, the imprecision of social science, and human nature’s reluctance to grapple with the shades of grey in controversial issues. The feminist analysis that wife-beating springs from women’s inequality with men holds true, but it is not the whole story.

Murray Straus, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, has been tracking domestic violence in America for nearly 20 years and been attacked by proponents from both sides of the ideological debate. He was one of the first to discover that women strike men as often as men strike women, and that they initiate as many aggressive encounters as their male partners. This aspect of his work is often cited as proof that women and men are equally responsible for domestic violence.

Professor Straus says radical feminists have made systematic attempts to discredit this part of his work and about 30 studies by other researchers with similar findings. He has experienced “bomb threats, accusations that I beat my wife, that I sexually harass students …

Many of my colleagues simply avoid the issue by not obtaining data, then they don’t have the embarrassing problem of not being able to publish it”. One Canadian researcher, he says, is now facing charges of ethical misconduct for having collected data that he chose not to publish for fear that it would be too controversial. Some feminist opponents fear that such findings will undermine public sympathy for battered women: “And here, I think, the public is losing sympathy because of the stridency of some people in the women’s movement.”
But many of Professor Straus’s findings support the view that violence in the home is overwhelmingly a problem for women caused by men.

“Many more women than men are injured,” he says. “For the same level of attack, women experience seven times more injury than men, not only because men are stronger when it comes to inflicting blows, but because women are more vulnerable, physically, on average. So if your definition of violence depends on who’s injured, then men are much more violent.”
In interviews with 10,000 people from 1975 to 1992, Professor Straus found that 16 per cent of couples experienced violence in their relationship in the preceding year. Of those cases, one quarter involved only the woman lashing out, and another quarter only the men.

In the remaining half, violent exchanges were mutual. This does not mean that serious criminal assault is the norm in 16 per cent of American homes; Professor Straus counted even low-grade violence such as a mild slap.

In marriages where women hit or kicked men, neither the wife nor the husband saw this as real violence, “at least not at the conscious level. But then when it’s her turn to do something outrageous or not to listen, the problem is that she’s provided moral justification for slapping and kicking”.

But his research cannot be used to argue that battering is a serious problem for men, or that they need the sorts of supports, like refuges, offered to women and children. “Fewer men are injured, fewer men are living in fear and fewer men don’t have
an economic alternative (to marriage),” he says. “American women generally now earn 80 per cent of what men do, but married women only earn half of what their husbands earn.”
Statistics are like the refractions of a prism; most have two or more facets, and it is not that one is right and another wrong, but that they each reflect different aspects of a complex phenomenon. Professor Straus warns that his work, which he once believed to be the definitive truth about domestic violence, is no such thing. “This is only the truth about a representative sample of the general population. But in couples where it’s bad enough for her to go to a shelter, or where the police are called, the dynamics are very different. Of women who were hit in the year of my surveys, the average number of times was six. A colleague of mine researched women in shelters and the average number of times was 58; that’s 10 times higher.”
Likewise, he says, the experiences of women who have fled cannot be extrapolated to the wider population. “For example, it’s an article of faith in the shelter movement that once violence begins, it doesn’t stop, it either continues or gets worse. That’s true for the people they work with and reflects their real experience, but that’s because if it had stopped, the woman wouldn’t have gone to a shelter. My study and other studies show that it does, typically, cease. They age out of it.”
There have been no big Australian studies into battering in the home.

Research last year at the Royal Brisbane Hospital found that one in five women who attended its casualty department, for whatever reason, had some history of domestic violence. This is consistent with another recent Queensland study on abuse in families of church communities, which found that about 22 per cent (one in five) of a sample of 1704 women had been subjected to violence sometime in their lives by someone close to them. This figure would not mean that one in five women experience violence daily, but that one in five encounter it at least once in their lives.

An Australian Bureau of Statistics survey on crime and safety in 1993 found that 0.6 per cent of women reported having been assaulted in their home that year, which would amount to 41,000 women aged 15 and over. This applies to the incidence in that 12-month period only, and the figure is likely to be lower than the reality.

Overseas, Statistics Canada has just released what is probably the world’s largest survey on the issue, in which 12,300 women aged 18 and older were interviewed in depth by telephone. It found that one in four had experienced violence at the hands of a present or past marital partner, that one in six married women reported violence by their spouse, and that one in 10 of those had at some point felt their lives were in danger. Eighteen per cent of incidents left a woman physically injured.

Statistics Canada did not ask about men’s experiences; presumably there, as in America and Australia, it is not perceived as a man’s problem because women are so much more likely to be hurt or killed.

Figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that, between 1989 and 1992, 160 women were killed in spousal murders compared with 44 men. Some of the women who killed their husbands had done so after years of abuse.

Nor do men present as victims to helping services. Margot Scott, a worker with Melbourne’s Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, says the centre receives about 3000 calls a year from victims of domestic violence, and fewer than 10 are from men.

In terms of more general crime, violent offenders are overwhelmingly male; the National Committee on Violence estimated that 80 per cent of murderers and more than 90 per cent of those charged with serious assault, robbery and sexual assault are men.
Women, who spend more time caring for children than do men, are more often charged with child abuse, but men are more often the perpetrators in severe cases.

It appears that both sides have misused the facts. Professor Straus’s findings indicate that some feminists have overstated the incidence of domestic violence, while some male commentators have been reluctant to face the extent to which other men are responsible for its more serious manifestations.

Kate Gilmore, a member of the National Committee on Violence Against Women, says: “Fact is an elusive notion … This is the problem of social science. If you can’t put it under the microscope and subject it to tests with a control group, you move out of the realm of fact and into the realm of contested, discursive meanings, meanings that are affected by who holds them and what experiences they were
subjected to.”
Ms Gilmore argues that everyone involved in the domestic violence debate has an ideological barrow to push, and that feminists have no more distorted the truth than any other advocates of disadvantaged groups fighting for public support. “What’s going on here is trying to get something up on the public agenda that hasn’t had any attention. For all the excesses of which the field might be deemed to be guilty, it is only through these advocates that law reform, police training, education in university, and women’s refuges have come.”
What of the traditional feminist analysis of domestic violence as an outgrowth of inequality between men and women? Professor Straus says, “It’s correct, provided you don’t make the mistake of thinking that that’s the only cause.” His research found high correlations between increased violence and domination of the marriage by one or other partner; marriages dominated by men were the most violent. But he proved the hypothesis, now widely accepted, that the more violence people witness in their family as they grow up, the more likely they are to assault their own spouse.

More controversial was his discovery that the more spanking children experience while growing up, the more likely they are to strike their own spouse for “misbehaving”.

But there is much that women and men on either side of the ideological divide find hard to believe about what goes on behind closed doors, and it may be another generation before the issue can be looked at with calmness and clarity. For women who are battered, the debate is academic but damaging; the time and resources wasted in such arguments could be better spent in solving it.

First published in The Age.

When a crush turns to obsession

A CRUSH on a singer or movie star is considered a normal part of growing up, a teenager’s practice run for adult relationships. Almost everyone experiences distress over unrequited love at some stage. But how do you tell when normal desire begins to verge on dangerous obsession? Potential stalkers can be picked by the intensity of their feelings, and the degree to which those feelings are removed from reality.

Forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen says stalkers tend to be socially isolated and often have no relationships outside their families, sometimes not even that. They are touchy and suspicious, generally attributing malevolence and ill intent to others, but making an exception of their “beloved”, whose every word and action is interpreted as good and affectionate.

Criminologist Dr Patricia Easteal warns that an early marker of trouble in a relationship is “emotional violence”, where one party’s intense possessiveness and jealousy leads to them monitoring or trying to control the other’s movements and social contacts. This can be mistaken for flattering attention at first. “It’s a fine line between feeling loved and feeling totally suffocated,” says Dr Easteal.

An article on stalking in the `American Journal of Criminal Law’ reports that those who work in the field take very seriously those who write hundreds of letters, especially ones containing “semen, urine, body parts, dead animals, locks of hair and blood”. They also warn that those who are love-obsessive, and who write or talk about having a shared destiny, can be more dangerous than those who hate their quarry. “A person who writes: `I am going to kill you on Tuesday’ is less likely to be harmful than one who writes: `You and I must be united on Tuesday’.”
Victims of harassment are advised to tell the police, take out intervention orders if possible, and get silent telephone numbers.

They should keep addresses and schedules private, take property out of their names and ensure that others know where they are at all times.

Acting Senior Sergeant Sharon Hunter, of the community policing squad, advises any victims who speak to their harassers to be clear and firm about how unwanted the attention is. “Unfortunately, females tend to be a bit passive, and might try to pacify the person, if they know them, by asking them in for a cup of coffee or something similar. The person can read that as a mixed message: `She’s being kind to me, so maybe it’s worth pursuing.”‘ The best solution is for the stalker to seek treatment, which Professor Mullen says, is usually successful. However, he says that this is unlikely because the offender does not perceive that there is a problem. “It’s a case of `Why treat me? I’m just in love. Why don’t you treat this woman who won’t respond to my passion?”

Also see: Fatal Attraction

First published in The Age.

Fatal attraction

The ardent attentions of a stranger or a former lover may be flattering at first. But KAREN KISSANE writes that sometimes one person’s dream of love can become another’s nightmare.

My love…was begotten by despair Upon impossibility. – Marvell, `The Definition of Love’.

IN ELIZABETHAN times, a suitor who wooed his ladylove at night with sonnets under her window was a fine fellow, a romantic hero. These days, a lovelorn figure lurking in the bushes outside the bedroom is more likely to be the cause of a maiden’s prayers than the answer to them, and be of more interest to the law than to her love life.

Delusions of love can lead to obsessions with people who not only don’t return the affection, but who may not even have met the deluded one. It used to be thought of as a madness peculiar to women: “Old maid’s insanity.” More recently, men have been seen as more likely to violently pursue the reluctant objects of their desire. But in fact, men and women contribute almost equally to the ranks of an increasingly common form of predator: the stalker.

Tess, who is in her 30s, lived under siege for two years until her former lover was convicted for the assaults he inflicted on her while he stalked her. “I would get up in the morning and walk to the front door, and he’d be there. I’d get to the tram stop, and he’d be there.

I might get home at one in the morning and he’d be there, hiding in the bushes. He knew my every movement. He knew who walked into my house and who didn’t. He wrote to me and rang me continually.

“(Being stalked) is the most terrifying experience you can imagine because you are the one who has to change your lifestyle while this person is allowed to run free and harass you at whim. For a person to do this means that he is obsessive and aggressive, that he has a personality disorder, basically, and you never quite know when he’s going to go over the edge and take you with him.”

James, a manager in his 40s, has had to take out an intervention order against a former lover who has pursued him relentlessly, enraged over the breakup of their relationship. She has told him and others that she has a gun and will kill him with it; he believes her. “I’m shit- scared of what’s going on. I have to do all these weird things now; I don’t take the same route to work every day, I’ve taken the house and car and phone out of my own name. But she’s still ringing me on my mobile phone, making death threats to me, my family and friends.”
Many stalkers, often the most dangerous ones, are spurned lovers or spouses who cannot accept rejection. Others have met their victims only fleetingly – as patients in their medical surgeries, for example, or as students in their lecture halls. These obsessives, attracted to authority figures such as doctors, teachers and priests, are more likely to be women; those who stalk people they have never met, whether it be an ordinary person they see on the tram or a celebrity, tend to be men.

In the first Australian research into stalking, forensic psychiatrist Professor Paul Mullen, of Monash University, has studied the “pathologies of love” exhibited by 16 stalkers referred to him in recent years. Many, he says, were “eroto-manics”, certain that they were loved by the person they were pursuing, no matter what the evidence to the contrary. Eroto-manics are convinced that their persistence will succeed, and interpret whatever their target says or does as affirmation of their love.

One of the women he studied said that her object of affection conclusively revealed his love through his complaints about traffic problems on his way to work. One of the men “saw undying affection expressed by the way a young lady patted her handbag while sitting in a bus”. Others recognised that they were unloved at present, but had grandiose hopes that if only the person got to know them/gave them another chance, they would live happily ever after together.

Professor Mullen says some stalkers are simply people who are bad at courting; lacking intelligence and social skills, they have no idea how to establish a relationship. Others are “just angry at the world” and focus that rage on the persecution of one person. Still others are mentally ill. The rejected lovers tend not to be mentally ill, he says but, in the case of men particularly, were narcissistic personalities who could not believe or accept their rejection.

Genius, they say, teeters on the brink of madness; stalkers walk the knife edge between love and loathing, worship and venom. The mix of longing and loneliness that fuels their passion can be harmless, if unnerving; or it can be fatal. A recent Melbourne case, in which a man repeatedly followed a woman on her way to work, was dismissed by the courts for lack of evidence. It was found that the man, who was mildly intellectually disabled, worked next door to the woman he had so frightened. This time last year, though, stalking hit the national headlines when an estranged husband stabbed to death a woman who had appeared in court begging for protection only two days earlier.

Professor Mullen says most stalkers are not violent, but some become dangerous when repeatedly rejected. The frightening thing for victims is that it is impossible for them to predict if this might happen in their case: “Many stalkers are disturbed and need urgent treatment.”
PERHAPS nowhere is this better known than in Hollywood, where obsessed fans who stalk celebrities have claimed some famous names. Best known would be John Hinckley junior, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to win the attention of actress Jodie Foster, whom he had been writing to and following. In 1982, Theresa Saldana, of the television show `The Commish’, was stabbed by a stalker so violently and so often that the knife bent. She was saved by a stranger who wrested the knife away.

Actress Rebecca Schaeffer, of an American show called `My Sister Sam’, died after being shot on her doorstep by a man who had followed her for two years. Talk-show host David Letterman has been stalked for four years by a woman who has, at times, been discovered living in his house and calling herself “Mrs Letterman”.

Less dramatic obsessions are more common but no less persistent.

Singer Olivia Newton-John has twice been trailed from Los Angeles to Australia by her stalker; three years ago Commonwealth gold medallist Jane Flemming was stalked by someone who sent her flowers and bizarre notes; and a well-known Australian fashion designer is being pursued by a stranger who claims they have been in love for years.

Stranger stalking is frightening from the outset because it is clear to the victim that the adoration cannot possibly be true affection – the two parties don’t even know each other. Professor Mullen says: “It might sound redolent of romance to have someone standing silent outside your house all night, but people recognise that it’s got nothing to do with them. There’s a madness about it, a sense of craziness that increases their fear.” Says Tess of the stalker: “He doesn’t care about your feelings in any form; all he cares about is his own feelings and himself. He’s totally motivated by ego and selfishness.”
Tess was astounded when her former partner became obsessive after their breakup because the relationship had seemed normal. Looking back, James, can see that there were warning signs about his girlfriend. She had first noticed him in a professional encounter and began the pursuit with months of flattering anonymous phone calls, in which she called herself his secret admirer and concocted a glamorous, but false, picture of herself. “At the time it didn’t seem sinister,” he says. “I just assumed it was somebody who was particularly keen on getting serious.” Eventually, he agreed to meet and they began dating. The girlfriend was obsessive from the start: “She was extremely jealous of any other female…We could have dinner or go to the movies together, but couldn’t do anything with anybody else.” He began to recognise cracks in her stories about herself at about the same time that his household began receiving crank calls; someone was phoning at all hours to check up on him. When his tyres were slashed two weeks running, he kept his suspicions to himself and didn’t mention the incidents to her. But she couldn’t bear the suspense and finally told him she had done it.

From then on, James kept trying to end the relationship, but she wouldn’t let go. James says: “I felt a bit sick. I didn’t know how to deal with it, what to do. It was the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me.” Eventually, the woman’s psychiatrist advised him to write the woman a formal letter announcing the end of the relationship. Not long after, the death threats began. A deluded person who has been rejected can become as preoccupied by jealousy as by the “love” that preceded it.

How concerned should James be? Dr Patricia Easteal, a senior criminologist with the Australian Institute of Criminology, has analysed 110 murders of sexual partners in Victoria and New South Wales in her book, `Killing the Beloved’. She found that 80 per cent of the victims were female. Although women are less likely to kill than men, it does happen. Nor can James be completely reassured by the intervention order forbidding his former girlfriend to come near him; in 20 of the cases Easteal studied, an order was in place at the time of the murder.

Traditionally, stalkers have been beyond the law unless they have physically injured people or property, protected by the principle that people should not be arrested for offences they might commit.

But, today, lawmakers worldwide are moving towards making stalking a crime. In 1990, California became the first US state to enact anti- stalking laws, and 47 other US states have followed. No figures are available on the incidence of the problem in Australia; because stalking has not been a criminal offence, it has not been officially monitored. However, overseas reports show that it is on the increase.

A recent article in the `American Journal of Criminal Law’ said that as many stalkings had been reported since 1968 as in the previous 175 years. The writer speculated that the increase could “be tied to the inability of government to deal with the mentally ill and to the growing access to celebrity lives through the media (via) shows like `Entertainment Tonight’.”
Here, the Australian Police Ministers’ Council has asked all states to review the adequacy of existing laws. New South Wales has already passed anti-stalking laws and the Victorian Parliament is expected to do so in the spring session. Victoria’s legislation will cover stranger and celebrity stalking; at present, intervention orders are available only if the stalker is a former spouse, de facto or other member of the victim’s household. Tess, who eventually had to rent out her own house and move to another to escape her stalker, is glad to hear of better legal protection, but she is not hopeful about its effectiveness: “No law can prevent this kind of thing happening.”
A stalker’s obsession can leave lives in ruin. Several victims in Professor Mullen’s study needed psychiatric treatment while others had to move house, change state or emigrate to escape. The stalkers themselves often end with their outer world as devastated as their inner one. Says Professor Mullen: “Their lives come to be dominated by this person; they dedicate all their energies to pursuing them.

Many lose their jobs, and often what little connection they have with the world is disrupted. They, too, suffer a great deal.”
For them, he says, love has become an isolating and autistic mode of being; it destroys any chance of the unity with another that they seek so desperately. In his study he wrote of the theory that we do not love someone because they give us pleasure but because we experience joy through loving: “The act of love, even if unrequited, is itself still accompanied by a feeling of great happiness, regardless
of whether it occasions pain and sorrow. For those whose life is empty of intimacy, the rewards of even a pathological love may be considerable.”

First published in The Age.