A few months ago I bought a copy of Helen Garner’s book The First Stone from a second hand bookshop. It recounts, in an incomplete and semi-autobiographical style, the Ormond College affair of the 1990s, where two female students went to the police after claiming to have been sexually harassed by their college dean. Throughout the book, Garner purportedly tries to understand the forces of sex and power behind these incidents, drawing on her own experiences as a second wave feminist.
Even though Garner describes herself as a feminist, what struck me most about the book is her complete inability to understand why those two young women went to the police instead of settling the issue with a few strong words or a knee to the groin; why they felt so afraid and angry about something she deems so trivial. She characterises the affair as a tragedy for the offender and as a “precise mix of prissiness, cowardice and brutality” (p. 222) on behalf of the women. Furthermore, the book continually utilises discourses of victim-blaming and slut-shaming, calling the two students out on not taking responsibility for the effect their beauty and “erotic style of presentation” (p. 89) and buying into stereotypes of women’s passivity and weakness by not dealing with the harassment themselves (p. 99).
After reading The First Stone I started to think a lot about sexual harassment and women’s (including my own) response to it. So often we’re told that we need to stick up for ourselves, that we should speak out or just punch the offender in the face. And yet it doesn’t seem like women are able to follow through on that advice. Instead we try to rationalise the situation, to tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal, that we overreacted, that the offender didn’t mean anything by it. Sometimes we’re even told that we should take it as a compliment.
I thought in particular about an instance where I had agreed to have dinner with the son of a family friend visiting from Germany. I was upfront about the fact that I did not consider the dinner a “date” of any kind, and that I wasn’t interested in him sexually. Nonetheless, he would not accept my no: he persisted in asking me why I was not interested in dating (I wasn’t comfortable telling him I was asexual), in touching my arm and my thigh under the table, and in making suggestive comments about what he would do if this was a date. All the time I was becoming more and more scared and panicked. At one point I had to make an excuse to go to the bathroom because I actually couldn’t breathe properly.
The important thing is this: I couldn’t say a word. A part of me wanted to punch him and run off. But the rest of me was too scared to do anything, because I didn’t want to be impolite or offend. So I sat there for three hours making small talk, and when I finally managed to get on the bus and go home I cried for an hour to my best friend. I felt ashamed, hurt and scared. The next day I tried to rationalise that I had overreacted, that it wasn’t that bad. It took me two weeks to realise that what I’d experienced was sexual harassment, and that he was the arse, not me.
But why did I react this way? Why couldn’t I, as a confident young feminist, tell him to stop or just walk away? Why couldn’t the two students in Garner’s book do the same?
I started to research. Among other resources on sexual harassment, I found an article from two researchers at Yale that showed me I wasn’t alone. The article described an experiment, where two groups of women were invited to a job interview: among the usual interview questions for one group were three sexually harassing questions. The women were only told that the interview wasn’t real afterwards. Before the article, all women were asked to describe on paper how they would react to instances of sexual harassment in an interview setting.
What the study showed was a huge discrepancy in how women thought they would feel and act and how they actually did. Almost every woman indicated on paper that they would call the interviewer out on their harassment, or leave the interview. When they were actually in the same situation, not a single woman spoke up. Similarly, most women indicated on paper that their primary emotional reaction would be anger, but after being asked harassing questions for real, most women’s response was fear and shame.
It’s a common argument in cases of sexual harassment that the victim didn’t adequately deal with the situation, and thus is at fault. The onus is on the victim to prove that they could not have done any better, not on the harasser. In order to be taken seriously in these situations, victims are required to be paragons of virtue, to put sexual harassment in its place without potentially “destroying” the harasser’s life.
And yet women in particular are also taught to be passive, to not put up a fuss, to not make a scene. We’re taught to think that we overreacted, that the offender didn’t mean anything by their “harmless grope” or suggestive comments. If we raise a fuss, we’re looked down on and classed as bitches and as angry, (hairy) feminists. Even other feminists such as Garner tell us to suck it up and concentrate on the “bigger issues” for gender equality. When it comes to sexual harassment, women are caught in a vicious double standard where winning is near impossible.
So what can be done about this? What can I, as a young woman, do when faced with a situation of sexual harassment? Even after realising that my own experiences were, in fact, sexual harassment, I don’t know if I will be able to change the way I react when I’m in a similar situation again. The discourses about women’s passivity are so pervasive and damaging that even though I see them, I have trouble extricating myself from them.
I think it starts with recognising sexual harassment for what it is and how it operates: through power (especially when it comes to workplace harassment). And then we can begin to think about the ways in which we are conditioned to react to it – though discourses of passivity and politeness as well as self-sufficiency – and how inadequate they are when faced with unequal, gendered power relationships. We need to show more support and solidarity for victims of harassment. Maybe from there we can slowly start to teach ourselves new ways of conceptualising and acting on sexual harassment when faced with it.
Garner, H. 1995. The First Stone. Sydney: Pan Macmillan
Woodzicka, J. A. & Lafrance, M. 2001. Real Versus Imagined Gender Harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 15-30. Accessed 9/2/12: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/0022-4537.00199/full