Groping in the dark

Why didn't she slap 'im, asks Amanda Mitchison; The First Stone by Helen Garner, Bloomsbury, pounds 6.99

This brave, thoughtful and politically incorrect book about sexual harassment has stirred considerable debate in Australia and looks set to annoy as many people in Britain. It should be required reading on every women's studies course, not only because the case it investigates took place in a university, but also since the book examines the relatively uncharted conflict between the Nineties version of feminism and the older, Sixties outlook. Also, the method Garner uses to argue her case is innovative, introspective and intensely "feminine".

In August 1992, the master of Ormond College, an old and distinguished residential college in Melbourne, is charged in court with indecently assaulting a female student. The young woman says he put his hand on her breast at a college dance. Later, a second charge of indecent assault is brought after another student claims that she too had been propositioned by the master in his room on the same night. The master, although eventually acquitted, has to resign. His family are devastated, his character assassinated; he becomes virtually unemployable. The women are also traumatised by the experience, and feelings start to run high in the college.

Helen Garner, a 51-year-old novelist, and part of the Sixties old guard of Australian feminism, reads of the case and is shocked. All this over some accusations of nerdish behaviour by a middle-aged man in his cups at a party. It seems so out of proportion.

She starts to investigate. The two young women refuse to speak to her, and their absence is a major flaw. But Garner brings other skills to the work, and broadens the scope of her inquiry. She isn't all that interested in whether the unwelcome passes were in fact made or not, and, although she portrays the master sympathetically, her working assumption is that something untoward upset the two women. The event itself diminishes into the background. What concerns Garner is why the women were so very, very angry, well beyond the scale of the injury they had allegedly received. Why couldn't they deal with it themselves? Why did they have to resort to such a blunt instrument as the law?

The case turns out to be a quagmire. People behave fallibly and are quickly embroiled in rigid proceduralism and dogma. Garner also sets about describing the college: its patrician self-confidence, its male fraternity atmosphere, the web of intermediaries and counsellors, the authority figures who, before the women resorted to the police, had spent six months in a private internal investigation before absolving the master.

Her writing is highly personal, including snippets of conversation with friends as well as formal interviews and memories from her own youth. It is a reportorial style that allows for what couldn't be said in court, or during the college investigation. Garner refers to body language and tone of voice, hidden assumptions and atmospheric shifts. This is the territory on which so much of the conflict between women and men is played out, and where our attention focuses, now that debates in feminism have moved from overt discrimination into knottier areas such as sex and power at work.

In the courtroom, the QC asks one of the young women "why didn't you slap 'im?" Garner explores at length this "strange passivity" that overcomes so many women in similar circumstances, due partly to disbelief, partly to fear, and perhaps above all to a desire for things to run smoothly at any cost.

Of course, in an ideal world, if the two women had not reacted at the time, they would have either simply shrugged the whole matter off or waited until the following day, visited the master and demanded an apology. But this, as Garner points out, "demands a fundamental generosity, a self- confidence, an absence of fear". In Ormond this never happened.

Of the mass of circumstances that led to the trial in Melbourne, some were particular to Ormond. The underlying factors, though, have recurred in other cases. The young women's anger was perhaps caused by their feeling of powerlessness, their own extraordinary passivity at the time, or their belief that this time someone should make a stand. The general climate of modern feminism also contributes its bit. As Garner observes: "The daily papers are full of outrages against women ... to draw ethical conclusions, to point out gradations of offence, to suggest that women were in possession of untapped power is now an act of treachery."

At Ormond, there has been talk now of making sexual relations between staff and students illegal. Of course no one wants to encourage lecturers to sleep with their students, but this type of stern talk is hardly helpful. We cannot, as Garner argues so evocatively, allow feminism to become such a joyless and fearful affair. We cannot disallow flirtation. We cannot banish the little god Eros, which she describes as "flickering and flashing through the plod of our ordinary working lives". We have lost something, Garner concludes: our sense of play, of perspective and - yes, what we were always warned of - our sense of humour.

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