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Love lost in a cold climate: Sexual harassment of women rife in ice-bound Antarctica

THE DARK secrets of sexual relations in Antarctica, the world's coldest, most isolated and least populated continent, have finally been revealed. Since women first started working in Antarctica's ice-bound outstations 14 years ago, sexual harassment has been rife from men who have always regarded the continent as the last frontier of male exclusiveness, a conference on women in Antarctica has been told in Hobart, Tasmania.

For many female expeditioners who have ventured to Antarctica in recent years with the same spirit of adventure that has taken thousands of men there for a century, the experience has turned out to be a cold nightmare. It is summed up by an Australian female scientist who declared on her return: 'I will never be able to react to men again without bitterness and a heart of stone. I just want the hurt to go away.'

For this woman, the upset came from being accosted by naked men in the middle of the night. When she tried to talk about it with male colleagues, the response was yet more sexual suggestions. Another Australian woman sat down to dinner 17 nights in a row in her station's mess to find sealed envelopes with pornographic photographs put anonymously at her place. At yet another station, one female expeditioner discovered men were making large bets to see who could 'bed' her.

Michele Raney, an American doctor who was the first woman to spend a winter at the South Pole, brought back a copy of the Antarctic Society newsletter which said: 'When God created the world, He had this place in mind where men could retreat and continue their youthful games of playing in the snow and flying balloons.' One of Dr Raney's colleagues told her when she arrived: 'I can't be normal because of you.'

Most of Antarctica's female expeditioners are professionally qualified members of research projects on marine life and world weather patterns. Life on the Antarctic ice cap is harsh and isolating: during winter months, there are only about 1,000 people in a land 48 times the size of Britain. A survey for the Hobart conference, organised by the Australian Antarctic Foundation, a government body, found women very much a minority. Of 19 countries with survey teams in Antarctica last winter, only six had included women in their work during the previous 10 years. The average participation rate of women in such teams is less than one in 10. The US and New Zealand have comparatively high female involvement.

Britain has been more cautious about sending women to Antarctica. Barry Heywood, deputy director of the British Antarctic Survey, said the British quarters were too small to tolerate 'some types of relationship'.

Tim Dalmau, a psychologist who counsels members of Australia's expeditions, believes the male chauvinism stems from the continent's rugged, male-dominated history of competitive exploration, such as the race for the South Pole between Scott and Amundsen 82 years ago. 'It's such an exotic, remote place that men feel the normal rules of society don't apply. Women become aliens in a tribe. I've been told of things so close to rape it would be hard to distinguish.

'There's been much talk lately about reconciliation between Aboriginal Australians and European Australians. I suspect a similar debate could be had regarding women and men in Antarctica. Unfortunately, I fear this is unlikely to occur.'