Reviewed by Fiona Giles
© all rights reserved
bodyjamming is an anthology aimed across the grain of discourse that has accumulated around the Ormond College sexual harassment case. Most of this discourse is now press clippings, from court reports to magazine features. Although Virginia Trioli’s and Mark Davis’s books discuss the Ormond College case, bodyjamming is the first book-length response that attempts to deal with both the significance of the sexual harassment case and the meaning and aftermath of Helen Garner’s narrative of that case, The First Stone.
Edited by Jenna Mead, an adviser to the two young women complainants at Ormond, and now lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, this mixed bag of essays, stories and one interview (with Meaghan Morris), provides a safe speaking position to those who would otherwise remain silent, notably XX, the pseudonym for one of the complainants. Yet it also provides a safe discursive space to those who already have access to academic publications and merely take this opportunity to swipe at Garner and those who publicly supported her, notably the already controversial essay by Rosi Braidotti.
Unfortunately, these two essays will receive the most attention and are the least interesting in the book. XX’s essays reads as though it has been combed by lawyers. It is unenlightening as an apologia for her actions — which after all, were logical and sensible — in taking her complaint against Alan Gregory to the police, then choosing to remain silent and anonymous in the face of the media barrage which followed. Rosi Braidotti’s tirade against Garner is interesting only at the level where it reveals what these two writers hold in common. Explaining her reasons for writing about Garner’s role in a sex-education controversy at Fitzroy High in the early ’70s, Briadotti confesses: “I also wanted to make sure that I found, amidst the turmoil of conflicting emotions that the period raises in me, a firm ground of compassion out of which I could try to organise the series of events. That is not as easy as it sounds, when emotions are strong.” Nor were her efforts successful.
The most interesting essays in the book have the least to say directly about the Ormond-Garner story except in pointing out what it failed to address. Jenny Morgan’s essay “Sexual Harassment: Where Did It Go in 1995?” is outstanding for its analysis of the pitfalls of existing legal remedies for sexual harassment based on a sex discrimination model. She suggests that this model rests on the assumption of “special treatment” for women as an interest group, stereotyping them as “dependents or clients of the state”, and ultimately victims, when it might be more useful to “describe the harm of sexual harassment as a harm to women’s citizenship or personhood.” Morgan offers a redefinition of sexual harassment based on Drucilla Cornell’s work, in which she states, “We are degraded … when our ‘sex’ is defined, symbolised and treated as antithetical to equal personhood and citizenship.”
Ann Curthoys succeeds in balancing references to The First Stone with a mini-symposium on the state of contemporary feminism (based on email letters from friends). Charting the use of the term feminist in Australia, she concludes, “Partially assimilated into the mainstream, part demonised authoritarian extreme, feminism has fragmented and diffused beyond recognition. Part of me likes … this postmodern fluidity. Part of me still thinks that a totally decentred and unorganised feminism may be helpless before its most determined enemies.”
Merely curious are the interspersed stories on the place of the body in media, namely Elspeth Probyn’s “The Taste of Power” and Amanda Lohrey’s “Diary of Her Body”, both of which sit uncomfortably in this context. Although these two pieces are interesting in themselves, they are oblique and unstable in comparison to the more discursive essays which surround them. Natasha Stott Despoja’s concluding essay on the ways in which the media has interested itself in her own body works better, and provides a good example of Cornell’s belief that gratuitous attention to a woman’s sex in public life attempts to reduce her personhood.
Garner’s book is most interesting as a map of ambivalence, however inappropriate that might have been as a response to the two student’s painful circumstances. Unfortunately, her ambivalence shifted into a simpler oppositional mode under the weight of its reception, and debate rapidly polarised. Her written response was too complex to survive translation into journalism, a danger that the two young women seem to have realised long before Garner when they chose not to speak out. The First Stone is an abjectly personal and painfully honest confessional narrative.
Mead’s anthology is most interesting as a map of certainty. This is the literature that inspires legislative change with that mixture of research, reasoning and anger once common in 1970s feminist tracts. As an engine for reform it cannot pause for self-doubt or half-measures: there is definitely no generational conflict within feminism, for example; and Garner is definitely undermining the cause by seeking out the point of view of a male defendant. bodyjamming is a militantly public and painfully aware political document.
At the end of Mead’s Introduction, she writes, “At some point I made a decision never to write about what the Ormond case and The First Stone cost me on a personal level because it would only further obscure the public issues.”
It is exactly this book that I look forward to reading, poised at the crossroads of ambivalence and certainty, private and public. One of the great lessons of feminism is that this messy space is the most politically volatile of all — and sexual harassment has become one of its most vivid markers.
Fiona Giles is the editor of Dick For A Day: What Would You Do If You Had One?, Random House. She is currently working on its companion volume, Jane For A Day, and teaching in gender studies as part of the online program for the New School for Social Research in New York.
bodyjamming, edited by Jenna Mead was published by Random House, Australia, in 1997.
Jenna Mead lectures in Cultural Studies and English at the University of Tasmania.