When the #me2 moment broke, I canvassed some of the men I knew about behaviour I simply didn't recognise among my friends: rape, sly workplace harassment, footpath tauntings of unknown women, the obnoxious and unsolicited grab at women in nightclubs or Christmas parties, the misreading of signals and fumbling and stealing of kisses or a feel under the table or in a taxi.
I also spoke with former lovers who are friends, and women friends, about some recollections that had had me wondering whether I had ever crossed a line in certain instances as a young man. No man who has been sexually active can remove himself from this moment in time, however uncomfortable. Our society is changing for the better.
As I chewed on doubts, I asked a cherished former lover about an incident in a beach house on the Dalmatian Coast many years before: "No darling," the beautiful TT cooed, "that was not assault, and you didn't need to ask permission." Nevertheless, while absolved by TT, I am conscious that it is possible to skate close to some edges that we didn't really know existed before, because they somehow still remained within the boundaries of social norms.
Nec ulla deinde inpudica Lucretiae exemplo vivet. (“Not in time to come shall ever unchaste woman live through the example of Lucretia”). Yes, well fortunately those times have passed...
The latest scandal (and they seem to arrive daily, along with new revelations about the harassment of women in the Labor Party), involves a man called Jim who is probably a psychopath, and who ran a BDSM sex-slave cult prepper pyramidical scheme that exploited and severely physically abused numerous vulnerable young women. Jim has now been arrested for, well, assault, kidnapping, false imprisonment etc. (bad time to be caught Jimbo, not really running with the tides of history, you wolf). Jim – a rugged former soldier and self-described fat, balding, middle-aged, impoverished Aussie hunk of manhood – led me to consider, again, the milieu from which I sprang, the Aussie rock from which I was hewn.
When I was around 14, and long after I had decided that I would never take a human or an animal life after a childhood encounter with a lizard whilst on a tricycle, I had a startling awakening ignited by the chance midday screening on television of a 1972 Australian film, "Wake in Fright." It's a film difficult to talk about, but when it had finished, I recall a sense of relief that my own juvenile sense of the incipient violence that had always surrounded me, and which I took as normal had been, if not explained, displayed like entrails in a bucket. I wasn't alone in thinking it odd.
Grimly he thought of Abel, soft and fair—
A lover with disaster in his face,
And scarlet blossom twisted in bright hair.
‘Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace? ...
From Ancient History by Siegfried Sassoon.
Martin Scorsese said that Wake in Fright, "is a deeply – and I mean deeply – unsettling and disturbing movie... it left me speechless... visually, dramatically, atmospherically and psychologically... it gets under your skin one encounter at a time." The singer Nick Cave reckons it's, "the best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence."
Our Odysseus is a young primary school school teacher trying to make his way home from his loathsome job in outback Australia, to his city girlfriend. The monsters he is gradually wrecked on include beer, bar room brawls, racism, forlorn and stranded outback woman, homosexuality, gambling, suicide, murder, and one of cinema's most horrible scenes, a neo-realist drunken nighttime massacre of kangaroos, all in the barren deserts that represent the lonely emotional aridity of being Australian.
I wasn't raised closely by a father, so male violence took getting used to (beatings from my mother were quite regular, and whilst terrifying, were probably deserved). The real instruction was in the schoolyard. I went to a selective government boys school, and eventually fell in with a group of bright good boys who became bright and good men, and who went on to live good lives, most often in what seem to be balanced marriages (unlike my own imbalanced, eccentric, and corrosive union).
But I remember my shock the first time I was punched in the face with a clenched fist in the schoolyard, and I remember being trapped in a Rugby ruck, my arms pinned to my side, and a much older boy dragging his cleated boot down my face again and again, with apparent precision, relish, and experience.
Two rugby debaters, practising the code.
He seemed to have been taught, he seemed to know how it was done. Where did he learn?
Apart from the physical assault of teachers, and punch-ups with boys, the sports field was where violence was ordered, ritualised, and accepted. The sports field was the one place – in school, but also in First Grade football, on TV where it seemed normal and customary – where you could punch or eye-gouge or otherwise mangle another person with unhinged abandon and choreographed anger, and where it was excused as a part of the code, as the ordinary departure of men from their stitched-up, suited and working life, into the life of cut-throats and homicide. (Testicle-crushing and biting were seen as more feminine pursuits, frowned upon and punished by regulation).
Thanks dad. Caravaggio.
My father came from genocide, and he knew the line that you had to know when people want to kill you for no very good reason. He would not have me fey, a soft lover with disaster in his face. He tutored me in what that line might look like (using the Second World War as his metier or, as he used to say, when people begin to take long looks at your children), which meant that I preferred not to express violence in my life.
While cautioning me when seven years old that if I was ever gay, he would kill me, he slaughtered a sheep in front of me, as a sort of Abrahamic throwback, and he told me as he waved the butcher's knife that I should always be prepared to kill. After almost breaking a boys back in a boy's bus brawl (he had attacked me in what was probably a burst of high octane testosterone), I knew that violence was best left fallow and potential, rather than kinetic.
Still, despite that preference, I would go on to be around a lot of violence in life – the ordinary mischance of a traveller's bar room brawls, street violence, demonstrations – but more particularly the violence I encountered in the countries I found myself, torn by war, or shattered by catastrophe, and where the taking of life was cheapened in the doing, and pretty constant.
The 'roo kill.
Australia is a wealthy and orderly country, governed by laws, and Australian's today are generally compliant and law-abiding. The degree to which we have become so compliant leaves a different sort of discomfort from the rather open violence I recognised before, a sublimation, the bubbles deeper, but still it bubbles and brews. It is this cauldron with which the young woman of today contends, for it is not fixed, not settled, hardly identifiable, but seething, always present and, I think, sublimated by the modern Australian preference for politically correct compliance.
My 17 year-old daughter knows predatory imposition, where men feel that they can inflict a hard and meaningful stare on a woman, her form, her body – the long looks laden with a lazy menace. From 14, my Sophia Loren-like child worked as a waitress in the working-class town in which her mother insisted she should be raised. Grown men looked at her without shame. She bore their looks with anger, humiliation, dignity, and tears. She lives in a man's world, the patriarchy, a world her blue-stocking grandmother doesn't quite get because "it was far worse before" (says this ex-judge).
Ruth Orkin, 1951, an American Girl in Italy (Jinx Allen): Competing feminist conceptions.
Decades later, Jinx, then known as Ninalee Allen, refuted any notion that she felt threatened
- quite the opposite, she recalled enjoying this attention, and remembered Italian men fondly.
I feel her rage and indignation. We men live in a continuum of sexuality throughout our lives, where the burning hormone-fired confusion of youth is replaced by a steady and adult search, punctuated by experiences than lay outside our ken, and on into a middle-aged calm and self-assurance that certainly, in my experience, ought to preclude predation.
Unfortunately it doesn't so I must tutor my child to be who she is despite hungry gazes, to avoid violence and mischance, and yet to preserve her potential violence (she is trained in martial arts) for encounters which have no place in modern society. Women are no longer chattels, subject to the whims of husbands, and where they have the economic liberty to command their futures they do. Unfortunately, their proximity to a form of incipient male violence is something we've not manage to legislate out of existence.