A followup on the #metoo hashtag campaign, and my October blog post about it.
(Featured images by Lee Waddell)
I had intended to write a proper article, but have opted to use some of the actual responses to the original piece and the discussion it generated instead. And to reflect on some aspects of the discussion that’s arisen in media.
On my personal facebook page, which I often use to clarify my thinking on issues via the feedback of friends, I quoted Clem Bastow’s comments on #MeToo from The Saturday Paper (28/10/2017).
‘Through it all, I resisted the urge to share, even though I knew I had plenty of “material”. Days passed and I wondered if readers were keeping tabs on my reticence to say #MeToo … In truth, it was less about resisting an urge than resenting the demand. Because the demand to perform trauma is a key tenet of contemporary feminism.’
’If there was ever a misunderstood notion in feminism, it’s that “the personal is political”. The rallying slogan of second-wave feminism was meant as a catalyst for change, but through third- and especially fourth-wave feminism it was adopted as gospel. And as feminism entered the mainstream media, personal essay became an industry, and personal trauma the currency.’
I would agree that educated and academic women have been having the #metoo conversation for bloody forever and are heartily sick of it. But I don’t actually live in that world. Noone is ‘keeping tabs’ on whether I speak out or not. I’m just not that important! I live in ‘Bogan Central’, a blue collar area that is quite different from the rarified halls of academia, or the intellectual gymnastics of trendsetters debating in inner city bars. Here, very little has changed since the 1970s. Domestic violence and family breakdown is common, and it’s fair to say I meet very few ‘sensitive New Age guys’ in my immediate neighborhood.
Women here are more likely to say (as previous generations of women also did), ‘It happened, I moved on, it didn’t do me any real harm, so suck it up and get over it’. I certainly don’t operate in a milieu in which I have the luxury of wondering if I am a ‘bad feminist’ if I don’t participate in the outpouring. I live in a place where just naming yourself with the ‘F word’ is a radical act that can leave one subject to disbelief and contempt. ‘You one of them man-haters, are ya?’ This is still, for the majority of us, the ‘real Australia’, and anyone who doesn’t think so needs to get out more.
So when Bastow wrote, ‘Is there anyone who still needs convincing of sexual assault’s prevalence?’ I responded: ‘Well … YES! Just read the Murdoch media. Or speak to blokes at the pub in the conservative Queensland heartland where I live. Or read the conviction statistics for rape trials. Or the tale I relate below of harassment at a poetry festival held just a few weeks ago that varies little from what I described experiencing in the 1980s (in my earlier blog, ‘Considering #MeToo’). Or listen to Pauline Hanson’s recent comments as she cosies up to the toxic ‘Men’s Rights’ movement. In fact, visit an MRA website and be amazed at the toxic, hateful discourse from men convinced they are getting the short end of the stick.’
Bastow again: ‘It may well be that #metoo functions as ‘performing trauma’ in some ‘more woke’ contexts, where it has all been said and done so often, in memoir, the novel, and confessional writing, in feminist discourse, and within the women’s movement generally.’
I can’t disagree with this. Except that it hasn’t ‘all been said and done’. Certainly not in my neighborhood, where occasionally people visit my house and remark on the contents of my bookshelf as though I am some incredibly anachronistic and rare beast – a person who reads.
My own experience is of a wider societal ‘great silencing’, in which women who admit to having been sexually assaulted worry about thus being seen as ‘victims’ – instead of courageous people who speak truth to power. They fear being subsequently thought of by others ONLY in the light of what someone else has perpetrated on them. So they say nothing. And it keeps happening. And if they mention it they are gaslighted, not believed, or categorised as liar, man-hater, or exaggerator.
As I geared up to write that last essay, and subsequently, I have had to deal with women I regarded as friends and allies express, in one case, dismay at my candour along with censure at the ‘unseemliness’ of it, and, in another, the shattering of a rose-coloured view of that period because she had not witnessed it. (It was hard to miss … but then, people WERE drinking …)
I then posted my ‘Considering #MeToo’ blog post to the women writers’ forum, and on my personal page, and these are some of the responses – and mine (reprinted here but with identifying details removed).
Female Writer: ‘Read this piece Liz Hall-Downs and some of your FB comments. It triggered off so many recollections. It is scary to think that there are still apologists for those arseholes trying to silence you. And so many of us shared that experience of abuse from those trendy lefty men in the 70s and 80s – many of them now in positions of significant power in significant institutions across the country, yeah probably the world.’
LHD: ‘Thanks. Yeah, I trialled it on my personal page first. One ‘apologist’s’ stupid and ignorant remarks convinced me to share it more widely. Doubly upsetting when it comes from another woman – who, needless to say, has been blocked. But not before I pointed out via PM that the assault described there happened at her house. I hadn’t mentioned names because I didn’t feel it was something she could have known. But now … well, who invites young women to stay overnight when they also have rapey friends who think it’s okay to feel them up in their sleep? FFS. Not so certain now of her ignorance.’
Female writer: ‘Oh, Liz!’
Another Female Poet: ‘The good old days – you were brave, I remember!’
LHD: ‘I was also rather friendless. Many women on the scene distanced themselves from me. They wanted to be liked more than they wanted respect. At this point, I like to think I was just ahead of my time. Hence the post.’
From a male poet who was there: ‘Cafe Jammin’, I remember, you hit the poetry scene like a cream pie in the face.’
From another female poet who was also there. ‘What a limp, inaccurate metaphor. I was there, and I remember you calling Liz Hall-Downs a ‘sex bomb’. I think you even wrote a sex bomb poem. If she’d turned up to prostitute herself your comments would have been appropriate. But she was there as a poet. Most of you blokes weren’t listening to her poems, that’s for sure. Yes she was (and is) a very beautiful woman, and keeping your lustful thoughts private, and keeping your focus on her poetry — the reason, after all, that we all were there — proved beyond your ability, and that of so many other chaps. Such behaviour is sexist, rude, and frustrating beyond belief to any artist who happens to have been born female.’
Male poet responds: ‘It was her ‘bitch’ poem I was referring to, that and Chrissie King’s ‘Blokes’ just about said it all at the time. I remember Kerry Loughrey’s ‘Apricot dress’ and Pamela Sydney’s ‘Streets of London’, and your ‘Drive-in Christmas’ – all poems I heard first at Cafe Jammin’. And I cannot deny Liz’s appearance was like she walked straight off a disco dancefloor and onto the stage at Cafe Jammin’, a contrast to most of the hippy poets. But it was Liz’s poetry that endeared her to me.’
Female poet: ‘That may be, but I still remember you calling her a sex bomb, and me thinking Yuk, what a reduction from artist to mere body. It wasn’t just you, she got most of the boys drooling. It’s distressing for female artists when the physical takes precedence over their art, as it does, boringly, again and again, still. Youth and attractiveness is still a precondition for female artists’ recognition in all branches of the arts; it’s vomitous.’
Another male poet #2: ‘Sadly so true’
LHD: ‘What’s weird to me about all this is I had very poor self esteem, did not consider myself particularly ‘attractive’, and was dealing with a devastating serious illness diagnosis. So men’s projections on me were just an added burden. I am quite certain that my jacking up against the ‘casting couch’ attitude did not help my ‘career’ as a writer one little bit.
LHD: Thanks so much for your support (female poet). And (male poet #1), you know I love you, and am grateful that you never did this to me. I recall you once blamed my choice of clothing as the reason I’d copped the harassment, ie. putting the blame on me, but I put that down to your being clueless, as most blokes are, or were. My hope is that this is a zeitgeist situation, where men finally are hearing how very awful it was – and still is – for women to live with this crap. Being prey is terrifying.’ (I have since, sadly, heard Male Poet #1 accused by some younger women of harrassment. So perhaps I was just lucky and he doesn’t deserve my thanks. Regardless … And, by the way, what exactly IS a ‘sex bomb’? And why was my choice of attire relevant?)
LHD: ‘If people want to know why women don’t reach positions of power in all fields, this last few weeks has shown that it is NOT because we lack merit, but because we have been hounded, harassed, objectified, and, ultimately, have chosen to walk away, more often than not, because we are sick of being treated like objects. My hope is that this is a moment of change, that men will realise how awful this has been to live with, and will change. And tell other men to change.’
‘Of course, now I am over 50, I am becoming invisible … but that’s an issue for another time. I only discuss all this with friends. I don’t give a damn what strangers think of my posts.’
Another male poet #3: ‘I’ve heard a lot of these sort of stories from the earlier days of the scene; wish I could say they were all before my time. I am glad you kept on going, I know too many who didn’t. *hugs*’
LHD: ‘Yep. That’s what they wanted. To force us to stay away. Then they could have all the grants and publishing without competition from women. The worm has turned. We’re all speaking out now and this behaviour will no longer be tolerated. There is power in numbers and this is a zeitgeist, imho. At long bloody last.’
Female Poet #3: ‘Wow Liz! I copped some heat at poetry in my early years, even some stalking but this is worse. Thank you for writing and posting. I think it is happening less now but that could just me my view, being older and not as slim and cute I tend to be left alone these days.’
LHD: ‘Thanks for your support, it means a lot. And to everyone else who responded. I am okay, this all happened long ago. But I’ve had to block someone who responded by saying, ‘I never saw that happen’ – in other words implying that I am lying about this. Which is, of course, re-triggering all over again. Why would anyone make this up? I share these stories because I hope it will help make it stop. Quite frankly, I look back on my young self and am amazed and proud of what I was able to still achieve in the face of this harassment and constant belittling. The ‘outing’ has begun, and long past time.’
Female Poet #3: ‘You should be proud Liz. For staying strong and going back again to read your poems in such a horrendous environment and yes, why would anyone make that up? How insulting and disrespectful. Good that you blocked the person because that is the last thing you need. I believed you immediately.’
LHD: ‘Well, most normal people would, eh?’
Female Writer #4: ‘Your piece is brilliant. I’m an Australian woman living in Europe and every time a European tells me they want to live in Australia, how wonderful it is, I tell them why I choose to live elsewhere. High on my list is the violent sexism that keeps getting worse. I’ve been called a frigid bitch, a fucking lesbian, stuck up cunt etc more times than I can remember, simply for politely turning down the offer of an unwanted drink. I wish you hadn’t experienced the same but I think your words are wonderful.’
LHD: ‘Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve had a 10 year hiatus from writing, so appreciate it. Yes ‘violent sexism’ is a good descriptor. It begins with violent language. Mind if I quote you, pretty sure I’ll write a followup. Anonymously, of course.’
Female writer #4: ‘Quote away. I’d like to say use my name but feel emotions I can’t explain, telling me I wouldn’t be comfortable if you did. Please share your next piece when it’s finished.’
Female Poet #5: ‘Thanks Liz, sadly I have witnessed such behaviour only recently at a Brisbane poetry festival. A female friend who is a celebrated poet was mauled at a bar by a drunk, very well known male poet. This was done in front of me and another friend. No shame at all. Our friend later told us that poetry festivals always leave her exhausted and one reason is having to negotiate such aforementioned behaviour.’
LHD: ‘Sad to say this doesn’t surprise me one bit.’
Female writer #6: ‘A wonderful piece of writing. I feel your rage. Thank you.’
Female friend #7: ‘Excellent. Thanks for sharing. It is a big scary world and some people have no idea.’
Female writer #8: ‘It worries me that victim becomes our status, not power to fix it!‘
I’ll wind this up with a final remark from the remarkable Clementine Ford:
‘Women do not silence ourselves willingly. We become silenced over a sustained period of time in which everything we do and say is subject to questioning, cross-examination and ultimately dismissal.’
Even from other feminists. I am not ‘performing trauma’ when i write #MeToo, I am simply stating the realities of the life I have lived. Yes, as Bastow says, it can lead to burnout. But that isn’t contemporary feminism’s fault. It’s the result of the floodgates opening in a gigantic tsunami because ordinary women are finally getting the chance to speak and be believed.