I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a while, and I finally found the inspiration to do so today. After all, when Tony Wilson notices your blow-by-blow reaction tweets about the recent Bob Ellis deba(rti)cle and tells you to write your own response, you do it.
I’ve always nurtured a soft spot for Bob Ellis, similar to what might be felt for a kindly older co-worker who still writes in cursive with a proper fountain pen. A little behind the times, maybe, but great when you feel like listening to a bit of a yarn.
But this, today? I barely even knew what to think.
For those playing the home game, Ellis’ article responds to the ADFA Skype scandal. A female defence cadet made the decision, as a consenting eighteen-year-old, to engage in sexual activity with a fellow military student. She was not aware, however, that he was filming the event and streaming it live, enabling his friends to watch from another room. Angry, and denied in-house recourse, she took her story to Network Ten. The rest, as they say, is history.
According to Ellis, this proves that women, “…are tough enough for service on any battlefront but not tough enough to be peeked at in the shower,” and posits that, since the pair’s fellow military students probably knew they were having sex, “…what then was the grave wrong in seeing… how they went about it?”
To support his points, Ellis references the poor conduct of television characters. Apparently, filming a girl in bed without her knowledge or consent is fine because this one time, in an episode of M*A*S*H, the guys looked at Hot Lips while she was in the shower! Also, those Sex And The City girls were always swapping nude photos of the dudes they hooked up with. (Mostly, this simply proves that Ellis has never seen Sex and The City, because, with no small degree of shame, I can categorically state that such an event never took place in any of the show’s ninety-four episodes.)
Ultimately, Ellis’ bizarre choice of supporting documentation serves to mask the hideousness of his rant. His point essentially boils down to the fact that since this woman wanted to be in the military, she should have just hardened up and gotten over the fact that she was filmed without her knowledge, since worse things were probably going to happen to her throughout the course of the career.
I can think of few attitudes towards sex, towards women, and towards the very basic concept of privacy more vile than that. My heartsickness over this issue arises because of three main points.
Firstly, there is a difference between courage and capitulation, which Ellis has completely failed to grasp. The suggestion that this woman (or any woman) is unfit to serve in the Australian military because she objects to being sexually objectified is disgusting. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinions regarding the armed forces, to place oneself in harm’s way in the name of Australia requires tremendous personal conviction and bravery – both of which would be at odds with the idea of accepting such gross sexual bullying like the proverbial doormat. This is a young woman who is seeking to dedicate her life to a dangerous and difficult career. The fact that she may see and experience terrible things in her future is no excuse for the deceptive and completely unnecessary actions of her colleague. Had she brushed off the way she was treated by her fellow student, she would be the opposite of tough.
Secondly, it needs to be remembered that even amongst the young, sex isn’t automatically public. Ellis states that by filming the encounter, the young man in question was, “…being observed, in an almost traditional way, by his flatmates.”
No. Just no. Most youthful sexual encounters happen in dank corners, with all involved being too terrified and self-conscious to let the person they’re with see them, let alone a whole bunch of other folk. Sorry to bust the bubble, but life for most youngsters does not resemble a sex party. Guys don’t gather ‘round the headboard to watch a mate awkwardly fumble about with his girlfriend.
Certainly, technology has changed the way young people interact sexually. Indeed, many a teenager has sent a nude picture or posted a saucy video online. If that’s their choice, then so be it. The point about this situation, however, is that the girl didn’t have one. She wasn’t informed about the filming; she had no knowledge that other people could see her undressed and vulnerable. She chose to have sex with one person, not put on an amateur porn show. There is a difference, and it is important.
Finally, and so importantly, people – even women – are entitled to be treated with respect in both their personal and private lives. Having sex with a co-worker isn’t usually a particularly smart move, but it doesn’t mean that the whole office is entitled to watch. It also doesn’t mean that anyone involved is any less capable of doing their job. By insinuating that this young woman would have exorcised the demons of this mess appropriately had she “railed at them in the canteen” and “sobbed on the phone to her mother”, Ellis shows his lack of respect not only for her, but for the arduous and difficult career that she wished to embark upon.
“Who would trust her in any high army position? Who would be sure she was truthful? Or sound of judgment?” writes Ellis. One could be forgiven for thinking he’s talking about the deliberately manipulative St Kilda Schoolgirl, not a young woman who took issue with being tricked into putting on a peep show. At the same time, he worries that the young man involved, if dismissed from the military, will be “…driven, perhaps, to suicide, as young army men so often are,” apparently forgetting that the horrors of combat are usually responsible for such events – not getting sacked over the mistreatment of a woman and a colleague.
What we so often forget about that kindly, old-fashioned, fountain pen-loving co-worker is that they come from a generation where misogyny was all but normalised – and regardless of how effortless their prose on the subject of politics, often they remain stuck in that backwards mindset when it comes to gender. Bob Ellis is surely now the former hero of the literate left. Oh, how are the mighty fallen, indeed.