When I left home, at age 15, I had nowhere to stay, so a school friend’s mother offered to let me live with her and her children for a while. At first I slept on the floor in my friend’s room; later I was given a small foldout foam sofa and a space in the living room. I did my best to keep out of the house when I wasn’t at school or work, but I knew that my presence was inconvenient.
After a few weeks it was clear that my friend was tired of the arrangement and wanted me out. I too wanted to leave, but still had nowhere to go: the counsellors at Centrelink instructed me to move back in with my parents, but that wasn’t something I could bear to entertain. Fortunately my school friend’s mother was still sympathetic. We became very close as the weeks wore on, and that intimacy developed into something more when she came home from a party one night semi-drunk, and slid under the covers of the foam sofa.
My attitude to sex must have something to do with the nights I spent eavesdropping on my mother’s conversations with her friends and fellow sex workers about her job, and the curious dispositions of her clients. The matter-of-factness and humour of their stories served to disinvest sexual activity, and the body in general, of their sacred connotations. It was also natural for me to contrast my mother’s relaxed promiscuity with my father’s strict prudishness—and the damning hypocrisy that coincided with his moralism.
Sex and sexual advances are now regarded as loaded, power-infused acts that need to be approached with caution and sensitivity, but I struggle to take them quite so seriously. Even as a child I believed that those who invest sex with greater meaning, and seek to censor or control it, were more likely to do sexual damage than those who treat it with unwary humour. The Catholic Church might serve as an example.
Later in life I noticed the same pattern repeated over and again in multiple professional and social contexts: those who broadcast an unyielding moral position about ‘inappropriate’ behaviour or relationships too often found themselves at the mercy of their own standards when they ‘fell in love’ with their students or admirers or stepchildren, or strayed into other prohibited territories. My father wasn’t alone.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my friend’s mother—about people like her, and encounters like those we shared, which have something to do with ‘power relations’ but little to do with physical force. I was 15 when the sexual behaviour began, and 16 when it intensified. There were times when I was obviously a willing participant, times when I was more reluctant and times when I was at a loss. She was 20 years my senior and stood between relative safety and homelessness. Even so, I don’t resent her or feel that she did lasting damage. I wish that she’d been a proper, sober adult, and made better decisions, but she wasn’t yet that person. If we were to apply present-day standards to that experience, it would almost certainly transform her into a monster: she exploited her position of power to secure erotic satisfaction, and is therefore a ‘sexual predator’. On the other hand, she was the only one in the world prepared to offer the basic things I needed. In that context, a little discomfort seemed more than acceptable. I wasn’t bound to her as others are bound to institutions or carers, and the fact that I could simply leave, if desperate, was reassurance enough. But what if I were to undergo a change of heart? If I began seeing a therapist, or spoke at length about my teenage years to a trusted friend, and the counsel of my therapist or friend led to the realisation that those early events had served to impoverish my life in some fundamental way? And what if, as a consequence of that belated realisation, I decided to name and shame my friend’s mother in a public forum—to ‘out’ her as a predator?
If I did take those steps I would almost certainly receive support and encouragement from well-meaning people. But would it be fair on her? Could my accusations convey the complex truth of what happened? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m driven to indulge in the cliché: it was a different time, and we were different people. Cultural trends encourage even those like me, who have endured powerlessness and unease without real entrapment or peril, to be wounded but brave; and bravery now consists of making a spectacle of our wounded selves, of highlighting the injustice of unequal sexual experiences, of naming and shaming while identifying as ‘survivors’.
Why is this so? I suspect that we have taken metaphors of violence and domination that are commonly employed by various critical movements—rhetorical tools that serve to highlight inequalities in vivid ways—far too literally. We now speak of ‘power dynamics’ as though they are iron chains rather than persuasive but elastic constraints, and sexual advances as though they are loaded weapons instead of opportunistic or impassioned manoeuvres. In these constructions, only the more dominant actor is afforded meaningful agency, and the other person is rendered submissive and helpless. But real human interactions—especially between adults—rarely respect such binary models.
If women are genuinely empowered and unburdened by the #metoo campaign and all that extends from it, and if exploitative men who have routinely avoided scrutiny and sanction are finally required to account for their actions, it is overdue and to the good. But I worry about the retrospective application of newly formed sensibilities, and the expectation (as it seems to me) that all varieties of sexual indecency, no matter how severe or mild, should disgust or distress any decent person.
People can do ridiculous or careless or hurtful things without being monsters, and sexual behaviour carries vastly different connotations for different people. If you told my mother that she should be annoyed by the construction workers who wolf-whistled as we walked past building sites on the way home from school, or that the men who yelled out admiringly from their cars were misogynistic creeps, she would have poked you in the eye. I found it intolerable, but I wasn’t the subject of their attentions.
Above all, I worry that we are forgetting the value of moderate hardship. Most of us know what it is like to be drawn into something unwillingly. The capacity to manage and resist such forces—to maintain our agency at the vital moment despite the implied expectations or consequences—is often reliant on familiarity and failure. Our failure to speak up and resist when we are surprised by undesirable behaviour, and the frustration or shame this typically provokes, can prepare us to respond in self-assured and principled ways the next time we are tested. Bad experiences aren’t always diminishing; they can even be the source of our strength. •
Shannon Burns is an Adelaide-based writer and critic. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Meanjin, Sydney Review of Books, Music & Literature and The Best Australian Essays 2017.