Monthly Archives: October 2010

Sneak Preview – The Australian Book of Atheism

Much excitement! I received my advance copy of “The Australian Book of Atheism” last night. Boy, it’s big! Even more exciting, we’ve just heard that it’s been reviewed in Bookseller + Publisher, the bible of the Australian book trade, and awarded a 5 star (out of 5 star) rating!

The book will be released into all good bookstores on 22 November (e.g. Booktopia, ABC Shops, Borders, Readings) and can also be pre-ordered from Embiggen Books (use the link below).

After I got home last night, I couldn’t resist dipping into the book immediately.

Editor, Warren Bonett has written a brilliant and funny introduction.

I started by re-reading my own chapter on the history of Australian atheism and was quietly pleased with this first attempt to sketch out the skeleton of a history which I hope to flesh out into a book over the next 12-18 months.

Max Wallace’s chapter on the Australian constitution picks up many of the historical markers in my essay and expands on them. Similarly, Clarence Wright’s “Religion and the Law” adds yet another layer of knowledge to the ‘historical’ section of the book.

Robyn Williams (The Science Show) headlines the next section on personal experiences of being an atheist.

“What puzzles the atheist, even about full-square mainstream religions, is how many odd, or even mad, shibboleths they insist upon,” Williams explains.

Colette Livermore, formerly a nun with Mother Teresa’s order follows with the story of her loss of faith.

“Mother Teresa asserted that ‘she, who has herself for a guide, has a fool for a guide.’ However, if the inner core of one’s being is surrendered, what protection does the individual have against tyranny?”

The wonderful, amazing  Tanya Levin (author of People In Glass Houses: an insiders story of a life in and out of Hillsong)  is typically funny, moving and profound in her story of being brought up to be a ‘Kingdom woman’ in Sydney’s Hillsong Church.

“… we were schooled as women to be as the Proverbs 31 woman. Stepping one step up from the ‘Submissive Wife’ movement so popular in the States, the Proverbs 31 woman is all of those things without actually being human. She is Mrs America and the Bride of Christ.”

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon’s chapter comes next, writing about growing up in an atheist/communist household and its impact on her political views.

“The curious thing is that, as Australian society has become increasingly secular, religion has more than ever begun to creep back into political life.”

I was delighted to discover that David Horton is a brilliant, funny and witty writer. His light-hearted (but serious) diatribe against agnostics draws on inspirations as diverse as My Fair Lady and Bob Dylan.

“Being agnostic is a bit like voting for the Iraq war and then saying later that you only did so because of the dodgy intelligence, knowing all along that there wasn’t dodgy intelligence; there was in fact no intelligence …”

And, finally, around 2am, I finished my night’s reading with Tim Minchin’s beat poem, Storm. I think all of us have been in Tim’s situation – sitting at a dinner party when someone spouts off with some absolute religious or new age garbage and despite urgent, silently mouthed warnings and furious kicking under the table from our partner our self-restraint fails and we explode:

“I’m becoming aware
That I’m staring,
I’m like a rabbit suddenly trapped
In the blinding headlights of vacuous crap.
Maybe it’s the Hamlet she just misquothed
Or the sixth glass of wine I just quaffed
But my diplomacy dyke groans
And the arsehole held back by its stones
Can be held back no more.”

I’m going to spend today reading the rest of the book.  Flipping through the pages I see that the Education section begins with my friend Hugh Wilson’s explanation of how Queensland’s secular education system was nobbled.

Professor Graham Oppy talks about evolution and creationism in Australian schools. The fabulous Kylie Sturgess gives us an insight into the life of an atheist teaching in religious schools:

“It’s 1999 and I am told that, as an employee of the nation of Islam, one of my duties is to supervise the female students of the college while they participate in Dhuhr. I make sure that my brightly dyed Coke-bottle red hair (invisible in the course of everyday work) is even more firmly sealed under my hijab ….”

A section of culture and society comes next, including essays on euthanasia and abortion from Dr Philip Nitschke and Leslie Cannold .  Jane Caro talks about atheism and feminism, while Karen Stollznow (now one of the hosts of the Point of Inquiry podcast) looks into spiritualism and pseudoscience.

The section on politics includes essays from politicians Ian Hunter, MLC and former senator Lyn Allison as well as prominent Australian journalist, Michael Bachelard and academic Russell Blackford.

The Philosophy section examines the possibility of a moral, spiritual and meaningful life as an atheist, while Tamas Pataki talks about religion and violence.

And, in the final section, Dr Adam Hamlin and Dr Rosemary Lyndall-Wemm take us inside the human brain in an attempt to explain the ‘religious experience’ in naturalistic terms.

Don’t miss this book – and please let your friends know about it. As Meg Wallace said to me last night – “At last! The Australian atheist Bible!” 😉

Chrys Stevenson

Related Links

Point of Inquiry – Karen Stollznow interviews Warren Bonett about The Australian Book of Atheism

Pre-order The Australian Book of Atheism at a discounted price from Embiggen Books.

Booktopia on The Australian Book of Atheism

More info from me on The Australian Book of Atheism including full chapter list.

Sexual Assault: Men Must Take the Blame, But Women Must Learn Responsibility

Controversy has raged this week over allegations that some young women were sexually assaulted by two or more players of the Collingwood Football Club following Collingwood’s premiership win on Sunday, 3 October.

Two days later, footballer, Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt, made headlines after tweeting:

Girls!! When will you learn! At 3am when you are blind drunk & you decide to go home with a guy ITS NOT FOR A CUP OF MILO! Allegedly……

One sports blogger says, “I am sickened with these comments coming from a “respected” ex player. Everitt is virtually claiming that the girls have lied about a sex attack.”

That’s a huge misrepresentation of Everitt’s tweet.  Surely noting that the attack is ‘alleged’ isn’t tantamount to saying that the girls were lying.  And is Everitt wrong to suggest that it’s a really bad idea for a girl to get into a cab with a drunken footballer she’s only just met at 3am in the morning?  Frankly, if  he was giving that advice to any young lady of my acquaintance, I’d thank him for it.

The hysteria reached fever-pitch when Kerry-Anne Kennerley, host of Channel Nine’s Mornings with Kerry-Anne interviewed Everitt and weighed in with her own editorial comment, warning that AFL players “put themselves in harm’s way by picking up strays”.

The general response has been outrage that anyone would suggest, even obliquely, that the responsibility for rape, or sexual assault, could in any way be placed on a woman.

I have sat silently through the week, reading my fellow feminists’ comments on this issue and cautioning myself to keep my thoughts to myself lest I end up as pilloried as author, Helen Garner.  Garner found herself accused of being anti-feminist when, in The First Stone (1995),  she lamented the high cost of  (unproven) allegations of sexual harassment and assault on an academic at Ormond College, University of Melbourne.  By stating that the relatively minor allegations (lewd comments and a groped boob) might have been handled without resort to court action and the destruction of an academic career, Garner effectively declared hunting season open, and herself as the fox.  It was an object lesson for those of us who don’t always agree with the feminist consensus.

But, as my regular readers will know, sitting silently whilst steam is coming out of my ears is one of those things for which I have the least talent, and, of course, the temptation to argue my case has become irresistible.  It’s important to state that while my argument, below, does refer to girls in pubs and footballers, I am not referring specifically to the women or the footballers involved in the Collingwood incident as I have no knowledge of the circumstances pertaining to those allegations.

Firstly and unequivocally, I do not believe that any woman is to blame for being sexually harassed, sexually assaulted or raped.  I believe that men have a clear responsibility (regardless of whether they are sober or drunk) to ensure that they have the full, informed consent of a woman before engaging in any kind of sexual touching or sexual intercourse. No means no – at whatever stage of the ‘action’ “No” is given.  And a woman is who is high or rip-roaring drunk is obviously not in a condition to give informed consent.  If a man fails to obtain such consent and they continue anyway – even if the signals given by the woman are ‘mixed’ – then the blame lies with the man.  If men are unable to control their sexual inclinations whilst drunk, they should refrain from drinking in mixed company.

Further, I fully appreciate that sexual harassment is often perpetrated upon vulnerable young women in an unequal relationship to their harasser.  It isn’t easy to stand up to your boss  (especially if you really need to keep your job), or to your teacher or university professor who may retaliate with failing grades.  But, these days, there are protections against unlawful dismissal and universities take allegations of sexual harassment far more seriously than in the past.  My argument, unlike Garner’s isn’t that women shouldn’t resort to the law in what may appear to be minor cases of sexual harassment, but I do agree with her to the extent that there are options that may and should be pursued before taking that route.

That said, and as much as it pains me to agree with Spida Everitt and Kerry-Anne Kennerley, I think the hysteria over their comments is unwarranted.

There is a marked difference between responsibility and blame.  If I absent-mindedly leave the house without locking the front door and my house is burgled, the theft is not my fault, and the burglar is equally as guilty whether he came in by an unlocked front door or smashed a window to gain entry.  However, I must bear some responsibility for having been lax about the security of my home – and my insurance company may rightly take that lack of responsibility into consideration when considering whether to pay out on my claim.

No-one in their right mind would suggest that because the onus lies on burglars to control their urge to steal, we should assert our freedom and independence by leaving our houses unlocked.  Why then do some feminists (men and women) become so enraged when it is suggested that young women need to take some responsibility for their sexual safety?

I think suggesting to young women who dress provocatively, drink copiously and fraternize flirtatiously with footballers on a bender that they bear no responsibility for unwanted sexual advances is not only wildly unrealistic, but downright dangerous.  Yes, ideally, footballers (or indeed, men in general) should behave themselves and act with as much respect towards a drunken woman with her boobs hanging out as they would to a stone-cold sober nun in full habit.  But, realistically, it’s just not going to happen.  That doesn’t excuse the men’s bad behaviour.  However, it does mean that young women must be taught to take some responsibility for their own safety.

I have long been an advocate of raising young women to be confident and assertive.  We need to give girls the tools to keep themselves safe and, where possible, to avert unwanted sexual attention.  We need women warriors, not wimps, and I don’t believe we achieve that by telling young women they are not responsible, at least to some degree, for their own safety.

The difference between assertiveness and victim-hood is nicely expressed in an example from Australian scientist and academic, Dr Marjorie Curtis.

A couple of my experiences may be of interest … The [London] Tube is well known for its gropers, and I remember an occasion where a man started groping me, getting bolder and bolder as time went on. I tried to move away but he wouldn’t let me. He was also making verbal threats. Luckily I was near the door, and when I arrived at my destination I leapt off the train at the last minute, and was relieved to see him being carried away by the train. I was absolutely terrified.

However, I was put to shame not long after when a friend encountered the same situation. She had more confidence than I, and grabbed the man’s hand and somehow managed to haul it over her head, saying, ‘There is a hand on my body. It is not my hand. I wonder whose hand it may be?’ The groper turned scarlet and shot off the train at the next station, to the applause of most of the passengers.

Her action turned a potentially nasty situation into a comic one, and probably put the groper off for life, whereas my cowardice merely left my groper confident that he had power over women, and could get away with quite unforgiveable behaviour.

Curtis’ account reminds me of a similar situation I had with an over-amorous boss when I was 20 years old.  Soon after starting my employment, I found myself cornered in the photo-copying room with my boss leaning across my body, his hands pressing against the wall above my shoulders.  There was no escape.  I said quietly. “Mr Smith, if you make one more move I will raise my knee and kick you so hard in the groin that you will be black and blue for a month.  Further, I will then call your wife and tell her why I am sending you home with bruised balls.  Do I make myself clear?”

Smith said, “Oh, so that’s how it is, eh?”

“That’s how it is,” I replied.

“OK, now I know,” he said, “Thank you for making your position clear.”

I never had another problem with him and, in fact, some time later I received a generous raise in salary.

Now, it was certainly not my fault that Mr Smith decided to sexually harass me, but I did feel I had a responsibility to take assertive action to resist it. If you like, I felt a responsibility to ‘man up’ and be my own advocate.  I refused to be a victim.

Similarly, a woman who decides to go out drinking with footballers should feel perfectly free to do so – and to dress as she pleases and drink as much as she likes – but at the point at which she is invited to accompany a footballer home (or to a hotel room/dark alley or similar), assuming she doesn’t want to have sex with him, she has a responsibility to herself to say, “Nah, I’ve had too much to drink, and so have you, I think I’ll just go home.  Here’s my number, call me tomorrow when we’re both sober if you’re still interested.”

If we are going to argue that a drunken woman isn’t in full control of her faculties and therefore can’t take that level of responsibility, then don’t we also have to argue that a drunken man’s responsibility in making decisions is similarly impaired?  That’s where the legal slippery slope begins. My argument is that drunkenness is no excuse – you may have diminished responsibility when drunk, but you always have the choice of whether or not to get so drunk that you can’t make reasonable decisions.  Your responsibility, whether you’re a man or a woman, begins before you get smashed.

Let me recount another personal experience.  I was just 15 years old when, to my parents’ horror, I started hanging out with bikies.  On one occasion –  I couldn’t have been more than 16 – I found myself, very late at night, in a disused quarry full of drunken bikies.  I had put myself in that predicament.  Nobody forced me.  I had chosen to fraternize with bikies, I’d chosen the cute little see-through top I was wearing with a view to titilliating, I’d chosen to down a few drinks and I’d chosen to get on the back of a bike and go to the party.  At one point, when the party started to get very rough, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  A young bikie whispered in my ear, “Come on, things are getting out of hand, I’m going to get you out of here.”  And he put me on his bike and took me home.  Had I been raped that night I would not have been to blame, but I would have been, in part, responsible for putting myself in a situation where I was at risk.  The young man who saved me, Graham, (I still remember his name), not only saved me, but protected his mates as well.

While men must bear the blame for sexual harassment, assault and rape, women cannot exonerate themselves from the responsibility of looking out for their own security and for advocating for themselves.  Both men and women must also be pro-active in looking out for each other.   In some cases this will not be sufficient, but in many cases it will.  Sexually aggressive men are bullies and, often, cowards.  The best way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.  The victims of bullying are not to blame for the bully’s actions, but they can learn to take responsibility for deflecting or avoiding the attacks.

I must add, at this point, that I am fully aware that many victims of sexual assault and rape have not recklessly put themselves at risk and I am well aware that once a sexual attack has commenced, only the victim, herself, can decide whether resistance or compliance is the best strategy to minimise her risk of serious injury or death.   My argument here should not be construed as saying that every woman who gets raped has been reckless with her personal safety, or that every woman who is assaulted should fight back.  Context is everything.  Neither am I saying that because a woman is drunk or reckless it should be a mitigating factor in favour of the assailant.  Absolutely, unequivocally, I am not arguing that at all.

But to paint women, universally, as the helpless victims of male sexual aggression is to infantilise us and, may I say, emasculate us.  Women can have ‘balls’ and we need to encourage that in our young women.  We need to teach men that ‘no means no’ but, equally, we need to teach women how and when to say no – and in most instances, that ‘no’ is going to be far more effective before you get into a cab with a drunken man you’ve only just met at 3am in the morning.

Chrys Stevenson

Related Articles

A chilling realisation of how close I might have come to rape by Campbell Mattinson, SMH

Talking about rape by Leslie Cannold, The Age

Time to recognize the ‘me’ in blame by Gretel Killeen, Brisbane Times