Time For The ADF To HTFU?


The news broke last week that a young female RAAF cadet had been filmed without her consent having consensual sex with a male cadet at ADFA. The footage was streamed via Skype to six of his mates.

The Gillard Government has taken the matter — and its subsequent ham-fisted handling by ADFA — very seriously. Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced on Monday that Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick would lead a review into gender equity into the defence forces. Five further reviews at the ADF, including a review of complaints handling, have also been initiated by Smith in the wake of the latest scandal.

Sometimes a piece of tawdry commentary can do more than just piss readers off, it can demonstrate the attitudes which allow events like the ADFA Skype scandal to occur and to be excused. Bob Ellis in The Drum yesterday did just that. Ellis characterises the filming as "unremarkable provincial event" and the response a "widescreen wowser-fest". Ever the priapic contrarian, he poses the rhetorical questions that no one else dare voice — except those who don’t really buy sexual harassment as a legitimate wrong, who wonder whether women should be in the military at all, who are fundamentally suspicious of women and their ways.

"Is the young man to be sacked from the army now, and ruined, or wounded, or bruised, perhaps, for life? Driven, perhaps, to suicide, as young army men so often are? Is his crime, of going along with an undergraduate prank, so great?

"Is the young woman, moreover, to be named, and acclaimed, and promoted, and hereafter entrusted with frontline command on some field of battle? Who would trust her in any high army position? Who would be sure she was truthful? Or sound of judgment? Or loyal? Or reliable under fire?"

As Dom Knight observes, there are other available rhetorical questions. Such as: "Who would be so insensitive as to conclude that this woman was not fit for frontline command because of what was done to her against her will?" He continues, "Ellis displays the same Neanderthal attitude that’s displayed in honour killings, when rape victims are killed by their relatives for staining the family’s reputation."

Like chief of the defence forces Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston (who said "I think the number of incidents of this kind is less at ADFA than at any other campus in the country"), like the head of the Australian Defence Association Neil James, Ellis insists this kind of behaviour is a part of undergraduate life. Rites of passage? Toughens the cadets up? One blogger captures Ellis’s argument succinctly: "If these chicks can’t handle their sex lives being broadcast to all of Duntroon, how will they handle being shot at?"

Ellis also proposed Hot Lips Houlihan and M.A.S.H as a critical reference point for understanding gender, sex and the military, adding, "most frat-house movies and all TV comedies at some time involve observed, or interrupted, or bungled, copulation". Jess McGuire of Defamer had some extra pop culture reference points for Ellis:

"The following are also extremely relevant to the current ADFA woes:
Porky’s (1982)
Porky’s II: The Next Day (1983)
Porky’s Revenge! (1985)"

Published on the same day as reports of inaction over homophobic ADF Facebook pages, Ellis’s response looks lazy and complacent — at best. It glosses over unacceptable behaviour with a complacent "grin and bear it" libertarianism, mandated by the same tired exceptionalism that emanates from within the defence forces. Never mind who pays the bills, the military is different, that’s why the normal rules don’t apply.

This exemption is made explicit by Stephen Dawson, also writing for The Drum, who argues that membership of the defence forces entails a state of exceptionalism. "We seem to be treating membership of the Defence Forces as just another job, and insisting that the training experience be devoid of exceptional affronts. That is wrong. Exceptional affronts are required."

So the affront was exceptional — but that’s life in the military. The articles by Dawson and Ellis are both followed by a deluge of comments, most, but not all of which were highly negative. Nothing drives a spike in web traffic like a controversial op-ed. They’re not the only ones getting negative feedback. The Sydney Morning Herald also reported yesterday that the female cadet at the centre of the matter is receiving harassing messages. 

The defence commentators who are demanding changes at ADFA and tougher responses from the brass have heard it all before. NSW Labor MLC Lynda Voltz, who served in the army between 1987 and 1993, wrote in yesterday’s SMH, "after all this time, you hope that the Defence Force has changed. However, every new complaint reminds us of the ones that came before." Former ADFA staff have emerged to add detail to a portrait of systemic bullying and harassment. Still, what ADFA visiting fellow Dr Kathryn Spurling calls the "warrior culture" and its defenders prevail.

Neil James condemned the non-consensual filming of intercourse but had much stronger words for Stephen Smith and the media:

"We have also therefore condemned the largely inaccurate and sensationalist media coverage that has confused many Australians into believing that the commandant and staff at ADFA have been derelict in their professional duties, or that they have somehow behaved dishonourably in grappling with this complex incident, or that there is a widespread problem involved."

Like Bob Ellis, Andrew Bolt sees the whole affair as a "wild over-reaction" — and he’s not happy with any prospect of changes to the military. "I certainly don’t see in this an excuse for Smith declaring war on our military, and giving a professional feminist a blank cheque to reorganise the way the ADF hires and promotes women."

In digging around for the real agenda, he asks, "Is Smith in fact trying to feminise the armed forces, much as Victorian Labor and then Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon tried to feminise Victoria’s police, with such disastrous results?"

It’s been a red-letter week for attacks on feminists, actually. Paul Sheehan dropped a few jaws with his doozy on stilettos. He wrote:

"Anyone who still wants to see the world through the prism of gender fixation, where women are structural victims and men are structural oppressors, is locked into a fusty bigotry that the stiletto generations are walking away from."

The commentators who cast the ADF as a zone of exception, one where vintage codes of masculinity may flourish, make fusty bigotry — as preposterous as Sheehan’s elaboration of it may be — look pretty appealing. Sheehan might want to declare frumpy secular middle class Western feminism obsolete — but the feminist movement he derides was the crucible for rethinking sexual harassment and gender equality. The ADFA Skype scandal and the monkeys in the peanut gallery demonstrate, surely, how urgently these themes need to be revisited.


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