Eros and our understanding of sexual assault

I remember originally reading Helen Garner’s The First Stone (I think I was 16) and feeling deeply disturbed. Garner was an author who I basically worshipped, having read Monkey Grip a few years earlier and almost memorising it since. She has a particularly persuasive style of writing – or maybe I was just especially enamoured with her – and so on reading The First Stone, I found it extremely difficult to reconcile my own emotions and political views with those of my favourite/most admired author.

For context, Garner’s novel centres around an alleged instance of sexual harassment at Melbourne Uni’s ‘Ormond College’, between a college head (‘Colin Shepard’) and two residents. Garner takes a sympathetic view of the perpetrator, believing the women over-reacted.

This isn’t another article about The First Stone, which has been historically quite divisive, especially within the Australian feminist community (enough to provoke an anthology of responses – the essay collection bodyjamming). What even made me think about Garner’s work, having not read it in years, was seeing some brief reference to her notion of Eros, in an online article I read recently (but have since forgotten the whereabouts of).

Eros, as conceptualised by Garner, is ‘the spark that ignites and connects’ men and women in a romantic and sexual sense. This spark is also ‘completely removed from the wider field of sexual politics’; i.e. the attraction is natural, untarnished, innocent, etc. In reacting so violently to their teacher’s advances at Ormond College, Garner categorises the two college women then, as attacking Eros itself.

‘a priggish literal-minded vengeance squad that gets Eros in its sights, gives him both barrels, and marches away in its Blundstones, leaving the gods’ messenger sprawled in the mud with his wings all bloody and torn’.

This dismissal of institutional power, and simplistic construction of women as harsh or unforgiving, vengeful, inflexible, etc., if responding negatively to sexual harassment, is surprising to read from Garner (herself a feminist) – though not a particularly unique/novel stance. Reading the excerpt, I was deeply reminded of the string of articles I’ve seen lately, related to the Aziz Ansari scandal/Has ‘#metoo’ Gone Too Far, etc. (see this piece for example, which reckons “The #MeToo era is making dating more confusing” – 🙁 ).

Garner’s attitude toward the women in Ormond College (in her book published nearly 15 years ago) finds easy counterparts in today’s media cycle. The ‘priggish literal-minded vengeance’ of 1992 finds its near direct equivalent in 2018. In the The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari, Caitlin Flanagan writes that Ansari’s accuser has created ‘3,000 words of revenge porn,’ in an act designed to ‘destroy Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing’ (Garner also frets about Shepard’s ruined career prospects, going as far as to write him a letter of support).

Daphne Merkin writes similarly in the New York Times, that ‘stripping sex of eros isn’t the solution’ (implying that an increased emphasis on consent must necessarily ~reduce eros~). She asks:

‘What happened to women’s agency? That’s what I find myself wondering as I hear story after story of adult women who helplessly acquiesce to sexual demands’.

‘If only Nicole Stewart and Elizabeth Rosen and their friends had developed a bold verbal style to match their sense of dress. If only the whole gang of them hadn’t been so afraid of life.’

— Garner, The First Stone.

What is Eros anyway? I didn’t even realise it was such a common reference until I stumbled across the whole Helen Garner / The First Stone / ‘it’s not assault it’s just Eros’ thing. Why is something so seemingly sweet, so easily manipulated to justify the absence of consent?

Eros comes from the Greek erasthai – ‘used to refer to that part of love constituting a passionate, intense desire for something’. It was personified by the figure of Eros, whose arrow could ‘pierce’ a figure, overwhelming them with love sickness for another, often with dramatic and painful results. ‘Occasionally, the loved objects — because of their sublime beauty — were depicted as unwitting ensnares of lovers (their beauty is a “divine curse” that inspires men to kidnap them or try to rape them)’.  

There is also, obviously, Plato’s conception of eros (a non-sexual appreciation of beauty). But I doubt this is the conception that Garner, Merkin, or others are drawing upon. Rather, they are (bizarrely) re-affirming an ancient trope: where the women (object) is overpowered by the desire of the ardent man (subject). Seemingly, this much has remained constant from ancient Greece to now; not least from 2004 to present.

Why is so much of modern dating still built on such an ancient, and disturbing trope? Why do we romanticise a man’s loss of control, and a woman’s submission – each helpless in the face of eros (obviously doesn’t apply in reverse – a women afflicted by eros for a man would likely be seen as intense/a stalker). Viewing allegations of sexual assault and harassment through such a limited, and “romantic” lens, is incredibly unhelpful. That it can draw supporters from both the left and right however, demonstrates just how deeply embedded into our culture it is. It would be better to leave sentimentality out of criminal cases – as we would automatically, were it any other offence.

Image: Unsplash

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Jemimah Tarasov has written for Overland, SMH, Stir, Bossy & others. She is a current editor of Overpass (https://overpassmag.com/) and a previous editor of Demos Journal. She is especially interested in queer issues, pop-culture and (of course) feminism. She wishes she could write like Chris Kraus, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas.

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