The Devil’s Decade

In wake of the revelations by Rozanna and Kate Lilley about the sexual abuse they endured as children, Senator Cory Bernardi wants to rebrand the literary prize named after their mother, Dorothy Hewett.

It’s an illustration of how this awful story’s become, inevitably a battering ram for culture warriors.

If Bernardi cared an iota for the Lilleys, he would, before going to the press or preparing his idiotic Senate motion, have spoken to them – at which point he would have learned that Kate, at least, doesn’t want the award renamed.

But, for Senator Grandstand, that’s neither here nor there.

Australian conservatives (both of the lower- and upper-case variety) care tremendously, you see, about the Great Works of Western Civilisation, but much less so about actual books – objects they associate with the effete degenerates of the intelligentsia, who will, Bernardi assumes, be pleasingly discomforted by a parliamentary motion condemning a prominent novelist.

He’s not concerned about the Lilleys’ pain and how it might be assuaged. He’s latched onto an opportunity to embarrass those dreaded literary elites.

Something similar might be said about Miranda Devine.

For celebrated poet Dorothy Hewett,’ she explains, ‘Marxist ideology was so strong it obliterated a mother’s protective instinct and led to her offering up her young daughters for sex.’

For what it’s worth, by the 1970s, Hewett had long since broken with ‘Marxist ideology’, in part because the Stalinist doctrinaires of the Communist Party disapproved of the philosophical commitment to ‘free love’ she’d embraced well before she became a socialist.

Hewett’s memoir Wild Card explains all of this in great detail. Devine, however, draws on other sources.

‘[Hewett] appears alongside Reich,’ she tells us, ‘in Wikipedia’s compendium of Marxist writers.’

Well, case closed, Sherlock.

‘Sex was a political act,’ Devine continues, ‘[Hewett] called herself a feminist but she was brainwashed into a cult that gave men unfettered sex without the family – responsibilities civilised society had painstakingly created over eons.’

Again, Hewett adopted her unconventional ideas about sexual freedom at university in Perth in the 1940s. Again, that’s documented in her memoir – although perhaps Wikipedia says something else.

Devine’s point, of course, is to associate the left as a whole with the goings-on in the Hewett household.

The Lilley revelations, she says, ‘blow [..] the lid on the Devil’s Decade, the 1970s in Australia’.

She’s not alone in drawing a connection between abuse and the so-called sexual revolution.

In the Spectator, Mark Power, a clergyman associated with the Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, tells us that ‘Hewett’s radical feminism—who championed female empowerment through sexual liberation—was integral in orchestrating the abuse of her own children’.

In the Guardian, Brigid Delaney ponders her own past enthusiasm for Bob Ellis, before citing a character in Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal for whom the sixties were ‘that explosion of childishness, that vulgar, mindless, collective regression.’

You can see how this might seem persuasive, given how the predatory figures circling the Hewett household used a rhetoric of sexual freedom to justify their depredations.

‘I used to have sex with men to prevent them ­having sex with Rosie,’ Kate Lilley told Rosemary Neil of the Australian, ‘and then I would find out they did have sex with Rosie. I think because Mum was this figure of ­sexual licence, we were particular targets.’

No-one should pretend such behaviour was anything other than vile. At the same time, it’s important to recognise just how much of the conceptual apparatus we now possess to understand sexual abuse owes to the liberation struggles that Devine, Power and co so loathe.

Most obviously, the modern notion of consent emerged from a women’s movement that fought bitterly against male entitlement to female sexuality.

Until 1994, there were, still places in Australia in which a man could legally force a woman to have sex with him, if they happened to be married. Moreover, during the struggle to ban rape in marriage, conservative politicians and churchmen did all they could to oppose any reform, with, for instance, the Festival of Light arguing that a requirement for matrimonial consent would deal the traditional family ‘a crushing blow’.

Women’s liberation coincided with the sexual revolution because, in Australia, throughout most of the twentieth century, the law made open discussion of contraception, abortion and sexual health more or less impossible.

In Queensland in 1971, for example, police arrested an activist from Women’s Liberation for distributing a pamphlet entitled ‘Female sexuality and education’, with a member of parliament thereafter declaring the document ‘so obscene, so lewd and such an outrage of modesty as to make a hardened whore blush.’

Yes, some men exploited the new openness about sexual matters to force women (or other men) into sex that they didn’t want. But the general tenor of the liberation struggles stressed the importance of the oppressed’s self-determination, which, in the women’s movement, led to slogans like, ‘women have the right to control their own bodies.’

To put it another way: if men transformed sexual freedom into sexual coercion, the problem was not that sexual liberation had gone too far, but rather that it hadn’t gone far enough.

Think, for instance, about the activist determination of that time to educate children about their bodies and their rights.

In NSW, the Vice Squad raided bookshops to prevent the distribution of The Little Red School Book, a pamphlet that, as Nicole Moore explains, contained ‘explicit information about heterosexual sex, homosexuality, petting, contraception, masturbation and abortion, much of the text using slang and four-letter words, in an effort to speak directly to its audience.’

The response to that book illustrated the political divide.

Bob Santamaria, the intellectual godfather of the Catholic right, supported the ban, declaring that The Little Red School Book was ‘not even suitable for adults with weak stomachs’.

By contrast, liberationists like Wendy Bacon risked jail to distribute the pamphlet, insisting to the press that ‘school kids should have rights’.

In 1973, the Victorian teachers union went on strike on behalf of Helen Garner, who’d been sacked for an article in which she described giving teenagers a frank class in sexual education. The title of that piece – ‘Why does the women have all the pain, Miss?’ – speaks volumes about how sexual ignorance made sexual abuse more likely.

If you don’t know how your body works or if you’re ashamed about your anatomy or desires, you’re infinitely less likely to seek help if you’re being threatened or abused. Similarly, if you don’t understand that you have rights and if you’re not confident to speak up against figures in authority, you’re easy prey to an abuser.

After all, the vast majority of sexual violence takes place in the family, with the perpetrators generally known to the victim. That’s why the empowerment of children matters so much.

The academic Suzanne Ost thus quotes an officer from the British sexual-abuse squad.

We go to an awful lot of trouble and have done over the years [to say] ‘Don’t go with strangers, don’t take sweets.’ However what we don’t say is, ‘Don’t do what the babysitter tells you when they tell you to go and do this. ‘Don’t do what your uncle says when he tells you to do this.’ What we tell them is ‘Do everything the babysitter tells you to do.’ ‘Be good for your uncle.’

The more kids feel they have some agency, the safer they’re going to be.

Now, it’s generally difficult to settle political arguments in any scientific manner, simply because propositions in the humanities aren’t usually testable. This issue, however, is different.

If, for instance, we wanted to judge the validity of the suggestion that the movements of the seventies rendered children more liable to be abused, we’d need a counterfactual. We’d want to examine a community in which feminism had made little progress, in which traditional notions of sexual chastity prevailed, sexual education wasn’t available, men ruled over women, and children were seen and not heard.

Fortunately (or, more exactly, unfortunately) we have one. It’s called the Catholic Church.

For Devine, the seventies might have been ‘the Devil’s decade’ but you only need the most cursory glance at the royal commission into institutional abuse in Australia to realise that Old Nick was most active precisely where the reforms associated with feminism and the sexual revolution hadn’t been carried through. Not surprisingly, in an intensely patriarchal environment in which many kids believed sex to be dirty and wrong, priests could get away with abuse for years, with their victims blaming themselves for what took place.

‘Children,’ say the recommendations of the commission, ‘[should] participate in decisions affecting them [and be] taken seriously.’

That’s pretty much what Wendy Bacon was threatened with jail for saying in the early seventies.

Again, none of this provides Bob Ellis and co with an alibi.

A number of pundits have suggested that progressive writers tolerated Ellis’ proclivities because of a romantic attachment to the idea of the debauched artist and that’s why the Lilley revelations haven’t been a bigger scandal on the left.

I don’t think that’s true. I think that the muted response reflects that Ellis simply didn’t mean that much to people under 40, precisely because his rumpled, boozy larrikinism seemed so foreign to a generation that couldn’t imagine a prime minister like Bob Hawke.

In any case, as I’ve been arguing on social media, the toleration for Ellis’ boorishness pertained more to his perceived proximity to power (he made TV specials with Les Murray; he knew every Labor leader, etc) than to any widespread admiration for his bohemianism.

But that’s another argument, one about recapturing the scepticism of authority that marked the seventies.


Image: crop from Wild Card, by Dorothy Hewett.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. In all this scandal no one is thinking or respecting how emerging writers are feeling right now. I’m an unpublished novelist and in all moral conscience oppose any UWA Publishing award that touts the name DOROTHY HEWETT! No writer wants the honour of either participating or winning and award under the title of the Dorothy Hewett Award – a now disgraceful woman who pimped her children.

  2. There are so many perspectives from which to digest both Hewett’s career and output prior to the revelations, and after them. The troika of the political Left, essentialist feminism, and the literati have circled the wagons and are grimly defending the legacy of one of their own, armed with little but a copious reserve of tried and true scapegoats and deflections. The 1970s sexual revolution, championed at the time as empowering women with agency and choices, was, by the eighties a total fizzog, and with the discovery of herpes and AIDS, was about as attractive as a glass of flat champagne the morning after. Second-wave feminist revisionist scholars, in a fit of puritanical vituperation, discovered that free love had been a scam imposed by the patriarchy to exploit women from the get-go. And, in a nutshell, that is the case for the defense, that Hewett was either conned by the patriarchy, or damaged by it. Problem is, the poet had been ahead of her time in diverse facets of her life, including her personal life. If anything, Hewett was a harbinger of feminist sexual autonomy two decades before the libertine sexual revolution, and not a hanger-on. There is so much more to explore, both with regard to her work, the conflicting feminist responses to the scandal (and amusingly creative Establishment defences), it would require a book to do it all justice.

  3. the above article puts the charge of childhood prostitution against Hewett thus:

    ‘No-one should pretend such behaviour was anything other than vile.’

    hindsight is always informative, as with the previous commenter (Oksanna):

    ‘the poet had been ahead of her time in diverse facets of her life’

    not so in the childhood prostitution facet though, “the act of obtaining, procuring or offering the services of a child or inducing a child to perform sexual acts for any form of compensation or reward”.

    and this comment attributed to a previous Overland editor is now read in a different light:

    Ian Syson, editor of the left-wing literary magazine Overland, recently said (2002) Hewett was “Australia’s finest living writer as a playwright and a novelist”. He said he admired “her nose-thumbing, her complete disregard for the mores that prevented others from saying things, and her political commitment”.

    and back again to the last commenter (Oskanna): ‘there is so much more to explore … it would require a book to do it all justice’

    Catch 2?

  4. Come to think of this issue further, wasn’t the big breakthrough in respect of rape in the United States the making of rape a crime of violence against women?

    ‘Laws about violence against women give additional support to women and families affected by violence. The most significant laws related to violence against women are the Violence Against Women Act and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA). Learn more about your protection under each of these laws.’

    Issues in the Hewett case relate to children (who are not mentioned as being covered as such in the above act) and isn’t/wasn’t the prostitution of the young girls in question here rape also in some cases?

    Seems to be so, from what I’ve read, which cuts strange against the so many glowing eulogies of Hewett I’ve now read by so many well known political and literary figures of the time (2002), who would be thoroughly embarrassed should I get political and name names. Not what I’m about here though, more wishing to show how far there is to go still to get anywhere near some sort, any sort, of meaningful gender and sexual equality in respect of women and children, which, if pursued as a result of this case, might at least allow for some sort of redemption?

    1. Just remembered, it was Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, first published in ‘The Devil’s Decade’, which later served to separate rape from a sexual domain and make it a straight out crime of violence against bodies:

      “In her book, Brownmiller identified a number of deeply ingrained myths about rape: that it is motivated by uncontrollable male lust rather than violence, that female sexuality is inherently masochistic and inviting of rape, and that women “cry rape with ease and glee.” Against Our Will offered a coherent counter-discourse about rape, reframing it as an act of power, even mass terrorism, which had the consequence of controlling female behavior. In other words, Brownmiller argued, rape was fundamental to the patriarchal domination of women.” (Time Magazine)

  5. To conclude, Hewett was feminist in name only, because an agent for the patriarchal domination of women, all governed by some metaphysical notion of a singular gendered sexual freedom (for males, of course).

  6. Now the biggie: Should the Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript Award be renamed?

    The moving finger writes and having writ moves on?

    Thing about modal adjuncts being they help the ghost to linger by creating further uncertainties and doubts, for should the award be rebadged, any future winners will always already have won what was formerly known as the Dorothy Hewett Unpublished Manuscript Prize.

    Just take the money, and run.

  7. I think there is an unintentional implication in this piece that I may want the Dorothy Hewett award renamed. For the record, I was contacted by UWA Press about the matter and stated categorically that I do not want it renamed. I have since repeat that a number of times to the press.

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