‘MALLEE BULLS’ TEAR UP THE TURF
at the Australian Defence Force Academy
On 6 April 2011 an 18-year old female cadet at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) went to the media with a story that has shaken the military.
A couple of weeks earlier this cadet, Kate, had consensual sex with a male cadet, also 18 years old. What she didn’t realise at the time was that the other cadet had set the whole thing up to be filmed on a webcam. It was transmitted via Skype to a watching group of six male cadets in an adjoining room.
Kate may never have known about this if it wasn’t that one of the watching cadets reported it to superiors at ADFA.
The Skype sex scandal is the kind of incident with the potential to shake the establishment, not least because it occurred within an institution that has a responsibility to uphold some pretty firm values. It’s prompted questions about whether sexism in this form is embedded within our culture as a whole, or within subcultures in Australian society.
Ironically, the scandal has fallen out of the media and been superseded by weeks of coverage of one particular wedding, and of a woman named Kate who has found herself in a very different situation.
In the midst of the royal wedding coverage, the media on Friday 29 April did report that two of the young men involved in the ADFA Skype scandal had fronted the ACT Magistrates Court.
Back at the beginning of April, there was talk that the principle male player in the incident, Daniel McDonald, could be charged with rape, since the situation in which the female cadet consented to sex was misrepresented to her. Instead, the charges he faces are “using a carriage service to cause offence” and “committing an act of indecency”.
These are charges that don’t have much of a ring to their name, and that aren’t likely to stick to a young man’s reputation in the way that the single word “rape” would.
Instead, the men involved continue their studies at ADFA, where officer cadets essentially study a university degree while also taking on board the culture of the Defence Force, for better or worse.
This notion of culture, and of a sexist culture particular to the Forces, is one of the biggest issues to come out of the whole scandal.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith initiated a series of reviews into various areas of the Defence Force as soon as the news of the Skype abuse came out. One of these is an enquiry into the treatment of women at ADFA, to be conducted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick.
Meanwhile, ABC News Online reported that ADFA graduates denied any culture of sexism, and Australia Defence Association director Neil James appeared to blame the incident on a kind of unavoidable need for sex on behalf of young men at ADFA.
As reported by news.com.au and AAP, James described ADFA cadets as “fit as mallee bulls”, and in need of a sexual outlet from the “high pressure environment” that they are apparently in.
While James was careful to say that he didn’t condone the behaviour of the male cadets involved, he did describe Kate as “a bit of a troubled lass” because of some unrelated issues at ADFA.
One gets the impression that his “fit as mallee bulls” description wasn’t designed to be applicable to the women at ADFA – he was specifically talking about “bulls”, after all.
This in itself positions females as the sex outlet that James says the men (and boys – some of those involved are not yet 18) need. Sure, sex can be an outlet for all sorts of people, but the positioning of it in this manner – such that the woman provides the outlet to the man – by the head of the Defence Association appears indicative of some underlying problems.
Aside of James’ perhaps thoughtless comments, there’s also questions about what actually initiated the incident. What prompts a few young people to decide to broadcast an intimate act to others without consent of one of the involved parties?
These cadets had only been at ADFA for two months. They brought attitudes and values with them from the outside world. Two months probably wasn’t long enough to shake these attitudes to the core and replace them with entirely new values – thus many have argued that their behaviour has nothing to do with a culture particular to ADFA.
But two months was undoubtedly long enough for the cadets to sort themselves into social groups based on some of the attitudes and values they brought with them – and on how these attitudes fitted into ADFA’s existing culture.
It was long enough for them to figure out that being “fit as mallee bulls”, in spite of rules surrounding fraternisation, was what was expected of them.
It was also long enough for loyalty to the male friendship group to rank above loyalty to a female sexual partner. The betrayal here is enormous. Regardless of the level of emotional attachment between the two cadets – whether they slept together that day purely for sexual enjoyment or with a deeper level of feeling involved – it was still an intimate act.
It was an act that required some level of trust between the involved parties and that expected a level of discretion in return.
That this discretion and trust was so openly violated is evidence of this sense of loyalty to the male friendship group over the female sexual partner. That only one of the six watching cadets stepped forward is another indication.
Some commentators have suggested that all of these cadets should be immediately expelled from ADFA, with the possible exception of the one who blew the whistle. How can these young men be trusted on a battlefield if they cannot be trusted in the relatively low pressure environment of ADFA?
The discretion between partners is frequently betrayed in the way that groups of both men and women tell each other about their sexual exploits. Often, it’s done in a way that would upset the other party if they knew about it. Sometimes, it leads to a development of a “reputation”.
The positive or negative nature of this reputation is largely dependent on the gender of the person involved – evidenced in the well-known double standard applied to women who are described as sluts for behaviour that might earn a man a few approving slaps on the back from his mates.
The capturing of the actual act of sex on a webcam was premeditated in a way that the sharing of exploits after the fact usually isn’t – making the betrayal ten times worse.
Whether or not Broderick’s enquiry finds evidence of a culture of sexism within ADFA, this incident is a pretty clear indication that there are some serious issues in the way that women are perceived and treated within the Forces.
This article originally appeared in the Women’s Edition of La Trobe University’s student newspaper, Rabelais, on 12 May 2011.