Risky business, Alison Kirkman

Whistle Blower: Abuse of Power in the Church: A New Zealand Story
Louise Deans
Tandem Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1877178780

How dangerous men think and how to stay safe for life
Brent Sanders
Random House Australia, $24.95,
ISBN 0091842093

Touchy Subject: teachers touching children
ed Alison Jones
Otago University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1877276022

When I was reading Louise Deans’s account of her experience as a woman training for the Anglican priesthood, I couldn’t help wondering if the book by Brent Sanders, How dangerous men think and how to stay safe for life, would have helped her if it had been available in the 1980s. I suspect not, mainly because the “sexual landscape” and how we analyse it have changed significantly over the past 20 years, and Deans’s and Sanders’ books are products of different periods and cultural conceptions about appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour. We now live in a “risk” society, something that is explored in detail in Touchy Subject: teachers touching children, and it is the issue of evaluating “risk” that has changed gender and sexual relations.


Louise Deans’s experience in Whistle Blower is a now all-too-familiar story of a sexually abusive relationship between a student (Deans, the trainee priest) and a teacher/mentor (Reverend R). It is a painful story and Deans has exposed much of herself in telling of her experience. It is also clear that this experience has “wreaked havoc on her life”, as the back cover claims, but it is not the only impetus for writing the book. While the church may now have procedures in place for dealing with sexual harassment claims, Deans wonders whether the underlying attitudes of those in power have actually changed.

In the preface, she writes, “I have decided, in this book, not to name the perpetrator or many of those involved, even though they have been named in the daily and weekly newspapers.” The reason she gives for this is “that the church remains a patriarchal institution where women can still be blamed and punished for revealing the inappropriate sexual behaviour of predatory priests and it is important that they continue to be protected.” I am not entirely convinced by this reason vis à vis the perpetrator, and it would be possible to name the clergyman while still protecting the anonymity of the women. As it is, the use of the term “Reverend R”, and in some places just “R”, gives him an unwarranted mystique. Other pseudonyms also do not work – for example, Bishop P from Dunedin and a Bishop who is a woman can only be Penny Jamieson – so to use this stylistic device doesn’t serve any useful purpose.

However, the main purpose of this book is not to protect identities but to attempt to expose examples of sexual harassment and abuse within the Anglican Church in Christchurch. Louise Deans has provided a compelling narrative of the way that her relationship with “R”, the man who was to guide her through the steps to ordination as a priest, developed rapidly into a sexually abusive relationship and how the church hierarchy failed to deal with the situation. The actions of Louise Deans and other involved women within the church led to a long drawn-out process that even today seems unresolved, although one outcome is that there is now machinery in place to deal with sexual abuse complaints.

Understandably, Deans does have a tendency to universalise the experience of the women in this story to all women in the church, and her final sentence reflects this when she claims, “this is not about a little board of governors of a university hostel at the end of the world … it is really a story about the church and its devious attitudes and practices towards women.” To me, what makes this story real is precisely that it does happen in a place known to many readers. The behaviour described here is no less significant or abhorrent because it occurred in a small city in New Zealand, and Deans does herself and the other women a disservice if she suggests otherwise.

I worry also that in some places in this book Louise Deans seems to feel she must demonstrate that she is “a woman of the world” – she has lived in Bahrain and not just Timaru or Darfield – and that this makes what happened to her even more inexplicable. Yet at other times she uses the fact that she lives in rural Canterbury as a reason for not being aware of the feminist movement within the church. She does not have to prove anything here, and the sections where she tries to analyse her responses (for example, obedience to the church) seem the least convincing of this book. What is convincing is the account of the extraordinary length of time it took anyone with authority in the Anglican Church in New Zealand to take any action, and even when they did, it seems inadequate and done with reluctance.

It is very evident that Louise and other women have suffered horrendously from the behaviour of this particular clergyman, and their attempts to be believed reflect the experiences of women who have been sexually abused or harassed in other contexts. The expectation is that priests and ministers of religion will be exemplary in their behaviour, but the recent revelations about priests and ministers of religion in a number of denominations reveal that this is not the case. However, it is not useful to explain their behaviour as that of “sex addicts” or men deprived of sex (as in the case of “celibate” Catholic priests) because this focuses on the individual man: it does not examine the structure and power relations of the organisation and the wider society that allows this sexually abusive behaviour to happen, and to be seen as both “natural” and “normal”.


The next book, How dangerous men think and how to stay safe for life, addresses to a certain extent the structure of society, but there is still an underlying assumption that the “individual man” is where we should be placing our attention; in this case, individual men who are dangerous either by themselves or in groups. Brent Sanders worked as a police officer, and from this experience he has developed his business of the last 10 years – teaching self-protection strategies to women and girls. In this book he claims that the best self-protection device that you will ever own is your mind. Based on this premise, he has written a motivational or self-help book. “Whether it be sexual harassment, date rape, armed attack, or gang confrontation, your best chance of walking away unharmed comes not from using Mace or employing a karate kick, but from knowing how your would-be assailant is thinking and using that against him.” However, the advice given in the book is dependent on Sanders’ analysis of how “dangerous men think and act”. If he has got it right, and the endorsement from Rape Crisis New Zealand on the front cover seems to infer that he has, then this book is full of useful tips; and it is written in a very readable style. However, along with reading this book, I suggest that attending self-defence classes for women is a must for all women who want “to stay safe for life”.


This idea of “staying safe” is about assessing the risk attached to being in specific situations, and in Touchy Subject “staying safe” and the risk associated with childhood are under the spotlight. This book arose from a symposium called “Hands Off! Teachers touching children”, held at the University of Auckland in November 1999. It also demonstrates the shift in the “gender and sexual landscape” referred to at the beginning of this review. The question asked is whether the pendulum has now swung too far and whether the fear of being accused of sexual abuse is leading to anxiety in male teachers and caregivers. In her introduction, Alison Jones writes that in the process of “gathering these chapters together I was struck by the amount of public interest in the issue of ‘touching children’. Every person I spoke to about the project had a story to tell.” The authors of the chapters in this book come from New Zealand, the United States, England, Scotland, Australia and Samoa, and they also all have stories to tell. The collection is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussions, both public and academic, about the safety of children.

As a sociologist myself, I am persuaded by the argument made by Sue Scott, Stevi Jackson and Kathryn Backett-Milburn in the opening chapter. This conceptual chapter sets the scene for what is to follow and outlines the way in which “risk anxiety is a pervasive feature of everyday life” and has material consequences for children and adults. More importantly, in the case of children, this risk anxiety is centred on sexual danger, and sexual danger from strangers. Even though it is well documented that sexual risk to children is more likely to come from relatives, it is “stranger-danger” that “hits the headlines, captures the popular imagination, and informs education campaigns.” This perception has consequences for parents and children – as well as professionals, such as teachers, who work with children – and these consequences are addressed in more detail in the other chapters.

Sarah-Eve Farquhar’s chapter explores the consequences for teaching in early childhood and primary education of the moral panic about touching that has pervaded these sectors since the early 1990s. More usefully, she also makes some recommendations for change and, in a postscript to the article, suggests that some teachers and members of the public are already taking some of these recommendations on board. This is illustrated by her belief that teachers seem to be returning to having physical contact with children, with teachers challenging the moral panic through their practice. However, she concludes that there is a long way to go to restore public trust in all teachers as professionals and as people who truly care about children.

Other chapters in the collection include a revisiting of the Christchurch Creche case, a discussion of touching in Maori educational settings, and an analysis of a programme aimed at addressing the physical punishment of Samoan children by their caregivers. These two latter chapters sit uneasily with the other chapters and seem to fall outside the main topic of the symposium, that of teachers touching children; however, the editor signals this in the introduction and they seem to be included for their cultural contribution. The final chapter, by Alison Jones, returns us to the central theme and provides excellent illustrations of how men are trained as men to become primary school teachers and how this compares with how men are trained as men to become Santa Claus, and the pleasures and constraints associated with both. Her final words provide an instructive but pessimistic prognosis:

Men have been caught in a confused space between being accused of being both too close and not close enough to children. Now, in an odd reversal, the traditional masculine forms of showing affection have become a necessary sign of the ethical teacher. In that sense nothing has changed. If the training regimes of teachers and Santas are anything to go by, men who seek the possibility of a positive masculine pleasure in loving, cuddling and getting physical with kids, seek something impossible in the contemporary environment.


It is important, when considering this prognosis, to remember the experiences of women and children who have been sexually abused, and not to suggest that all concerns about risk are imaginings produced by the
“culture of fear”. Indeed, what these three books highlight is how far we still have to go in the pursuit of gender
equality at all ages and stages of our lives.


Alison Kirkman teaches in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Education, Gender, Health, Non-fiction, Psychology, Review, Sociology
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