In Australia there are loud calls for schools to add Sexual Consent to the lengthening list of subjects that they are supposed to teach. When I first heard of this I thought it was a joke that had been rejected as too silly for an episode of Monty Python. But it is a sincere response to a growing number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment perpetrated by young males against young females.
Some people blame the ready accessibility of online pornography, which gives boys unhealthy ideas about both the physical and the emotional aspects of sex. Some blame a cultural shift towards disrespect and a sense of male entitlement. Such a shift may be fed by exposure to pornography, of course. It may also be an unwanted side-effect of growing gender equality and the consequent erosion of men’s role as protectors.
I reflect on my own adolescence and the social environment at the time. Women were unashamedly classified as “the weaker sex” and few of the mothers I knew were in the workforce. I was brought up to regard women as slightly inferior versions of men, albeit highly desirable to have and to hold. I was taught to raise my hat to women, offer my seat to them, and generally behave in a way that seemed deferential but was in fact a show of paternalism. Later I realised that this behaviour had its roots in a social imperative that affects every tribe: the protection of its capacity to reproduce.
There is another imperative too: to manage sexual relationships in such a way that a) paternity is not in doubt, b) rights and responsibilities are unambiguously assigned, and c) lust and jealousy do not tear apart the social fabric. In the western democracies we’ve pretty much given up on this one.
At school we had no lessons that were overtly about sex – unless you count the antics of amoebae. However, we were deeply immersed in history and literature. Together with American films, sitcoms and the lyrics of pop songs, these told us all we needed to know. Thus did we learn, for example:
- You shouldn’t behead your wives without a very good reason.
- Having sex at 14 is fine, provided that both families disapprove.
- Beating your wife is unmanly, but spanking her may be necessary from time to time and she will love you all the more afterwards.
- If a woman despises you in the first reel you will end up married to her.
- Only when a woman slaps your face can you be sure that you’ve overstepped an invisible line.
- However, if it’s a token slap she means “It wouldn’t be ladylike to let that go unpunished, but I quite liked it.”
- The first time a woman says “No” she means “Try harder.” The second time she means “Maybe.”
- Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
I would like to end with a neat conclusion, an explanation of how we can allow unrestrained individual freedom and at the same time protect people from their own and other’s weaknesses. But I can’t. Sorry.
Postscript: Only after writing this did I learn that schools in my home state of South Australia have been obliged to teach sexual consent for years!