Consent

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The Monty Python Team

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!

Sexual Harassment

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A week ago I was in Kyiv watching CNN, and the big news story was Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misbehaviour. Now I’m in the UK, and the big news story is male parliamentarians’ sexual misbehaviour. Brexit gets a mention too, but as a news story it’s not as sexy as… well, sexual misbehaviour.

There are some kinds of misbehaviour that have always been unacceptable, but there is merit in the claim that the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable has shifted a long way in a short time. For example, when I was a lad:

  • Men were expected to be the active initiators of any romantic/sexual activity. Failure to live up to that expectation signalled either lack of interest or homosexual inclination.
  • A woman’s first “No” was generally taken to mean “Try harder.”
  • Stolen kisses were thought to be romantic.
  • A slapped face was the standard punishment for a man who went too far.

FaceSlap

  • On the silver screen (chief source of moral guidance in those days) a woman’s initial resistance always gave way to eager melting into the aggressor’s arms.
  • Almost every American TV sitcom included the occasional episode where a wife was turned over her husband’s knee for a spanking – well-deserved and for her own good.
  • While not condoned, wife-beating (as domestic violence was called) was considered a fact of life that some women just had to live with. I’m not sure if it was technically a crime, but in the popular mind it wasn’t.

Against that backdrop it’s not surprising that many people – women as well as men – cannot take seriously the recent redefinition of ‘sexual harassment’ to include the accidental overhearing of off-colour jokes.

According to pollsters YouGov (as reported in The Week) there are big generational differences in how women perceive ‘sexual harassment’. When they polled women in the age groups 18-24 (A) and 55+ (B) they found:

  • 64% in group A and 15% in group B think wolf-whistling is sexual harassment.
  • 28% in group A and 11% in group B think commenting on a woman’s attractiveness is sexual harassment.

“But,” you may say, “what about a rich, powerful old man taking advantage of a powerless young woman who aspires to a career (such as politics or show business) to which she thinks the man can help her get access? Surely that’s sexual harassment pure and simple!”

I may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but when a woman allows a man to have his way with her in the hope of pecuniary advantage it looks more like prostitution than victimhood. But I’m willing to hear contrary opinions.