Dani Garavelli: What some men really think when they hear ‘no’
LIVING in Scotland, where the law on rape, if not always its application, is pretty enlightened, I had been lulled into a false sense of security regarding public attitudes towards forced sex.
I mean I was obviously aware there were those who continued to treat women as sex objects and to see short skirts as a come-on, but I thought such men were regarded as aberrant and that prevailing opinion – even within slow-to-change organisations such as the police service – now regarded the “No means No” mantra as axiomatic.
Set against that background, last week’s onslaught of misleading pronouncements on the issue came as a shock to the system. First we had US right-winger Todd Akin expounding the theory that “legitimate” rapes don’t lead to pregnancy because, when a sexual encounter is unwanted, a woman’s reproductive system shuts down. This fallacy stems from a medieval belief that a woman needed to orgasm to conceive. Note I said medieval. The would-be senator was, of course, exploiting the misconception to bolster his argument against abortion in rape cases and, offensive though I found him, I didn’t pay him much heed at first. He’s just a nutter who’ll be laughed out of court, I thought. In fact, his stance strengthened his position with Republican hardliners, reminding us there’s always an appetite for misogyny.
Even more pernicious was George Galloway’s contribution to the Julian Assange debate. Assange, he insisted, was not guilty of rape, but “bad sexual etiquette”, if sexual intercourse had taken place on a previous occasion. “Not everyone needs to be asked prior to each insertion,” he said. Now Galloway is no-one’s idea of either an agony uncle or an expert in ethics. He is unlikely ever to be sought out for advice on how to treat the opposite sex. But even by his standards this was poor. Not only did it imply some kind of inside knowledge of what exactly went on in Assange’s bedroom – and the whole point is that it’s for the Swedish justice system to determine – but it sent out the message that once a woman has consented to sex once, she’s game for pretty much anything. This is both morally repugnant and legally wrong. The Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009 states quite clearly that having sex with a sleeping woman is rape unless consent has previously been granted.
The troubling thing is that, though Galloway’s remarks provoked their share of outrage, there were many men who agreed with him. Indeed, what last week’s furore demonstrated is just how entrenched such attitudes are. One survey of 18 to 25-year-olds carried out by the Havens, a network of sexual assault referral centres, suggested one in 20 men would try to have sex with someone if they thought they were asleep. In another poll, a quarter of men said they did not believe rape had necessarily been committed if one person said “no”, while a fifth said they’d expect someone who’d had sex with them before to do it again.
It’s the young who seem to be most confused and that’s unsurprising. On the one hand, they have easy access to internet porn which portrays sex as easily attainable. On the other, they’re being told that explicit consent is required for every adolescent fumbling. On top of that, maybe, just maybe, the insistence of anti-rape campaigners that it’s always easy to tell what is and what isn’t acceptable is as unhelpful as the rubbish spouted by the likes of Akin and Galloway.
While discussion about rape tends to portray every act of intercourse as something that is either welcome or unwelcome, life tends to be a lot messier than that. Most people will have felt ambivalent about sex at some point; maybe they’ve been tired, maybe they’ve wanted to watch TV, maybe they’ve been unsure how far they wanted to go, but they’ve gone along with it. Whether they’ve been violated or not depends not only on how much pressure was applied. Were they happy to indulge their partner or did they feel making a fuss would cause more trouble than it was worth?
While rape is easily defined as intercourse without “consent”, establishing what constitutes consent is not always so simple. To return to the Assange case, one of the women seems to be accusing him of having had sex with her without using a condom when she insisted he should. If this is true, then her consent was conditional and ignored. However, another of the allegations involves Assange pressing himself up against the same woman days after a sexual encounter. While she may have been “molested”, it is possible to imagine circumstances in which that gesture might be regarded as a valid means of testing the water to see if sex might be on the agenda again.
So how do we guide young men so they understand what’s OK and what isn’t, without putting them off relationships altogether? Well, it might help if the debate was less polarised. And – here’s a thought – how about a public information campaign that isn’t quite so aggressive? Those advertisements which showed women drunk or in short skirts with the words “This is not an invitation to rape me” tackled the most entrenched myth effectively, but their accusatory tone carried the message that all young men are predatory. Some are, but many more are just bewildered. What they need is not to see women as a court case waiting to happen, but to understand that sex can be great – just so long as both parties are genuinely up for it.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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