Thursday 29 September 2016

Sarah Carey: Sexual regret isn't the same as assault

Students' Unions have called for mandatory sexual-consent classes. Sarah Carey asks why they're needed

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

BACK OFF: What changed so that the current generation of women don’t know how to say no?
BACK OFF: What changed so that the current generation of women don’t know how to say no?

You'd think the sheer predictability of moral panic around sex and middle-class kids would have tripped some alarm in newsrooms. When reports surfaced that 200 male Agricultural Science students in UCD were swapping photographs of naked women in a secret online forum, a skeptic might think to check before publishing. Alas, no. Inserting the word "alleged" into the text seemed easier. Thus the story was taken out of UCD's student-run college paper and into the mainstream media.

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The scandal was given extra legs when UCD's Students' Union, following the lead set by their counterparts at Trinity College, announced it was calling on college authorities to fund mandatory sexual consent classes.

The original story seemed dubious to me, and as for mandatory sexual-consent classes - that's the kind of fascist initiative that would have sparked protests by students in my day.

Needless to say, when the story was investigated by the grown-ups at UCD, it quickly transpired to be fictional. That was disappointing for the outraged campaigners who are still claiming that the secret online forum is so secret that it probably exists but the investigators just couldn't find it. It's like those Weapons of Mass Destruction. They must be out there! Because we want them to be! Because then we can have a war! A sex war!

War is good for some people. Like author Louise O'Neill, the organiser of a 'Slut-Walk' who got an outing on TodayFM and declared herself "sickened" when she heard about the photographs. Her current nausea levels that the photographs can't be found have yet to be announced.

To be fair, not all third-level students lost the head. The Union of Students in Ireland's Annie Hoey, who was on my Newstalk show last week, said she didn't agree with mandatory classes. But she still thought voluntary classes were necessary because there's so much confusion among male and female students as to what constitutes sexual consent.

Hoey said reported rapes are no higher than off-campus. But there are highly distressed women who had sexual relations with men and wondered afterwards if it constituted sexual assault. This also means there are innocent men vulnerable to serious allegations. Why are intelligent, educated, people living in the most liberal times in our history incapable of negotiating sexual relations?

My grand-aunt was one of the first female students at Trinity College, Dublin. She was part of the brave cohort who broke the prejudice that women weren't safe on campus.

When I arrived in Trinity from rural Meath I had barely turned 17. Yet I was resolute. Men were after only one thing and it was my solemn duty to stop them getting it - until I felt like getting it myself. I didn't need a workshop to help me figure this out.

What changed so that the current generation of women don't know how to say no and the men aren't sure what constitutes a yes?

The typical explanation is to blame the vast quantities of alcohol being consumed.

I'm not entirely convinced that much has changed there. Drinking to excess was normal when I was at college in the 1980s and 1990s. I left college with a degree and a stomach ulcer for heaven's sake. There was also plenty of sexual regret when people got drunk, went to bed with someone, and woke up wishing they hadn't. It was just put down to misadventure with a resolution to make better decisions next time.

So I think there's something more going on. What obviously has changed is the pornification of society in which girls are afraid to say no because everything in popular culture demands they say yes. The music industry is largely responsible for driving this hypersexuality, and feminists should be protesting the sexualisation of young women. Instead, they attack anyone who raises their hand against it. Third-wave feminists did so much to raise awareness and change the law around rape. But with 'Victim Feminism' that's evolved into something quite different.

Now, if you warn women to recognise the world is a dangerous place from which they need to protect themselves - like, not drink so much they render themselves incapable of providing consent - you're accused of "victim-blaming". The 'Slut-Walkers' say women have the right to dress and behave anyway they want without being accused of asking for it.

Well, of course they do. We all have the right to leave our back doors unlocked and our handbags in the car without getting robbed. But we don't do those things because there are opportunistic predators out there waiting to pounce. So yes, society should change, but as Caitlin Moran argues, there are certain things we have to do while we're waiting for that to happen. Crime is crime, but we take steps to protect ourselves from it. What's wrong with that?

Moran also applies another test when society starts worrying about women's behaviour. She asks: "And are the men doing this too?" As the mother of young sons, I've already started warning them about reckless behaviour, so yes, my protective attitudes are gender-neutral.

Perhaps the classes, which seem infantile to me, are necessary. But surely a more lasting solution is that modern feminists make a distinction between sexual liberation and pornification. That advising street smarts and secure behaviour is not victim-blaming. That sexual regret is not the same as sexual assault. And rather than waiting on men to telepathically divine consent, nothing beats an old-fashioned shriek and a firm "No".

Sarah Carey presents 'Talking Point' on Newstalk at 9am on Saturday

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