The ‘non-consensual sexual experience’ phrase lumps together everything from a feel to rape, writes Terry Prone

REMEMBER that you read it here first. On this page. In this column. On this day. The general election cliche of 2016 is: ‘The red-line issue.’ A lot of foot-stamping is going on, right now, about what each of the smaller parties would regard as non-negotiable, were one or more of the larger parties, post-poll, to come seeking their favours.

We’re going to be red-lined up to the gills between now and then. This will be the red-line election. I’m sick of red lines already, and the election hasn’t even been called. If ‘red line’ is an irritant, so, too, is “non-consensual sexual experience” as a term applied to rape, abuse, groping and verbal abuse.

What’s that about? Since when have we improved public understanding by removing good, short, direct descriptors and replacing them with non-specific, bureaucratic generalities?

This ‘non-consensual sexual experience’ phrase figured in a 2014 survey at Trinity College, where one in four female students said they had one of them. This survey, accordingly, lumped together everything from ‘copping a feel’ or making a reference to the size of a girl’s breasts to rape.

However, its statistical base is questionable, because the one in four is based on those who responded to the questionnaire and because their experiences varied. A much smaller proportion of students have been affected than the headlines suggest, but a speedy glance might leave the impression that one in four female students (and 5% of male students) was raped while in college. They were not. Some of them were. Some of them were not.

The distinction matters. Invasive comments are disgusting. Being groped is grossly offensive. Being raped, however, changes your life. It can destroy your life. For some rape victims, nothing is ever the same, thereafter.

So mushing all of the possible non-consensual sex- related offences together not only does nobody any service, but confuses the public understanding of rape. Of course, it’s all part of a continuum and a culture, but at one end of that continuum is crude vulgarity, while at the other are the physical and emotional scarring left by the brutal, power-driven crime of rape.

That scarring occurs because international law has always erred on the side of demanding that a raped woman prove her virtue and demonstrate that she fought with her attacker. The law has never said that it is OK to rape a woman who is your wife (indeed, Irish law now specifically identifies wife-rape as a crime). Nor has it ever said that the crime is mitigated by the woman’s dress, pre-existing sexual experience, or level of drunkenness or narcotics-ingestion.

However, the reality is that the low level of reporting of rape is informed by fear of the old judgement that “she was asking for it”.

One American historian says: “Well into the 1980s, there is evidence that male jurors judged women harshly if they wore ‘provocative’ clothing or were ‘promiscuous’, and even if they happened to be divorced rather than married or single... A woman victim was, thus, till caught in a deadly trap. She was both victim and accused. Her case depended on chastity, or respectability — and extreme resistance.”

Of course, that was almost 40 years ago, but some things change slowly; attitudes to rape seem to be among the societal habits which change egregiously slowly and seem to revert back to stances believed to have died off.

That is probably why TCD has now instituted a class for first-year students, or at least for those living in fresher accommodation, who will be required to pitch up at workshops that teach what sexual consent means. This, of course, is a clear demonstration of good intentions on the part of the student committee, whose head guy says they want to “dispel the myths around sexual assault and start a conversation about what consent is”.

However, in common with the earlier research, it’s the surrounding context that could do with a little interrogation, starting with the committee’s statement that the classes will be “promoted as mandatory”.

Now, speaking as a communications consultant who does a lot of promotion, I have to tell the committee that promotion has damn all to do with it. Either the classes are mandatory or they’re not. If they’re not mandatory, promoting them as mandatory is what’s usually described as lying, but which sometimes masquerades as PR.

In this case, the nuanced meaning might be caused by the fact that the classes are mandatory up to the door. You, as a student, pitch up, sign up and you can then hightail it right out of there and you have fulfilled the obligations.

This, bluntly, is crazy. The kind of people who will turn up and, having proven presence, buzz right off are precisely the kind of people who would benefit from the class. They are not going to enhance the credibility of the classes when they go around telling the story of the organisers being satisfied with open defiance. Ah, lads.

The other contextual challenge (as you can see, this bureaucratic language is catching) to these classes is the claim that they are likely “to start a conversation about what consent is.” Now, I’m sorry to be picky, but ‘conversation’ is a red-line issue for me. The most quietly coercive people, these days, say they “want to start a conversation” about some desirable outcome, when what they actually mean is they want everybody to roll over and deliver the outcome.

Not that I am suggesting that the well-intentioned lads and lassies who make up this committee are quietly coercive. They’re not coercive at all. But a conversation about consent? This is not about conversation. This is about a statement. Or, rather, a series of statements. Here they go: ‘No’ means ‘no’. ‘Yes’ may mean ‘yes’ at the beginning, but if it turns into ‘no’, that ‘no’ erases the earlier ‘yes’.

That’s the simple stuff. The slightly more complicated rule of consent does away with the old adage that silence gives consent. If the woman or man with whom you have decided to have sex is too drunk or drugged to speak, then his or her silence does NOT give consent. Ever. Similarly, ‘she asked for it’ by virtue of being flirty, or dressed in a sexual way, is invalid. It is invalid because rape is not a crime of sexual desire. It is a crime of violence and power, directed at everybody from small children to pensioners. And it is rarely a once-off crime.

One final point. The Trinity committee’s efforts are praiseworthy. But it is legitimate to wonder if it isn’t a bit late, when kids have earned themselves enough Leaving Cert points to get into an historic and prestigious university, to be getting them to come to terms with sex as a consensual matter.


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