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Sexual consent: yes, no, maybe

By Bettina Arndt - posted Friday, 8 September 2017


Candice Jackson, a top Trump Education official, hit the headlines recently by claiming ninety per cent of sexual assault claims on campuses involve couples who are both drunk. Judging from recent media reporting of our own campus rape crisis the same might be true here.

"I didn't think I could even walk by myself. I think I knew what was going to happen but I was so drunk that I just like went along with it," said Tasmanian University student Lorna Nilssen appearing on the ABC's 7.30 Report claiming the Human Rights Commission survey showed alarming levels of assault and harassment.

The same programme featured ANU law student Freya Willis alleging she was raped by a fellow student at a campus event. "We were both quite intoxicated. I was much more intoxicated than he was and he separated me from my friends and we went back to a room where we were both staying and that's where it happened."

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So many stories of drunken young women being taken advantage of - often by equally drunk young men. There were horrific tales of women falling victim to groups of men, having their drinks spiked or falling into the hands of serial predators. These are the cases highlighted by media promoting the feminist position that all sexual activity involving an intoxicated woman is sexual assault as she cannot give consent. And that discouraging female students from drinking risks blaming the victim and shaming such women into not seeking help.

Yet that's only part of the story as shown on SBS's recent Insight programme on sexual consent. President of the Law Society of NSW, Pauline Wright, talked about a boyfriend and girlfriend out on a date. They've had a few drinks, they regularly have sex. "They both get drunk, they go home and the usual thing for them would be to have sex. The girl might be saying yes but perhaps the next day thinks that was wrong." Maybe they split up the next day, maybe there was reason for the girl to redefine her experience, suggested Wright. "It bothers me that because she was drunk the law might say that she didn't have the capacity to say yes. That becomes really difficult for a young man."

Very difficult, because as Candice Jackson pointed out, these regret-sex incidents can easily end up with a young man being charged with sexual assault, even many months later.

Wright also described a hypothetical first date where the girl thinks she doesn't want to have sex but then they have too much to drink and do have sex. "The next morning, he doesn't call, he doesn't ring, she feels humiliated. Is that then a sexual assault? " she asked.

Certainly most juries wouldn't think so. They rarely convict in the date rape cases involving contradictory he-says, she-says evidence which constitute the bulk of campus rape allegations. That's why the activists are pressuring universities to getting involved in such cases, promoting their simple narrative of men as perpetrators and women victims.

Just a few months ago the University of Canberra website included a Party Safe page advising students to "pace yourself if you are drinking and stay alert. When you are drunk or using drugs, you are more likely to do things you normally wouldn't do when you are sober." This advice was attacked by activist Nina Funnell on abc.net.au who denounced universities for still teaching "don't get raped" rather than "don't rape". The advice has since been removed from the Party Safe page.

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"Don't get raped" is conspicuous by its absence in the universities' virtue-signalling activity following the August 1 release of the HRC data. Our universities are strenuously ignoring the fact that the HRC data showed mainly good news - thankfully small figures for sexual assault, 1.6 per cent over two years, and the harassment was mainly unwanted staring, which most of the women dismissed as not serious or not requiring help.

Yet with most of our media choosing to misrepresent the figures and promote the fake news rape narrative, our universities have fallen into line and funded measures including online sexual consent courses consent courses which put the onus for preventing sexual assault squarely on the shoulders of young men.

These online consent courses are intriguing. Most are adapted from an Epigeum course constructed by proud feminists including Californian consultant Alan Berkowitz – a man who boasts of his ongoing battle against "unconscious sexism and male privilege." The programme pretends to be gender-neutral and includes case histories involving some gay couples and a few female perpetrators such as a woman who ponders going down on her sleeping partner and is later congratulated for restraining herself. But the programme is mainly pitched at teaching young men to decipher women's messages regarding consent:

"Verbal consent can be given directly in loads of different ways. Your partner may say things like: 'That feels good. Do it this way. Fuck me .YES! More! Keep going. Don't stop!...'"

"Always stop if you hear your partner say: 'No. I don't know. I'm not sure. Not now. I'm worried. Stop. Get off! Fuck off! Don't do that. Ouch. Not again. Do I have to?"

What's really odd is the person sending these messages are so rarely directly addressed in the programme. It's assumed the women are inert. They are like pot plants on a gardening show teaching people how do determine if the plant has dried out. Are the leaves wilting? Flowers dropping off? Insert fingers into the soil to test for dampness.

RMIT social justice professor Nicola Henry, an expert adviser to Epigeum, boasts on video that their courses focus on perpetrators and bystanders rather than victims. These "don't-rape" courses have no interest in teaching women to take proper ownership of the decision-making process that leads to a yes or no, let alone encouraging them to express those wishes clearly rather than keep men guessing.

Back in the 1990s I made a programme on sexual consent – Yes, No, Maybe - as a guest reporter on Four Corners. I had no trouble finding women who acknowledged they deliberately drink to avoid making decisions around consent. Women who admitted to playing games where they said no but wanted men to push through that resistance – a popular themes in hugely popular bodice ripper novels.

None of these complexities are addressed in the sexual consent programmes. The gender-neutral course contains only small nuggets of advice which even arguably target women: "You always have the right to change your mind about any kind of sexual activity – even right before or during sex." And "If someone forces (or tries to force) you to do something sexual that you don't want to do, remember that it's never your fault and it's not okay."

No one would deny the importance of the 'don't rape' message – sexual assault is rightly a very serious criminal offence. And it makes sense to change the male culture so bystanders are empowered to intervene when women are being harassed or attacked. Yet it's shocking that feminists have persuaded our universities to absolve women of all responsibility for behaving sensibly and not putting themselves in harm's way.

Camille Paglia, speaking at a Battle of Ideas, pointed out that back in the 1960's women fought against women being locked up at night in single sex dormitories. "We are the ones who said, 'Get out of our private lives.' The colleges said, 'No, the world is dangerous. We must protect you against rape.'

And the response to from Paglia's generation of women? "Give us the freedom to risk rape. That is true adulthood, " said Paglia.

Evidence suggests that the current revival of paternalistic attitudes towards women won't protect them. An article, Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women, published in the New England Journal of Medicine two years ago showed the passive-woman sexual consent programmes aren't working. "Most campuses use programmes that have never been formally evaluated or have not proved to be effective in reducing the incidence of sexual assault," said the leading author, Canadian sociology professor Charlene Senn spelling out disappointing results for programmes similar to those being introduced in Australia.

Senn's resistance program, which teaches women to recognise dangerous situations and resist sexual coercion, apparently reduces the incidence of date rapes by almost 50 per cent.Rape resistance is about teaching women how to say "no earlier and more effectively", helping them to be "more confident and sure of their own desires" and "get past emotional roadblocks to resist unwanted sexual behaviour."

It sounds promising, although Senn, who describes herself as a "feminist activist", defines sexual assault to including having sex because "you feared you'd lose your relationship if you didn't." And the professor is dead against telling women to let fear restrict their lives: "If you are drinking 12 drinks, there's no risk of rape unless there's someone around who's willing to rape. The risk is not in the alcohol."

This argument is insulting to women and unfair to men suggests Canadian men's rights activist and YouTube vlogger, Karen Straughan: "In the feminist narrative regarding drunkenness and sex only men retain agency. Women are reduced to infantilized objects without the capacity for volition. She was drunk. Enough said. She bears no responsibility. Yet the drunken man's identical decision is subject to heightened scrutiny. He instigated the entire thing, and his drunkenness does not absolve him of responsibility, but in effect, makes him more morally culpable."

Isn't it odd that we encourage female responsibility in other aspects of life such as persuading young women not to drink and drive? They know they'll face the consequences if they get plastered, drive and kill a pedestrian. Being drunk isn't an excuse if they stab a homeless man to death, or molest a child. Where's the logic in women not being in any way accountable if they get drunk and make stupid decisions exposing themselves to sexual harm?

This is a hot button issue for our drug and alcohol organisations who readily supply international data showing the clear link between intoxication and risk of sexual assault. "It's well known that both victims and perpetrators of assaults and sexual assault have often been drinking prior to the event but this is largely ignored in the public debate," says Michael Thorn, CEO of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Thorn is frustrated that data on drinking by both victims and perpetrators of violence is not being systematically collected or reported and he suggests the issue may well be "being downplayed for ideological reasons."

The issue is critical to properly tackling sexual assault on campuses, according to Peter Miller, professorof Violence Prevention and Addiction Studies at Deakin University: "One of the key issues to address is the high levels of drug and alcohol consumption among university students, both male and female. We need to teach male and female students to stay sober enough to make good decisions around sexual consent."

Advice to young women on how not to get raped? Given the grip the feminists have on our university that's just not going to happen.

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This article was first published in The Australian. Bettina Arndt is now vlogging, and her latest can be watched by clicking here.



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About the Author

Bettina Arndt is a sociologist.

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