Feminists, we need to talk about consent

Too many campaigners now treat women as the fairer, incapable sex.

Dionne Fitzgerald

Topics Politics

Last month, UK barrister David Osborne courted controversy by suggesting that men accused of rape should not be prosecuted if the woman in question was drunk. Osborne was subsequently invited on to ITV’s This Morning to debate the issue with Sunday Mirror editor, Alison Phillips. On the show he had a difficult time defending his somewhat backward views, which included the assertion that women send out the wrong signals by dressing provocatively.

Of course everybody took to Twitter to declare their self-righteous outrage at Osborne’s comments. Under the hashtag #debateconsent came boring truisms like: ‘Things that don’t cause rape: short skirts, alcohol, low-cut tops. Things that cause rape: Rapists. It’s quite simple.’ All of which is generally accepted by most people today. Contrary to the contemporary diktat of rape-culture-obsessed feminists, Osborne’s views are not popular.

However, as much as I fear the inevitable denunciations of ‘rape apologist’, I believe that there is an important debate to be had on consent. As a feminist, I believe that contemporary ideas around consent – that it must be enthusiastic or soberly given – are concerning.

Firstly, the thought of a potential lover persistently trying to gauge my level of enthusiasm (Are you sure? How about now? Is this okay? Can I get that in writing?) makes me never want to have sex again. But that’s just me.

The more important point I want to make here is that the idea that only a woman can be vulnerable in those situations is deeply troubling. Now I know, of course, that men are generally physically stronger than women, and that sometimes men coerce women into having sex with them through physical violence or through the threat of physical violence. That is rape.

However, the idea that a woman cannot be truly consenting if she is under the influence of alcohol, or if she is not showing adequate enthusiasm, implies that men are somehow mentally stronger than women; that they are more capable of controlling their inhibitions; that they are more capable of taking responsibility for their actions.

Take, for example, a situation where a woman (not necessarily me) is drinking alcohol at home with a male friend. The woman wakes up in bed with said male friend. All the signs indicate that they had sex, but she has no recollection of the event. She regrets it, mainly because she feels awkward – they are friends and there are other people involved who won’t be happy about the situation. There is no way she would have had sex with him if there had been no alcohol involved. However, it quickly becomes obvious that the man in question also has little memory of the event. He, too, regrets it, for the same reasons. They both agree not to speak of it again and move on with their lives, remaining friends. It was essentially a non-incident. Is the woman now to assume that she was raped because she was too inebriated to consent properly? Should this awkward memory, which she was quite happy to forget, be rewritten as a traumatic, life-defining event?

You can only answer yes to those questions if you believe that women have less self-control than men; that women cannot be expected to take responsibility for their actions, because only men can be responsible; that men have a duty to protect and look after women in that kind of situation. As a feminist, I firmly reject all of those beliefs.

Throughout history, the subjection of women has taken a unique and peculiar form. In the Victorian era, for instance, at the same time that women were being oppressed, they were also, in many ways, venerated. Women were denied many rights, but it was believed that they should be provided for and kept out of harm’s way. The reasoning behind this was that women were believed to be like children: not only are they physically weak but they also possess naive and vulnerable minds. Hence they were the fairer sex.

I see disturbing parallels between contemporary ideas around consent and the Victorian idea of a woman as somebody who needs to be wrapped up in cotton wool. Women are just as capable as men (or, if you like, men are just as incapable as women) of being able to consent to sex in any situation. If they are not, then perhaps they are not as capable as men in other regards, too. Perhaps they shouldn’t be able to vote because they won’t be able to do so responsibly. Perhaps they shouldn’t be able to own property or even leave the house on their own and unprotected.

Unless feminists are willing to assert that women are just as much agents as men, then any argument for equality they wish to make stands on shaky ground.

Dionne Fitzgerald is a writer based in Manchester.

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Topics Politics


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