The new curtain-twitchers: why feminists are so down on sex
Meet the puritans who think sex is bad for women.
Last week, the Court of Appeal declared the 2012 rape conviction of footballer Ched Evans to be ‘unsafe’ and ordered a retrial following the emergence of ‘fresh evidence’. This came just days after the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee launched its enquiry into Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools. Questions around who can consent to sex, the emotional and physical state they must be in at the time, and how explicitly consent must be given, are being dissected yet again.
Consent is sometimes acknowledged as being complicated, ‘grey’ and ‘murky’. Certainly any discussion of consent soon becomes highly charged. Last week I debated political correctness at Cambridge University; my remark that a world without offence would be a boring place where people ‘interrupt love-making to seek formal consent before, during and after every sexual act’ was interpreted as meaning ‘rape is good’. Despite the ambiguous and emotive nature of the topic, consent is most often misleadingly presented as being as simple as a having a cup of tea. Universities are rolling out sexual consent workshops for students and there are frequent demands for sex education in schools to be made compulsory for all children and to cover a broader range of issues, including, first and foremost, consent.
It seems that no discussion of sex and relationships can take place nowadays without the issue of consent dominating. Yet the understanding of consent as a process of explicitly requesting and granting permission prior to engaging in sex is a recent and worrying development. It suggests that formal rules should dictate private relationships and that passion and spontaneity should be jettisoned in favour of sticking to a rote-learnt script. As such, the particular focus on verbally given and repeated consent sets an unrealistic standard for most sexual relationships. It encourages the perception that sex that is not preceded by formal negotiations is rape. Rape becomes redefined as sex that was unwanted and regretted, even if this was not communicated at the time. The preoccupation with formal consent has been driven by feminist campaigners and it reflects their contempt for ordinary people.
In 1983, the American feminist, lawyer and academic Catherine Mackinnon argued that all penetrative sex is rape. She wrote: ‘Instead of asking what is the violation of rape, what if we ask, what is the nonviolation of intercourse?… Perhaps the wrong of rape has proven so difficult to articulate because the unquestionable starting point has been that rape is definable as distinct from intercourse, when for women it is difficult to distinguish them under conditions of male dominance.’ Mackinnon questions whether women can actually consent to sex at all in a society that ‘embodies and ensures male control over women’s sexuality’.
Mackinnon presents heterosexual sex as an exercise in male power rather than a source of mutual pleasure. She sees it as something women only agree to participate in because they have foolishly internalised society’s sexist and patriarchal norms. Over the intervening three decades, this view has moved from being unorthodox to mainstream. Germaine Greer wrote in her 1999 book The Whole Woman: ‘A woman’s pleasure is not dependent upon the presence of a penis in the vagina; neither is a man’s. We must ask therefore why intromission is still, perhaps more than ever, described as normal or full intercourse. The explanation seems to lie in the symbolic nature of intercourse as an act of domination.’
Consent has become a focus for concern in a climate that all too often views sex as an exercise in power, a symbolic act of male domination that women have been conditioned to submit to. The narrative of predatory males and female victims implies that women can never truly consent to sex no matter what they might say or do. In an article headlined, ‘Cold sexual contempt drives too many men’, the feminist writer Barbara Ellen argues that when men do not respect women, ‘issues of consent become yet greyer and murkier. Because it’s not just about the actual point of sexual contact, the “yes” or “no” in the moment, but also about all the other (drunken, slutty, chaotic, contributory) moments in the run-up before.’ Her assumption that all men are potential rapists actually underscores a far greater contempt for women as so lacking in autonomy they are unable even to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and mean it.
The contempt for people reflected in the current obsession with consent is underpinned by a fear of intimacy and unregulated behaviour but also, and perhaps most of all, by a fear of heterosexuality. The new feminist puritans see heterosexual sex as confirming and reinforcing outdated gender roles. That men and women not only have sex but enjoy it is a threat to the notion that both gender and sexuality are merely social constructs, to be crafted and rejected as instinct takes us. Today, biology is something to be disregarded entirely and at the same time there are no longer many social conventions governing people’s sex lives. Neither religion nor curtain-twitching neighbours carry much influence any more. Students no longer have single-sex accommodation or curfews. This new freedom should be something to celebrate but instead, today, it results only in fear and a desire to introduce new regulations and controls on people’s behaviour.
Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. Her new book, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, is published by Palgrave Macmillan UK. (Order this book from Amazon (USA).