Pretending That Men Aren’t Grown-Ups

In November 2005, Janet Daley wrote an article in The Times with the headline “Pretending That Women Aren’t Grown-Ups“, as a comment on the Swansea rape case where the prosecuting counsel remarked “drunken consent is still consent”. I was struck by some of her comments about women and the issue of how to protect ourselves from rape, and decided to try to write a response.

My response is intended as a purely personal response to some of Ms Daley’s comments in her article, and I’m not claiming to fully represent her viewpoint – I’m well aware of the constraints of trying to get one’s viewpoint across in a limited amount of words. Disclaimer over: onward!

“Do women want to be treated like grown-ups or don’t they? After 40-odd years of modern feminism the question remains unresolved: are women the equals of men as adults who can take responsibility for their own actions? Or are they vulnerable creatures who need unique protection and special allowances made for them?”

The question remains unresolved because it’s a false question; it’s not a case of either/or. Women are the equals of men, but I doubt any rational person has ever claimed that this means we are exactly the same as them. After all, we can get pregnant and they can’t; are men therefore not our equals? I think not. As Daley herself says later, “it is true that, the mechanics of the sex act being what they are, women can have it forced on them in a way that men cannot (except in cases of homosexual rape)”. Add to that the fact that, in my opinion, men as a group are generally physically stronger than women. We are in this respect perhaps more vulnerable, but would anyone suggest that this doesn’t make us equal? Would anyone suggest that children, the disabled and the elderly should have fewer human rights because they are physically less strong than able-bodied adults?

Therefore, given this fact, it’s surely not damaging to women’s equality to make allowances for the fact that, as a group, we are often physically less strong and less aggressive than men, and thus less able to resist sexual assault. It seems that the rather brutal implication of this logic for women is: “If you want to be equal you’ve got to be prepared to protect yourself from rape and it’s entirely your responsibility, never mind the fact that any potential rapists will, almost certainly, be stronger, more aggressive, and much more willing to terrorise you into doing their will than you will be prepared to terrorise them into letting you go”.

“What produced the controversy [in the Swansea rape case] was the prosecuting counsel’s more generalised remark that “drunken consent is still consent”. Contrary to much of the excitable reaction to this comment, the prosecutor did not say that committing a sexual act on an unconscious woman should be legally acceptable: nobody has made what would certainly be the morally outrageous claim that being unconscious constitutes de facto consent to sex. The fatal point was that the girl could not recall the circumstances or even her own degree of conscious involvement. The judge, who agreed with the prosecution, instructed the jury to return a verdict of not guilty.

But even the prosecutor’s statement is considered by many vociferous women’s lobbies to be unacceptable, which strikes me as rather strange. Substitute for “consent” a word that applies to circumstances in which those lobbies’ sympathies might be different. Suppose that a man defended his brutal attack on his wife by saying he was so drunk he didn’t know what he was doing – and the prosecuting counsel remarked: “Drunken assault is still assault.” Any objections?”

No, but I find the equivocation of committing assault on another person whilst drunk with giving drunken consent to sex whilst not in full possession of your rational faculties rather strange. Assault is, after all, a serious crime which harms the victim. Drunken consent to sex is not, especially given that it is the person giving the consent who will suffer the negative consequences if they realise afterwards, or during the act, that it was not what they would have chosen to do if they had been in full possession of their faculties at the time.

“Anyway, since when do we permit people to say that they are not responsible for what they do when they are inebriated? Unless you are tied down and have alcohol poured down your throat, getting drunk is generally regarded as a matter of choice and you are expected, as an adult, to understand the consequences that might follow from it. In most contexts young women are considered to be more mature and responsible than young men, so why should we cut them far more slack than we would, for example, a male drunk driver who loses his judgement?”

I’m curious as to why we aren’t applying this argument both ways. It seems to me that the argument being put forward here is that women should take care not to get so drunk that their judgement about a situation is impaired, that they must remain at all times fully in control of their faculties, so that they can rationally judge exactly what having sex with the other person involved will entail, and whether they want to do that. Presumably this also includes the need to avoid getting into situations where they might end up with someone who won’t take “no” for an answer, never mind that this is sometimes difficult to judge even when stone-cold sober.

If so, shouldn’t we also be arguing that, given their greater strength and the fact that their having sex with a woman who isn’t willing or didn’t fully think through the implications, will physically and emotionally harm the woman, not themselves, that men should also take care not to get so drunk that they can’t judge whether a potential partner’s faculties are impaired at the moment of consent, or that they lose their ability to control themselves and pull back if later on she says “No, I’m sorry, I know I said yes but actually I don’t want to because I don’t feel like it?”

How about demanding that young men behave as responsibly as young women?

I’m also rather concerned by Daley’s statement that “young women are considered to be more mature and responsible than young men”. If you’re a young woman who hasn’t matured to the same extent as her female peers, or who isn’t more mature than her male peers, are you in some way deficient? Isn’t this reverse sexism? I’d feel deeply unhappy about seeing this idea enshrined in law. Why should women bear all the responsibility for avoiding this situation, when men are also rational creatures with free will, not helpless brutes enslaved to their sex drive?

Again, I find this equivocation of giving drunken consent to sex with committing a crime whilst drunk somewhat disturbing. In the first case, the person giving the consent is the victim, whereas in the second, the person driving drunk is not the victim, but the perpetrator, and it is his victims who will suffer the effects of his drunken decision.

“What constitutes consent is itself a subjective judgement, let alone what constitutes a state of drunkenness so disabling that apparent consent does not count. (After all, many of the stages of drunkenness simply involve being disinhibited.) There is altogether too much scope for ambiguity here to make good law. So what then? Are women and girls always to be constrained in ways that men are not? It used to be thought that women did have, if not a legal obligation, then at least a common-sense responsibility to keep themselves out of dangerous situations.”

Yes indeed, but so do men. The message to women here seems to be: “You are weak, so take good care to protect yourself, because it will be all your fault if someone stronger than you assaults you. You can’t trust that men will control themselves”.

“Oddly, feminism urged women to throw out all the old limitations on their behaviour, while at the same time it claimed all men were potential rapists.”

Which seems to be precisely the point that the argument that “women have a common-sense responsibility to keep themselves out of dangerous situations” is making. Besides, there are many ‘brands’ of feminism. Some would argue this. Others would argue that most men are not rapists, but that unfortunately it’s not always possible to distinguish the rapist from the non-rapist, and that women should be aware of this fact.

“Whichever end of that argument you buy into, it is true that, the mechanics of the sex act being what they are, women can have it forced on them in a way that men cannot (except in cases of homosexual rape). That’s life.”

Well, yes, but given that men are rational creatures with free will, why can’t we say instead: “Given that forced heterosexual sex where the woman wasn’t physically ready injures women and not men, men must therefore take all possible precautions to ensure that they don’t use their greater strength and physical ability to commit rape to injure women, even inadvertently. That’s civilisation”.

“Perhaps being an adult female involves accepting responsibility for your safety rather than demanding a right to behave as irresponsibly as a young man.”

How about demanding that all young men behave as responsibly as young women? If getting extremely drunk puts men into a state where they’re less likely to be able to control themselves around women, then shouldn’t we be urging young men to drink less to avoid this situation, rather than expecting women to bear all the responsibility? This seems to me to be a classic case of the ‘blame the victim’ approach. Perhaps everybody should stop drinking to the extent where we start losing our rational faculties and lowering our inhibitions, and then this situation won’t arise at all.

I don’t believe there is any easy or comfortable answer to this problem. It’s undoubtedly true that if all young women stayed indoors on a Friday and Saturday night, never drank more than the odd glass of Chardonnay at home and never had sex outside a long-term relationship, situations like the one in the Swansea rape case would almost certainly disappear. But would we really want a return to the old days where women were supposed to be guardians of sexual morality, along with the accompanying negative corollary: that if sex was forced on them it was their own fault for not guarding themselves well enough? I intensely dislike this attitude that seems to exist within modern society whereby if young men are going out and getting drunk, having sex and getting into fights, it’s seen as “boys will be boys”, whereas if young women are doing it, it’s suddenly a big social problem.

Bottom line, wasn’t feminism meant to ensure that we’re all, male and female, held to the same standards of civilised behaviour?

Ellery is a pseudonym for someone who recently got fed up with living in rural Wiltshire and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne (hence her interests in our drinking culture). She drinks far too much coffee, reads the newspapers and practises martial arts, but not all at the same time.