Carol Sarler: Making men responsible for sex implies women are incompetent

Carol Sarler: The anti-rape ads reinforces misplaced notions of women as less capable, less competent and of lesser ranking in the decisions within the partnership.

Just for the image itself, someone, somewhere, deserves a slapping. In the name of a new anti-rape campaign, a woman's photograph is severed at torso and knee, thus reducing her to nothing more than a close-up of her crotch, a cute little flash of knicker and a No Entry sign winsomely appended to her pubis.

The designers of the ad, of course, would be quick to point out that my distaste for it is scarcely relevant; it is not, after all, intended for the female gaze. As part of the Home Office's attempts to enlighten men in the 18-24 age group, this ghastly picture is being flung into lads' magazines and men's toilets high and low, with the dire warning for the sexually cavalier that "the next place you enter could be prison". Hence the No Entry sign. Clever, huh?

But if the picture is troubling, as much as anything else for its insulting vulgarity, the snappy slogan accompanying it is more so: "If you don't get a yes, don't have sex." Because, however well intentioned the message may be, what it is actually doing is placing the entire responsibility for the sexual behaviour of a long night out on to the man - and in the process reinforcing misplaced notions of women as less capable, less competent and of lesser ranking in the decisions within the partnership.

Nobody disputes - at least not any longer they don't - that No Means No. We strutted the T-shirts and we won. A woman's refusal is an absolute, regardless of her manner, her clothing or her past history; there is no such thing as contributory negligence ("she asked for it") and the difficulties in achieving conviction in rape trials come from notorious problems of proof rather than hoary old judges believing that a woman who says "no" is just playing coy. So as victories go, bully for that one.

The new demand, however, that a "yes" be equally absolute is far trickier - especially in that its proponents want that yes to be both informed and unqualified. In other words, it is not enough that a woman says yes, implies yes or even takes her own clothes off in an apparent rush to business; she has also to be of sound mind and judgment (for which, in most social situations, read sober) and the man has not only to believe that she is, but to be sufficiently confident of it that he can convince a court should he later stand accused of rape.

In theory, that is a sensible precautionary consideration - but only in the kind of theory that allows for a dastardly brute quite coolly and deliberately to render a woman incapable of thought or reason, the better to have his wicked way. And in real life, at least in any version of it that I have ever encountered, it simply doesn't work that way.

Real life has both of them hammered. Real life says that two people out together, particularly those who have just met - which is when trouble seems most likely to occur - drink nervously and frequently until both are stumbling, both are fumbling, neither is capable of anything approaching rational consent but nevertheless irrationally consensual sex does happen and in the morning one or both clap hand to aching brow with growing horror for what they didn't plan, didn't need and certainly didn't want.

Fine. So be it. Chalk it up to experience. Lesson learned, if you're lucky. But don't call it rape. A judge in Swansea recently threw out a case, based on precisely such a scenario, when the woman admitted that she had been too drunk to remember whether she had consented or not. The judge's decision was greeted with outrage from the sterner among the usual suspects.

In fact he was right; what his critics failed to see is that every time such an incident is labelled as rape, a woman is further demeaned. For at the heart of the case is the presumption that a man may be held wholly responsible for his actions while hampered by the influence of drink or drugs - but a similarly hampered woman, the poor ditzy gal, cannot possibly be expected to be held similarly responsible. A slippery slope if ever we slid on one.

It might prove to be the last bastion of equality left to tackle, but we do ourselves no favours by going into reverse gear at the sight of it. Not a pretty sight, I grant you, but there it is: the equal right for women to behave as foolishly as men, the equal right to make hideous mistakes and the equal right, no matter how miserably, to carry the can for doing so. A few posters saying so, in a few ladies' loos, might be equally useful.

Fox hunting. I know. Been there. Done that. Bought the argument. But twice in as many weeks it has raised its head again, in each case with pro-hunting commentators arguing, as they so often do, that their opponents are feigning concern about cruelty to foxes when in fact it is all about people and class: hooray rurals versus urban plebs. Really?

A mallard duck made headlines last week when its beak was taped shut and the rescue party numbered 30. More headlines brought us the bunny fed to the alligator, the seals bashed in Canada, the fury at the hanging of a pet cat, the happier cat hosed down from a tree, the record-breaking protest against the badger cull, the new deal on dog-tail docking, the anti-vivisectionists returning degrees to Oxford and, with the beef ban lifted, the veal-calf campaigners limbering up once more.

About all these critters, many among us genuinely care. To suggest, therefore, that when it comes to foxes and only foxes we are just pretending to give a hoot if they are chased to death, is to suggest an anomaly too far. Call us soppy if you must. But liars - that's rude.

This week Carol watched The fabulous first formula one race of the season, which took place in Bahrain. "I hope to understand the new qualifying rules by the end of the season." Carol ate at the Royal China Club in Baker Street, London. "The best Chinese food I have ever eaten, and I say this as someone who was born in Hong Kong."


Carol Sarler

The GuardianTramp

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