Consent can't be implied, Michael Valpy writes. Why is that so hard for men to understand?
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I begin each university course I teach by stating that my course syllabus includes a website link to the campus sexual-assault centre and by explaining to my students what sexual consent means in Canadian law.
I find it necessary in an ordinary classroom of young Canadians to caution half the population against the other half, which I've thought about as I make my way through The Globe and Mail's Unfounded series on thousands of sexual assault complaints blocked by disbelieving police officers from ever arriving in court.
What I do in the classroom may as well be labelled Patriarchy 101. Men sexually assault women because they can – because on average, they are larger and stronger – and because a lot of other men with power believe that women either fabricate the assaults or else act in a way that invites the assaults.
In nice Canada, this is still going on after half a century of sex education in public schools, in a country with progressive sexual-assault legislation and jurisprudence (barring the declarations of knees-together judge Robin Camp), in a country with the world's greatest proportion of the population having formal postsecondary learning and being the ninth-ranked country (out of 155) on the United Nations gender inequality index.
Canadian researchers have written in the New England Journal of Medicine that between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of all postsecondary students are sexually assaulted in a four-year enrolment period with the highest incidence in their first two years when they're teenagers. Combining the NEJM analysis with Statistics Canada postsecondary enrolment and gender data, that works out to about 160,000 victims annually, 92 per cent of them young women.
Yet, the public conversation usually gets no farther than tweaking administrative rules on reporting protocols, police investigations, prosecutions and the hammers that the courts should bring down on offenders – all important – while leaving the root cause untouched.
Men are always going to sexually assault women, goes the cant.
All of us guys have done it, exerted a bit of, you know, persuasion, resulting in what philosopher Simone Weil described three-quarters of a century ago as "a gendered violation of the soul."
It is a social norm.
Pierre Bourdieu, the late French anthropologist renowned for his study of the dynamics of power in society, said that, for heterosexual males, "the sexual act is thus represented as an act of domination, an act of possession, a 'taking' of woman by man … [and] is the most difficult [behaviour] to uproot." Men use words for sex that relate to sports victories, military action or strength: to score, to hit on, to nail, to make a conquest of, to "have," to "get."
Synonyms for seduce include beguile, betray, deceive, entice, entrap, lure, mislead – not one word in the bunch implying two people intimately enjoying each other with respect.
Most condom purchases are made by women, even though men wear them, and, increasingly, condom manufacturers are directly marketing to women, albeit using more feminine packaging.
In an episode of Downton Abbey, Lady Mary Crawley, having decided to go off on a sexual weekend with Lord Gillingham, asks her maid, Anna Bates, to buy condoms. "Why won't he take care of it?" Anna asks. Replies Lady Mary: "I don't think one should rely on a man in that department, do you?" Dr. Mariamne Whatley, a leading U.S. scholar on sexual education, says women have long been expected to take responsibility for men's sexuality for which there is no defensible rationale beyond the fact that it's women who get pregnant.
Adolescent girls, she says, are encouraged to "solve" the "problem" of teenage pregnancy. Whistles, sprays, flashlights and alarms are marketed to women. Women are expected to screen out potential rapists among dating partners and to learn some form of self-defence.
Why? Because men allegedly are overcharged on androgen hormones – testosterone – and can't stop themselves from going "too far." Which has no biological validity. "As a student in my sexuality class put it," psychologist Noam Shpancer wrote in a 2014 article in Psychology Today, "'If your parents walk in on you having sex with your girlfriend, you stop what you're doing in a second, no matter what.'"
Since the Supreme Court of Canada's R v Chase decision in 1987, judges have been able to consider a complainant's subjective experience and look beyond contact with any specific part of the human body to consider whether the victim's sexual integrity has been violated.
Belief in so-called implied consent has been thoroughly repudiated by Canadian courts – just because a woman does not repeat her initial "No" or push a guy away, it does not mean she is legally consenting. Obviously, there's a limit to how deeply that has sunk in.
Yet there is a line of feminist scholarly thought that says when subordination of women is replaced by sustained anger
from women, men become more receptive to change and the conventional categories of masculinity and femininity dissolve once, as political theorist Joan Cocks puts it, "the masculine self moves away from a rigid stance of sexual command."
So angry, angry women: That's what I hope my female students will be. No tolerance. No forgiveness.
Michael Valpy lives in Bognor, Ont.