Instant reflections on the Natsal survey on sexual coercion

Today saw the publication of the new edition of the Lancet journal, which is largely devoted to Britain’s largest survey of sexual attitudes and lifestyle: Natsal

Much media attention was devoted to the findings on rape and sexual coercion, or as the researchers call it, non-volitional sex.

To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time a UK-based survey of this size has asked men and women the exact same question in the same context about their experience of non-consensual sex. After looking at many studies from around the world which have found surprisingly high response rates among men when questioned on the issue, it is worth noting that this survey is more in line with expectations. Here’s the full description from the methodology:

“We asked women and men about their experience of sex against their will since the age of 13 years, in the computer-assisted self-interview section of the questionnaire, in which heterosexual sex was defined as including “vaginal, oral, or anal” and same-sex sex as including “oral (or, for men only, anal) sex or any other contact involving the genital area”. Only participants who reported having had heterosexual intercourse or sex with someone of the same sex since 13 years of age were routed to these questions. The first question was worded “Has anyone tried to make you have sex with them, against your will?” Participants who responded “yes” were defined as having experienced “attempted non-volitional sex”, and were then asked “Has anyone actually made you have sex with them, against your will?”, which was used to define the experience of “completed non-volitional sex”.


the results were that 9.8% of women and 1.4% of men reported having been the victim of non-volitional sex. For easy comparison, that would mean that for every eight rapes, seven were of women and one was of a man.

Some points to note. First, the  wording of the question used on this survey is stronger than in many of the studies I wrote about in the previous blog. There is little doubt that it describes rape, rather than what we might call ‘reluctant sex’ or gentle coercion. This might explain why the gender difference is wider than in some other surveys.

On the other hand, I continue to wonder if many male victims of female sexual aggression simply don’t think their experience counts when they are asked about this. I do wonder whether the response rate might have been a bit higher if the question had specified “has anyone, male or female, actually made you have sex with them, against your will?”

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

The other detail in the report which caught my attention, which I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, was that among both male and female victims the median age for the last incidence (of non-volitional sex) was at a very early age – 16 for men, 18 for women. For men, there was no difference in this between different age cohorts, but for women, the youngest group (16-24) and the oldest group (65-74) had significantly lower incidence rates than other groups.

This would, I think, appear to shadow an effect that we have noted in the US before, but I’ve yet to see confirmed in the UK – which is that there was a large rise in the rate of rape of young women over the  1970s to the 1990s which has since gone into decline, which would, of course, be welcome news. It also highlights why estimates of lifetime risks of a crime like rape – the incidence of which is not evenly spread over a lifetime  – are fundamentally flawed. Claims like “1 in 5 women will be raped” “1 in 10 women will be raped” or any such calculation are fundamentally flawed. (Same goes for men, of course.)

I’m still going through other sections of the report, and shall update you if I find anything interesting.

So how do we eliminate violence against women?

Today, November 25th, is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I’ve always liked the unequivocal absolutism of this demand – it’s not just a call for awareness, or even a reduction, but the total, final eradication of violence against women. As the Situationists used to say: Be reasonable – demand the impossible.

What I’m less clear about is what we are meant to do to achieve this aim. The day is also known to many as White Ribbon Day, when men around the world pledge never to use or tolerate violence against women and to actively work to end it. I’ll confess I’ve never been comfortable with this campaign. It may be unfair, but it always looks to me like the gentleman doth protest too much, it seems to say “look at me, I don’t beat or rape women!”  Whoop-de-fucking-do, well done you, have a ribbon.

It’s not that such campaigns do any harm. I don’t for a moment buy the argument that campaigns like this are misandrist, implying that all men are potential rapists and wife-beaters, that is paranoid poppycock. I just don’t think they offer any meaningful solution. I also have a deeper, philosophical problem with the politics behind the campaign. As with the slogan “Only men can stop rape” it places the power, the agency and the control of the phenomenon entirely within the gift of men. That is not necessarily entirely helpful – what men can grant, men can take away. I don’t think the use of violence (against anyone) should be an option. The natural right to live free from violence and exploitation is not anyone else’s to grant or rescind. I’m much more comfortable with the campaign slogan of Scottish Women’s Aid: “Together we can stop it” or perhaps the lyrics of Twisted Sister’s feminist classic (no, really) We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.

There’s another reason why the White Ribbon campaign strikes me as inadequate. For any one person, violence is (usually) a choice made with free will and each of us has personal responsibility for our own actions and decisions. However those decisions are not made in an individualist bubble, but are steered, prompted and motivated by a lifetime of experience and social conditioning. The way I like to think of this is that if you lock a hundred people in a cool, calm, well-ventilated room for 24 hours, the chances of someone punching someone else might be fairly slim. If you switch off the air-con, let the temperature rise, play aggressive, edgy music ever more loudly, the chances of a punch being thrown increase considerably. Whoever threw the punch remains responsible for their own actions, but not in conditions of their own making. The way we mould society, through politics, culture and our own interactions, create the environment in which violence occurs.

I agree with many feminists that, to some extent, male violence against women is informed by patriarchal gender roles – the idea that women should be subordinate to men and kept in line, that they are men’s chattel or playthings. This is true  in many parts of the world today, has historically been true in developed societies and, to a certain extent, still remains so. Challenging vestigial or active gender inequality and male cultural dominion are worthwhile ends in themselves, however this does not and cannot explain all violence, nor even all violence against women. To focus purely on violence rooted in patriarchal dominance is to leave the bulk of the problem unaddressed and therefore excluded from any solutions.

Violence takes many forms, has many meanings and many causes. Today, by coincidence I presume, Professor Murray Straus addresses the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta with a major and important new paper.  He used data from 15 different countries to demonstrate that university students who were spanked as children were significantly more likely to engage in criminal activity on each of nine different measures – six of which related to violence against others, including partner violence. The findings remained true even after controlling for background, parenting style in other respects and childhood misbehaviour (in other words, it wasn’t the case that children were beaten because they were already more naughty).   The effect was strongest where the child had been beaten by both a father and a mother.

Previous research by Straus has found that a child who grows up in a family where adults are violent to each other is almost three times as likely to display violent behaviour in adulthood. Another study found that a child subjected to physical abuse who also witnesses domestic violence is between five and nine times as likely to become an abusive adult. Over the past 40 years, the developed world has turned against corporal punishment, grown less tolerant of violence and bullying in the playground and physical and sexual abuse in the home. We have also seen precipitous drops in most forms of interpersonal crime and violence. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Ending violence against women will not and cannot be achieved in isolation. Male violence against women is one hub of a psychological and sociological network and is ultimately inseparable from men’s violence against men, women’s violence against women and men and, above all, adult violence against children. For good measure, we could probably add in the economic and social violence of inequality and political injustice.

Eliminating violence against women is a far-reaching ambition. To achieve it, we may need to reach much farther than anyone is prepared to acknowledge.


How to lie with statistics, chapter whatever

Over the past few weeks a graph has been tweeted into my timeline several times, purporting to show that “Domestic Violence Crime has #climbed 31% since April 2010.”


The tweet was originally sent by an account called “EvidenceUK” which declares ‘The purpose of this account is to factually correct the errors and lies peddled by Tory Newspapers & MPs during the 2015 General Election Campaign.’ The graph is sourced to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, and the figures on the graph are accurate. The only inaccuracy is the detail of the tweet. The first bar does not show the data from April 2010. They actually show the data from the year before.

An accurate graph for domestic violence since April 2010 would look like this. (Note, I have taken these stats from the precise same data set linked to from the original. They are the same data)



They show not a 31% rise in domestic violence incidents – but a 3.3% fall in domestic violence since the Tory / coalition government came to power.

Now as regular readers will know, I rarely miss an opportunity to have a swipe at the Tory party and the current government, but I do also care about honesty and accuracy in media and reporting. There is a widespread myth that domestic violence has been increasing significantly since the last election, and there is not a shred of evidence that it is true.

To get an accurate understanding of what is happening with rates of domestic violence in this country, take a look at the graph over the past 20 years – again, drawn from the precise same data set linked to in the tweet above.


If you look closely you can see the historical low point of 2009-10, and a slight rise to the most recent quarterly update from July this year. However the long term trend is quite clear – domestic violence rates plummeted between the mid 90s and the mid 00s, and have been bobbing along fairly consistently ever since. Yes, they took a bit of a spike in the year to March 11, but immediately reverted the year after. In fact the ONS statisticians are quite clear that there has been no statistically significant change in the domestic violence figures, year on year, in more than a decade.

Someone looked at this whole data set to produce this graph, and must have known exactly what they were doing when they cherrypicked a statistical lowpoint to draw their comparisons. This type of statistical legerdemain is a source of constant annoyance and frustration, more so when it comes from people with whom I would like to be on board. There are plenty of reasons to despise the current government and plenty of genuine reasons to condemn their track record. Mischief like this simply makes me lose faith in those sharing the information, and that helps no one.



The horrors of home circumcision and why intactivists share the blame

On Sunday BBC radio show 5Live Investigates carried an outstanding report on the issue of home circumcision, fronted by Adrian Goldberg with some brilliant journalism by Nicola Dowling.

Listen here.

The centrepiece of the show is a heartbreaking interview with the mother of Goodluck Caubergs, who died last year in Greater Manchester. The midwife who conducted the operation, on the family kitchen table with a pair of scissors and some olive oil, was later convicted of manslaughter. I wrote about the case here.

The real scandal revealed by Nicola Dowling was about a different case. Dr Muhamad Siddiqui, a hospital surgeon in Sussex, had been running his own little private sideline in home circumcisions. When 23 month-old Najem Braiha was left traumatised and infected after a home circumcision conducted, it is alleged, under unhygienic conditions, his parents complained to the General Medical Council. They imposed conditions on the surgeon’s GMC registration which barred him from conducting the procedure.

As part of the BBC investigation, an actor phoned up Dr Siddiqui and asked him to conduct a home circumcision on their baby. He agreed, in direct contravention of his GMC ban. Since then, and after discovering he had been exposed by the BBC,  Dr Siddiqui has resigned from his NHS job. The astonishing consequence of that resignation is that it now allows him to resume conducting circumcisions, which it appears he fully intends to do.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Circumcisions are completely unregulated in the UK, and anyone – you, me or the local barber – can set up a business cutting off baby boy’s foreskins at a hundred quid a pop.  Any doctor under the employ of the NHS, however, is bound to the regulation of the GMC and the Quality and Care Commission. A circumcision conducted in a hospital, with anaesthetic and surgical implements is carefully controlled and subject to monitoring and audit. A circumcision conducted on a kitchen table or in a community centre is completely unregulated. There are more regulations surrounding the piercing of an ear than the surgical amputation of a foreskin.

Nobody knows how many botched circumcisions happen in the UK each year. Paediatric urologists across the country report seeing cases as a regular part of their caseload. In my own experience as a journalist who covers the issue, virtually every case of a serious complications, infection or tragic fatality has resulted from a home circumcision conducted under non-clinical conditions.  The BBC documentary detailed many such cases, including the terrifying rates of complications found after a ‘circumcision camp’ in Oxford.

In my experience, people who are new to this issue are astonished to learn about the legal position of circumcision practice in the UK. How can it be that this is possible? Whatever one’s feelings on the rights and wrongs of circumcision as a whole, how can it be that nobody has ever got around to laying down some basic health and safety regulations and a requirement for anaesthesia and clinical conditions?

It pains me to say it, but I lay at least some of the blame squarely at the feet of anti-circumcision activists. Legislative progress rarely materialises from the ether or spring from the initiative of politicians’ imaginations. Changes occur through lobbying, campaigning, persuasion and demand. The simple truth is that nobody has been badgering politicians to introduce a law to provide the most basic protection for infant boys at risk.

After the death of Baby Goodluck, I tried taking some initiative myself, I tried to organise petitions, letter-writing campaigns, lobbying through official channels. I approached the UK’s leading anti-circumcision campaigns and they all refused to help, stating that they could not support any policy that could be seen to be endorsing circumcision at all.

When I wrote in the Guardian calling for regulation of circumcision rather than an immediate ban, I received several abusive emails and messages from intactivists calling me a sellout, a traitor, a disgrace and more.

This is infuriating to me.  I too would like to see an absolute end to circumcision but let us be clear – for the foreseeable future, the prospects of enforcing a legal ban without the active co-operation of Jewish and Muslim communities are literally zero. For all kinds of reasons, and whether we like it or not, it is Not. Going. To. Happen. Anyone with the faintest grasp of the realities of politics must recognise that.

If (or when) the day comes that circumcision can be criminalised, it will come at the end of a long process of awareness-raising, education, persuasion and the gradual marginalisation of the tradition within cultural communities. Not before.  A campaign to control and regulate the practice would and could be a significant first step along that route. Those who refuse to countenance regulation remind me of those extreme ultra-leftists who opposed progress on issues like gay rights as a bourgeois distraction that would delay the glorious revolution. It is self-indulgent, self-defeating Narnia politics.

All the while, day after day, real boys little boys with real names, real lives, real futures, continued to be subjected to needless suffering, illness, lifelong scarring and the risk of serious medical complications all the way up to death, because nobody is doing anything to help. That is unconscionable, and simply has to change.

Can you make me shut up for a few hours?

Silence is not golden. Silence is corrosive, toxic, deadly.

Looking at the theme and nominated target areas for this year’s International Men’s Day, this Tuesday, 19th November, it occurred to me that this was a common theme running through most of the issues.

The theme for 2013 is, “Keeping Men and Boys safe” and the nominated target areas are:

  • Keeping men and boys safe by tackling male suicide;
  • Keeping boys safe so they can become tomorrow’s role models;
  • Tackling our tolerance of violence against men and boys;
  • Boosting men’s life expectancy by keeping men and boys safe from avoidable illness and death;
  • Keeping men and boys safe by promoting fathers and male role models.

It is well established that men and boys are less likely than their female equivalents to seek help and support with their physical and mental health; they are less likely to report being the victims of domestic or sexual violence or to seek help and advice afterwards. They are less likely to report bullying; less likely to report abuse; less likely to turn to friends or family to offload in times of crisis or loneliness.

This is not a random product of chromosomes or some bizarre genetic mutation. It is actively manufactured by our society, beaten into us, both emotionally and physically from the day we are born,  and frankly, it sucks.

Nor is it just individuals. Men, collectively, are bloody awful at standing up for our needs. We’re men. We don’t need help. What kind of wimps do you think we are? The consequence of that is to actively discourage those individuals who do need help from seeking it. Man up. Boys don’t cry. Take it like a man. Be strong. Be brave. Literally destroy yourself before admitting to a weakness.

Well fuck that for a game of soldiers.

So when a brilliant charity on my own doorstep, Survivors Manchester, decided to mark IMD13 with a sponsored silence to raise both funds and awareness for male victims of rape and sexual abuse, it struck me as a profoundly brilliant, if rather ironic gesture. It is particularly timely, as I have recently been badgering a few politicians about the ineligibility of Survivors Manchester and similar organisations for the government’s Rape Support Fund. This week my MP forwarded on a letter to me from Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary, which boasted that through the Witness and Victim General Fund, support services for male victims of sexual assault and domestic violence across England are being funded by the government to the tune of £580,000 per year. His letter did not mention that the Home Office’s Violence Against Women and Girls programme is funding similar projects to a total of nearly £40 million over three years. (That is still not enough, I hasten to add)  Meanwhile Survivors Manchester gets by largely on the goodwill of volunteers, private donations, a wing and a (secular) prayer. To get a sense of the importance of their work, I urge you to browse their brilliant recent booklet: Breaking the silence

So, it’s time to put your money where my mouth is, if you know what I mean.

Since I work from home, and rarely speak a word to a human being until the kids get home, I’m taking the much more challenging (for me) commitment that for six hours on Tuesday 19th November, from 9am-3pm (GMT) I will maintain complete internet silence. No Tweets, no updates, no blogging, no arguing below the line, no commenting, no trolling politicians for lulz. Nada. I might just burst.


Survivors Manchester tell me that:

£55 can provide a peer-support group session for up to 12 male victim of sexual abuse or rape.
£35 can provide a counselling session for a male victim of sexual abuse or rape.
£20 can help to pay for a peer support session for survivors
£10 can buy the first positive step for a male victim in need – telephone support
Enjoying the blissful silence of an Ally-free internet for only a penny per minute would cost you just £3.60.

If you could spare a any amount to make the stress worth my while, we’d all be really grateful. The giving page is here. 

Thank you.


 UPDATE 19/11/13

Well, I made it.

It actually turned out to be more difficult than I imagined – I had forgotten that International Men’s Day is also one of my most demanding Argue-With-People-On-the-Internet days of the year! So I spent my six hours of exile productively, doing a post for the Independent that covers much of the same ground as above, with a few added digs at the cynics.

More importantly, I raised loads of money to Survivors Manchester. I’ll be honest, when I first thought of doing this, I hoped I would raise at least £50 – anything less would have felt slightly underwhelming. I secretly hoped that I might raise £100 which – considering that it was just a little sponsored silence at a few days notice – would have been fantastic.

Well, at the time of writing I have actually raised over £150 which I’m absolutely delighted with. Thank you so much to everyone who chipped in and coughed up, or who helped to share the link or just offered support. It is hugely appreciated. You are all wonderful. When I find out the total raised by the whole IMD Break The Silence team I’ll let you know.  And if you never got around to it… the donation  page will remain open not just for the rest of today, but until the end of the year.

In the meantime, happy International Men’s Day to you all.

This week’s witterings at large

A couple of things building on familiar HetPat themes elsewhere this week.

On Comment is Free I mused a little on my initial reactions to Angry White Men, the new book by Michael Kimmel, which has pretty strong links to some of what I’ve been discussing in the Malestrom series. I plan to post a bit more of a full review here sometime shortly. In the meantime here’s an extract from my Guardian piece.

However if those attitudes are at least partially stoked by very real and profound economic and social changes that have left some men feeling disempowered, marginalised, maligned and neglected, is it enough to simply demand that they suck it up and deal with it? I’m not sure.

Our newly egalitarian culture has belatedly accepted (in theory if not always practice) that men do not have a monopoly on power and authority, whether financial, political or physical. The man is no longer the master of his household, but an equal partner in a domestic project.

The gender script for women has been largely torn up – a young girl has unprecedented freedom to grow into a doctor or a nurse, a soldier or a solicitor and/or a wife and mother while men, to a large extent, are stuck with a script for a role that barely exists. To be a real man, our culture still insists, is to be the protector and provider within a society that no longer guarantees to deliver that opportunity, and where male protector-providers are not entirely necessary. It is not much of a stretch to assume that this causes immense stress and psychological conflict, which is sometimes directed inward in despair and depression, sometimes outward in anger and violence.


Over at the Independent, I have expanded a little on my recent piece about Chris Brown and his child sex revelations. I was mostly prompted by the hideous tabloid cliche “sex romp” when referring to inappropriate and abusive relationships between female adults and male juveniles, but (not surprisingly) the Indie subs picked up on the sleb angle, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

The slavering, salacious tone is not unique to this story, of course. An unscientific but revealing search on Google News archives produces hundreds of returns for the phrase “Sex romp teacher” and of the first dozen different stories, eleven referred to a female teacher with a male pupil, only once were the genders reversed. As a broad rule of thumb for tabloid terminology, a male teacher has “seedy, sordid sex” with a girl, but “abuses” a boy. A female teacher has “an illicit lesbian affair” with a girl, and “sex romps” with a boy.  It goes without saying that the extent of verbal salivation in stories featuring a female offender directly correlates with her youth and conventional prettiness.

It would be tempting to dismiss this as just another manifestation of our exploitative, sexist, tabloid culture, but it speaks to a deeper and more worrying tendency for our culture to trivialise the sexual exploitation of boys by women. Relationships between teachers and young adults happen within the hazy boundaries of consent and coercion. They may not always be experienced as exploitative or traumatising for the juvenile, but they are rightly forbidden by both teachers’ ethics and the law – such relationships are always an abuse of position, an abuse of trust and have enormous potential to be psychologically harmful. That is true irrespective of the genders involved. And yet with a female perpetrator and male victim, they are described with the playful, jokey word “romp” – a journalistic cliché normally reserved for gossipy intrusions into the lives of adulterous footballers and strippers.

I’d be intrigued by your responses to either or both of the above, or feel free to use this as your weekend open thread, to chip in on whatever else has caught your attention lately.




Why calling out Russell Brand is a revolutionary act

It has often been suggested that the demolition of the Berlin Wall marked not only the collapse of soviet communism, but the end of modernist political ideology – not only Marxism and state Fascism, but also nationalist liberation and anti-colonial movements, the European social democratic  consensus and other models of reformist controlled economies, each of which was based on some kind of empirical formula for managing and improving society.

Modernism had actually been dying for a while. Foucault famously identified one of the first major ruptures in modernism with his  writings of the Iranian revolution in 1979, which – at least on a superficial reading – gave qualified support to the spiritually driven, anti-modernist (if not postmodern) overthrow of the Shah and (more controversially) the nascent brutalities of a new Islamist theocracy. Around the same time in the USA, the Christian fundamentalist right was an emerging force, with powerful political figures devoting as much thought to predictions of the ascent of souls in a rapture as they did to the decline of the dollar in a recession.

Meanwhile the dominant economic narrative followed the zeitgeist, with an almost religious belief in the power of free markets and unfettered liberalisation and globalisation sweeping all before it.

Grassroots opposition to power took a similar turn. By the 1990s, overt opposition to capitalist power came not from democratic socialists in the Labour Party, or hardboiled Marxists in the trades unions, but from a rag-bag counterculture which grew out of the peace convoys to become eco-warriors and anti-roads protestors; Reclaim the Streets activists then the anti-Globalisation rioters of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. The same spirit now informs the global Occupy movements, Anonymous Hacktivists, UK Uncut taxtivists and, since approximately last Thursday, Russell Brand.

I have seen many of the movements above at very close quarters, and can say from experience that almost everything that could be said about the anti-capitalist movements of the past 25 years could be said about Russell Brand. He is our strengths and our weaknesses personified. On the plus side is the inescapable charisma, impertinent humour, imagination, intelligence, creativity and unwillingness to accept a status quo that is, in so many ways, unacceptable. On the downside an arrogance and self-righteousness that sits ill with a rather superficial analysis and prospectus; and a tendency to lean on and exploit the social privileges which we claim to be challenging.

But perhaps the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of all is our detachment from fundamental ideological principles. Modern anti-capitalists, for the most part, neither know nor care about Marx and Bakunin, Gramsci or Bookchin. We adhere to no dogma, subscribe to no agreed principles and champion no manifesto.  This can leave us like a feathery, gossamer strand, blowing with the wind. It is precisely that quality which allowed the Peace Convoys to evolve so easily into the environmental movement and from there to a mass global campaign against the World Trade Organisation and on down the line. I am glad of that. But it is also that post-ideological fluidity that can see the Anonymous brand being used one day to bring about a glimmer of justice for the Steubenville rape victim and the next to broadcast the most rancid anti-Semitism; it is the post-ideological detachment that saw representatives of Slutwalk London tweet their support for rape-charge dodger Julian Assange; the same ideological detachment that sees Occupy campers calling out for radical social change while attempting to cover up and excuse allegations of sexual assault and rape within their own ranks.

For the past week, the radical left (at least in the UK) has been twitching with the urge to support Russell Brand’s (at times) brilliant rhetoric about our sham of a democratic system and the grotesque injustices and inequalities of our world; while at the same time struggling to reconcile this with his history of overt sexism and occasional rank misogyny.  Laurie Penny and Richard Seymour debated the issues with at times alarming frankness.

I do not believe in utopias. Political struggles are never about building the world we want to see, because by the time we built it our needs and desires have moved on. We are always on a journey, never at a destination. Part of that journey has to be about refusing to accept what we find unacceptable. Above all, we must refuse to accept what we find unacceptable in those who are seen to be, or assumed to be in a leadership role.

I don’t know exactly what kind of revolution Russell Brand wants to see, I’m not sure he does either, but I’d assume that, like me, he believes in the power of change, the reality of alternatives. Part of that has to be a revolution in gender roles. As I say in the “About” section of this blog, I believe we should try to build a society where gender is rarely a burden, never a prison and always a blessing. To do that we need to challenge injustice, prejudice and discrimination. We need to minimise political and interpersonal oppression, abuse and violence. And we need to find compassion and empathy for those who suffer and struggle, whatever their identity, whatever their gender.

One implication of that belief is that we cannot pick and choose which injustices, prejudices and discriminations we indulge, and which we challenge. The solution to the Russell Brand dilemma, it seems to me, is neither to indulge or forgive what we might find unforgivable, nor to forever exclude anyone who has ever said or done a bad thing as if we were dividing the world into pure and impure. The solution is to challenge sexism, racism, class elitism, transphobia or whatever else, as and when it arises. That’s not to say that every challenge must be heeded and accepted uncritically, but everything must be up for critique.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I have read from Russell Brand this week is in his Guardian piece today, where he says:

“One thing I’ve learned and was surprised by is that I may suffer from the ol’ sexism. I can only assume I have an unaddressed cultural hangover, like my adorable Nan who had a heart that shone like a pearl but was, let’s face it, a bit racist. I don’t want to be a sexist so I’m trying my best to check meself before I wreck meself.”

As ever with Brand, it is difficult to untangle the sincerity from the camp showmanship, but I’m prepared to take him at his word on this. He is reflecting on his own attitudes in response to criticism, and that is what we all should do when told that we’ve been a bit of a dick.

The modern anti-capitalist movement has no politiburo to lay down edicts, no tribunals to expel dissenters; no party constitution to consult on positions and it is all the better for that. However in their absence, we need a bit of internal analysis, self-awareness and a preparedness to criticise our own. Those who respond to that with reflection and a willingness to change are behaving in a genuinely revolutionary manner. The reactionary alternative is not challenging our own racism, sexism or oppressive tendencies, but indulging them.

Enthusiastic consent in a muddy puddle of context

My last couple of blogs led to extensive discussion below the line about issues of consent and the value of various models of enthusiastic consent* over a more simplistic ‘no means no’ model.

With impeccable timing, the Scottish government has released preliminary findings of a survey of over 1000 school students, aged approximately 15-18 (Years S3-S6 in the Scottish school system.)

The findings are worrying. When presented with the statement “When a girl says no to sex, she always means no” only 73% said it was definitely or even probably true.  When asked about “When a boy says no to sex, he always means no” only 55% said it was definitely or even probably true. Let that sink in. Very nearly half of teenagers don’t believe a boy means no if he says no – and we are surprised to learn that large numbers of males are subjected to unwanted, coercive or abusive sexual contact?

Perhaps most worryingly of all, 89% of respondents agreed that a person could change their mind about having sex at any time, even if they had previously consented – meaning more than one in ten Scottish teenagers failed to agree with that most basic statement of consent principles.

I think this study is particularly troubling because the respondents in this survey are at the precise age when people are learning to negotiate their sexualities and behaviours. Those will often go on to become our habits and our expectations. It’s an age when we are finding out what is acceptable, desirable or enjoyable to ourselves and others. Most of these respondents will not be hugely sexually experienced – they have not learned through their own bitter experience that potential partners sometimes play hard-to-get; they have almost certainly picked up these myths from popular culture, their elders and their peers.

This murky puddle of confusion is the context against which enthusiastic consent (or crystal clear consent, affirmative consent, positive consent or whichever alternative model or jargon you prefer) is recommended. I don’t for a moment believe that teaching enthusiastic consent will solve all problems. It is not a magic bullet to prevent all rapes, assaults, exploitation and abuse. Enthusiastic consent won’t stop determined rapists from raping, but it does tear down the curtain of excuses and justifications behind which they often hide.  Enthusiastic consent is not even necessarily a cure to the attitudes revealed in this survey, it is more their natural logical progression.

The uncomfortable truth is that the large proportion of young people who said that no doesn’t always mean no might not be entirely wrong. We live in a culture where people’s desires and intentions are not always immediately apparent to others. For myriad complex reasons people sometimes say no when they mean yes, and sometimes say yes when they mean no.  If you are a halfway decent human being (as I firmly believe most of us are) then pinning your behaviour to a simplistic, all or nothing, one word reply has to be inadequate.

None of this relates to criminal law – what is or is not rape or some other form of assault – this is happening at a much more basic level of personal morality. Does it bother you to think you might be violating someone, traumatising someone, hurting someone, even raping someone? If the answer to that question is no, you don’t care, then no amount of consent training will make a difference.

If you do care, then adopting principles of enthusiastic consent is really the only way you can be sure to get it right.



* I’ll be honest and confess that I find extended interrogations of what enthusiastic consent really means and exactly what it looks like to be disingenuous and ugly. In a nutshell, if you’re not sure that consent is enthusiastic, then it isn’t. But if you want a more extended explanation, I like the one by Dr Nerdlove here.