I have been trying to get my head around the concept of ‘consent.’ I don’t mean to imply it’s difficult to understand. More, I’m perturbed I’ve managed to get past 40 without having to give it much thought. I could probably go the rest of my life without thinking about it. But I live in the twitterverse, I like to read, I like to write and I like to reflect. Even then I might have avoided consent if my wife hadn’t made me read a book called ‘Asking For It’ by Louise O’Neill.
A man, on reading that book, has but two options. He can either get to his feet and declaim in a clear steady voice, ‘Not All Men.’ Or he can reflect on the almost improbably large gaps in his education. Gaps that are searingly addressed in this heartbreaking book.
I chose the latter simply because I am a middle-aged man who is gradually getting better at being wrong about a lot of things.
But I retain a certain empathy for the Not All Men merchants. Not sympathy, empathy. Ignorance is as much a special kind of not knowing as it is an almost impenetrable suit of armour. It is an armour I donned for large periods of my life. I wasn’t aware of it, of course, because it is a special kind of not knowing. When I was in college, at 19, I’m certain I’d have railed against compulsory consent classes. If the technology had been as prevalent would I have taken pictures and shared them too? I don’t know. Would I have called a friend on it?
I received next to no sex-education in school or at home, but I knew right from wrong. Rape was wrong, always wrong, it was an evil act. My parents and teachers at least got that part right. Don’t commit rape. In my day it was also don’t wear a condom and if you get pregnant there’s the door, but don’t rape was easy. Of course no one explained what rape meant, so one tended to assume rape was some degenerate dragging a woman down a dark alley and having his way with her. And no one explained consent.
I had begun to think myself some sort of antediluvian artefact, who had been thrust into the world, denied the most basic understanding of sex and the inherent role consent had in sex. No one had thought to explain sex as being at once exciting, overwhelming, joyous, possibly fraught but always an ongoing negotiation. And by the time I got to college sure I knew everything. Ignorance is a special kind of not knowing.
I could dismiss my ignorance as a sign of the times, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see the 80s and 90s as that long ago. And when I look back and try to excuse my parents and teachers for their neglect of my education, I find myself thinking, what the fuck, it wasn’t the bloody Dark Ages. But I also know, that not having it explained to me in primary school and then again in secondary school, meant it would have required an especially thick stick to beat that knowledge into my head once I’d arrived in college.
But I appear to not be a relic. It is increasingly apparent that I am, typical. Boy and girls, this century, are managing to get to college wholly unprepared for that ongoing negotiation that would temper their mad rush into each other’s beds and smartphones.
It appears many of us think it unnecessary to explain to a teenage boy why it is wrong to share nude pictures of someone they’ve been intimate with. So why wouldn’t a boy or indeed a man share a nude picture? Without parents and teachers explaining, in detail, over many years, why it’s akin to a sexual assault, we are left to hope he’ll work it out for himself. And some do. Yet we don’t allow children to work out for themselves where to piss, what to eat, how to brush their teeth or even to speak with their mouths full. But why a private intimate moment doesn’t imply consent to further intimacy or a right to broadcast pictures of that moment over the Internet, well that is something they’ll just have to work out for themselves.
And sure why wouldn’t a horny fella have sex with his passed out girlfriend, when he hasn’t been bored to tears by parents and teachers with increasingly complex discussions about consent, that include diagrams, piecharts, case studies and Louise O’Neill’s wonderful book?
I thought I was a relic. I ought to be a relic. I used to think the worst part of my inadequate education was a ‘Father Trendy’ type priest telling a class of sixteen year olds to never use condoms. In retrospect that was the least stupid thing about my time in school, because even then his special kind of not knowing was treated with the contempt it deserved. But we were also immersed in our own ignorance. I hadn’t realised how little has changed.
Ignorance is a suit of armour and a special kind of not knowing. Thus we have grown men, still boys in my eyes, but adults nonetheless, sharing pictures they should not be sharing or being insulted by the idea they have still so much to learn.
I feel sorry for them because words may no longer be enough. Hard consequences; permanent records and careers ruined before they’ve even begun, might have to be deployed to pierce the ignorance bestowed on them by their parents and teachers. Parents and teachers who neglected and who appear to be continuing to neglect their responsibility to understand consent enough to be able to teach it to a five year old.
Rape and sexual assault are rarely that degenerate dragging someone down a dark alley. But that is the only story told. Not all men are degenerate, but all men are subject to the values they’ve been imbued with and the understanding they’ve been taught. Not all men manage to escape causing harm if that education has been deficient.