The Age of Consent: How to agree to have sex

Article by Aaron Patrick /
The Australian Financial Review /
January 24, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

Sydney woman Nele Vandersmissen, 38, doesn’t mind if men pursue women only for sex. Women do the same thing, the 38-year-old points out. What worries her – and what is the basis of what appears to be a historic, worldwide shift in attitudes towards sexual harassment – are men who don’t care or understand what no means.

Vandersmissen knows she has been sexually harassed in the past but, like so many of us, she struggles to precisely define the line between persuasion and coercion, attention and obsession, a clumsy come-on and a breach of personal space. Suddenly, defining sexual consent seems harder, not clearer, than a year ago. “I’m working on that still,” she says.

Harvey Weinstein’s sexual plays have been universally condemned as an appalling abuse of power. The rich, arrogant director’s villainy was so blatant and unchallenged for so long that its disclosure opened up a global discussion about the treatment of women, and generated a confidence among many that if they speak out they will be met with sympathy instead of recrimination.

Not every man, or even sexual harasser, is Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo is forcing societies to grapple with complicated moral judgements about sex, consent and male-female relations.

How about the young photographer upset that comedic actor Aziz Ansari didn’t read her “non-verbal cues” that she wasn’t enjoying sex on their first date? Or the 39-year-old school teacher who fell in love with her 15-year-old student, who grew up to be president of France? Or the fictional “cat person” in the New Yorker short story who seems to epitomise the worst of online dating and was either a terrible lover or a rapist? Or any eager male teenager who badgers a nervous younger girlfriend out of her underwear?

As feminism seizes what may be its greatest opportunity in a generation to re-assert itself, it faces a challenge: can it avoid an overshoot that might alienate many women (and men) who are inherently sympathetic but lack a deep ideological conviction to their cause?

In practical terms, can the inner-city organisers of a women’s protest in Sydney last Sunday who said they were fighting a “tired patriarchy” win over the millions of working Australian women who respect and like their male colleagues?

“Do women want equality or do they want what men have?” asks Amanda Rose, a marketing consultant from Western Sydney who says she has had her bottom squeezed at work functions. “I think men would fight to the death to keep it [their power] so we need to work out what we can do that are practical ways to make things better.”

Every new revelation of a badly behaving man gives the movement momentum. Most are quickly condemned to social shame by social media, although in a few small cases there has been a backlash to the backlash.

Ansari – a Golden Globe and Emmy winner – was outed by a one-time lover a week ago. “In a second, his hand was on my breast,” the anonymous date told babe.net.

By one standard, the 22-year-old, who acknowledges she never said ”no” to Ansari, was a victim of rape. Sexual consent requires “enthusiasm from our partner”, according to Melbourne University social scientist Lauren Rosewarne. “[We should] ask ourselves – potentially even ask them – do they actually want this rather than are they just going along with things,” she says. 

By another, she was a victim of entirely different expectations between a horny guy and a young woman who preferred romance to bench-top intercourse. “If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you,” was how Bari Weiss (a woman) analysed the encounter in The New York Times.

There have always been tensions within feminism over the moral culpability of men. Radical feminists see men the same way Marxists see owners of capital: as exploiters. Other women say their sense of sexual autonomy came from the most important men in their lives: their fathers.

“Far out, my dad always drummed into me and my sisters that if anyone laid an unwanted hand on us he’d flatten them,” says Jen Dalitz, a corporate coach from country NSW. “Simple conversations like that were actually pretty helpful in understanding we … could make our own choices about that.”

In the meantime, the #MeToo movement is taking on an explicitly political positioning in the US. Hundreds of thousands of women and men marched in American cities last weekend. The focus was on winning back Democratic control of the House and Senate and challenging President Donald Trump’s political legitimacy.

Apart from fairness for women, the movement’s aspirations in Australia can be frustratingly amorphous, an acute but vague grievance against the world.

An Indigenous leader at Sunday’s Sydney demonstration encouraged the 1000-strong crowd to take off their shoes and feel “Mother Earth”. She didn’t mention sexual harassment. Another said they were fighting over “class, gender, race and sexism”.

The leadership of the protests, which were held in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, is supported by GetUp!, the left-wing pressure group that has been described as a front for the union movement.

In Sydney, the militant Maritime Union of Australia proudly flew a large flag. In Melbourne, the master of ceremonies was a left-wing activist called Van Badham, a playwright with a reputation for ferocious social media abuse towards conservatives. Only a few hundred people turned up.

The stridency unleashed and facilitated by social media – the medium of choice of young women and the protest class – turns off some budding feminists, who will form the next generation of victims if sexual harassment isn’t stamped out, or at least reduced.

“Speaking about feminism is still almost taboo,” says 30-year-old businesswoman Pirra Griffiths. “Young women think it’s uncool or unattractive.”

The Sydney fashion designer has been inspired by the #MeToo movement. Unusually, she can influence perceptions of female sexuality through her line of Allerton bikinis.

She doesn’t use the label, but Griffiths is producing swimwear inspired by her own feminism. She doesn’t add bra padding because she wants women to celebrate their bodies. She hires unconventional models and avoids the sexual images common in bikini and underwear photography.

Although Griffiths knows of female models being pressured for sex, she isn’t offended by male lust.

“I do not like the implication that it is wrong for a woman to be sexy or want to be desired,” she says. “Women have as much right to be sexual and feel desired as anybody else does.”