If as a society we wish to improve attitudes towards sexual consent - and more importantly reduce the number of women who are sexually assaulted by men - we need to end to the sexual double standard.
A report out today by the Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales paints a depressing picture of the sexual attitudes of Britain’s teenagers.
Predictably, the news networks have chosen to focus on the most sensational part of the report, which looks at children in gangs carrying out sexual violence on other children, and have largely passed over the detail – i.e. the things which are actually shaping young people’s regressive attitudes toward sex.
This is understandable perhaps, but it doesn’t get us any nearer to the root of the problem, which is the different way sexually promiscuous men and women are viewed by society.
The report points out that it is the sexual double standard between men and women that continues to poison relationships and attitudes to sexual activity and consent. As the report puts it, many “equate masculinity with sexual conquest, and young women through the age old labels of ‘slags and drags'”.
It adds that “far and away the most significant influence on young people’s understanding of consent is constructions of gender, particularly masculinity”.
As a result, consent is viewed strictly as something that women give rather than as something that men also seek:
“Agreement to have sex is therefore read in terms of an absence of resistance; sexual partners are perceived to have consented if they do not say no or reject sexual advances. Reciprocating intimacy (e.g. kissing, removal of clothes) is understood as explicit consent, regardless of the surrounding circumstances.”
The waters are muddied further by the fact that a woman who does wish to have sex must navigate the tightrope of not being labelled ‘easy’ while also making consent clear.
So to sum this aspect of the report up: young men have a muddled view of consent – a “minimal awareness and understanding of getting consent” – in large part because of the sexual double standard which sees only women as the givers of ‘permission’ and puts no onus on young men to actually seek consent.
Shockingly, this double standard is also resulting in young people holding abhorrent attitudes toward rape in which the victim is in some way to blame for the crime committed against her. Unfortunately the idea that a woman can dress how she wants, flirt as much as she wants, and lie in the same bed as a man without being obliged to have sex with him remains a revolutionary one.
As the report puts it,
“Both young men and young women attribute culpability for rape to young women’s actions: wearing revealing clothing, drinking alcohol, visiting men’s houses, and sending sexualised pictures (sexting) are all seen as evidence of sexual availability and invitation. Young women are, as a consequence, subsequently blamed for exploitation and violence. These wider contexts are far more important in young peoples’ lives and perspectives than legal formulations of consent.”
For women there is no gradient – they are viewed as either ‘sluts’ or ‘frigid’. They live with the constant knowledge that arbitrary judgments will be made about them based on how many sexual partners they have had. This double standard begins at an early age, and as the report makes clear, while it persists we will continue to see young people with confused and unhealthy attitudes toward consent.
Whereas social attitudes towards racial equality and homosexuality have tended to become more progressive as the younger generation has come through, attitudes toward women’s sexuality appear to lag significantly behind, frozen in a Madonna/whore dichotomy.
If as a society we wish to improve attitudes towards sexual consent – and more importantly reduce the number of women who are sexually assaulted by men – we need to end to the sexual double standard.