I’d thought responses to the “group sex” issue currently being discussed couldn’t get much worse than Andrew Bolt’s idea that consent is, rather than the critical issue, a “furphy”. But I was wrong.

On Friday, the Australian published a frankly appalling piece by someone named Margie McDonald, entitled “Women need educating too”.

Based on her article, she’s one of them. Making a real effort to undo 40 years of progress on women’s sexual rights, she writes:

I make no judgment, but I do have a problem with women who can’t make an educated choice: “If I go back to that player’s hotel room or even out to a toilet cubicle at the back of a nightclub, can I really trust that the player I left with will be the only player there when I arrive, or even half-an-hour later?”

Margie might as well say, like one of those misogynist dinosaur judges from the 1960s of which the law has finally divested itself, “if I’m a woman and I go out to a nightclub in revealing clothes, can I really trust that I won’t find myself being raped in a back alley by some guy I’ve inadvertently turned on?” You know, exactly the sort of attitude that let men get away with sexual assaults, and stopped women reporting them.

She continues, with a truly offensive analogy:

If we want starstruck young women to make an educated guess, perhaps we should educate them? If I steal that lipstick off the shelf, there’s a good chance I’ll be caught on security camera, charged by police and appear in court. We are taught that.

If I go into a hotel toilet or up in the lift with a player/players to a room, there’s a good chance I’ll be filmed on CCTV or a mobile phone and, if something goes horribly wrong, I have no recourse in the courts. Maybe we need to start teaching teenage girls that.

Yes – just like a shoplifter who should expect to get caught, a woman agreeing to go to someone’s room should just accept whatever happens to her.

Are you serious, Margie?

And “I have no recourse in the courts”? No matter what happens? After, for example, being raped? WHAT? We should be “teaching teenage girls that”?!

No, Margie, quite the opposite.

Do I really have to remind you that sex without consent is rape? It is a crime. (One of the most serious crimes.) And a woman who has consented to a sexual act can AT ANY STAGE withdraw that consent, and from that point, that sex must stop. And if it doesn’t, it’s rape.

How can any journalist seriously say that a woman being forced into a sex act without her consent has “no recourse in the courts”? How can a serious newspaper publish something so staggeringly irresponsible?

But Margie doesn’t want her damaging line to end there: she wants a national advertising campaign to educate young women that they lose their rights the second they go into the hotel room:

The ideal place to strike at the core of the problem is high school, through programs held in tandem with sex education and lifestyle or career counselling classes, or through the media with government-backed mass advertising programs.

Not too long ago, the national TV advertising campaign “Violence Against Women — Australia Says No” sent powerful messages. How about a campaign “Going to Hotel Rooms With Several Men — Australia Says Think Again”?

Or how about a powerful message that DOESN’T undo women’s rights and encourage men to think that in certain situations a woman really has to do what they want. Or encourage women to think that once they’ve “gone to hotel rooms with several men” anything that happens subsequently is their own damned fault?

Although she might be right that a national campaign is needed. If Margie McDonald, News Ltd columnist, can fail to grasp how wrong, how damaging her line above is, then clearly both younger and older women do need educating on the subject – it’s just that her lesson, that once they go up to a hotel room they lose their rights, is the opposite of the one that should be being taught.

Women should be being reminded that even if they’ve said “yes” to a sexual engagement, they can at any point change their minds and decline. “Yes” ends the second they want it to. You’d think it were obvious, but apparently some people have missed this fairly basic point.

More importantly, men (apparently) need educating of the same thing – that women can AT ANY STAGE say no. Someone can consent and then change their mind, and you must then stop. Moreover, if the situation is one where someone with whom they’re having sex could be feeling intimidated into continuing, then it’s not really consent, and they shouldn’t assume it is without making sure that it’s a real choice. Any group of men with one girl need to each expressly and genuinely make it clear that if at any stage she wishes it to stop then they want it to stop too, so that she feels comfortable declining if she changes her mind. If you can’t communicate even that basic message, then don’t have sex with her. The message: don’t assume consent where it’s not really there.

The attitudes expressed by the Margie McDonalds and Andrew Bolts of the commentariat actually make things worse for young women who find themselves in a private room with any man, let alone a few of them. They are effectively saying to them: sorry my dear, you shouldn’t have gone in the first place – you only have yourself to blame for whatever happens. You’ve already consented – you have no rights from here on in.

That’s an appalling lesson. That it could be taught by several major newspapers – in, and I state the year again with surprise, 2009 – is of great concern, and perhaps the relevant authorities should indeed be looking at another advertising campaign to counter it. One that reminds women of their eternal right to at any stage say no to sex (including partway through it), empowers them to express it, and that reminds men that silence or acquiescence in an intimidating situation may well not be real consent.

An advertising campaign that works to undo the damage done by pieces like the above to the expression of this most basic of rights – the always present and non-relinquishable right to say NO.

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