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Updated: Aug 22

Sunday 14 October, 10:00—11:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1

Sexual revolutions

Susan Edwards - professor of law; director of external relations, University of Buckingham; author, Sex and Gender in the Legal Process

Alisha Lobo - community officer, University of Bath Students’ Union

Elizabeth Robertson - professor and chair of English language, University of Glasgow; author, Chaucerian Consent: women, religion and subjection in Late Medieval England

Joanna Williams - head of education and culture, Policy Exchange; author, Women vs Feminism; associate editor, spiked

Sally Millard (Chair) - co-founder, AoI Parents Forum

A Volunteer at The Battle of Ideas. Thanks to Henry Kenyon henrykenyonphotography.com

I was making my way here today, reported one male audience member, and I witnessed something that I couldn’t quite believe. A man made his way up the stairs from the Barbican tube station, approached a young woman that he did not appear to know, and slapped her behind. Is this normal, he wondered?

Following the #metoo campaign, in which individuals posted experiences of their sexual harassment on social media (experiences similar and worse to the one above), one proposed ‘solution’ to the problem is to encourage or cajole men into consent classes. Such classes would make it clear to men that before assuming that sexual contact with a woman is appropriate it is both legal and morally desirable to get consent. You can’t, the classes would spell out, simply touch women sexually whenever you feel like it. These classes would also presumably lay out the law and expectations about how men should treat women.

Who would need these classes? Not that audience member who spoke. He already understands that slapping the bottom of a female stranger is not welcome or appropriate. He was shocked. Perhaps he should be taking the consent classes. No one in the Frobisher Auditorium welcomed the behavior of the male tube passenger. What caused considerable disagreement was whether the answer to this problem is consent classes.

Unfortunately for those who thought that consent classes at university and in the workplace is a worthwhile idea, Joanna Williams disagreed. Joanna Williams is to debating what Lionel Messi is to football: she is pretty much prolific and unplayable. Consent classes, she suggested, are a response to a panic and one of its by-products is instilling fear into women. The National Union of Students have published research in which their definitions of harassment are so broad they are counter-productive. Paying women compliments and staring can apparently be considered harassment along with rape. In summing up, Joanna Williams proposed learning about sex through doing. Since there are no obvious experts to take the proposed classes anyway, young men and women should try putting their smartphones down and talking to each other more.

Susan Edwards disagreed. She felt that the recent President’s Club scandal, in which rich businessmen were accused of harassing young female staff at a private event, was representative of the problem. Sex is about power, she claimed, and men typically have power over women, which in turn proffers a sense of entitlement. Alisha Lobo supported consent classes, but recommended calling them something else. She felt that there was a need for young men on the university campus to attend something which would lay down the parameters for appropriate treatment of women. Alisha Lobo also felt that better awareness of consent and relationships would serve to protect women. The term toxic masculinity remains undefined to me; still, Alisha Lobo believed that it should be addressed.

Elizabeth Robertson struck upon a revolutionary idea: read more novels, she suggested, since they tend to contain values and ideas about human relationships. Perhaps turning to the wisdom of some of the finest writers from the canon might help to encourage young people to think about relationships more deeply. Meanwhile, she said, it is important to have conversations about sex and this should not impede enjoyment of the act.

One audience member said that her sixteen-year-old son, far from recognising any entitlement, actually found girls his age intimidating. Being lectured at about consent was both unnecessary and unlikely to bolster his confidence. The problem with the debate about how to discipline men post-metoo is that very few of the lead critics seem to be mothers of sons. The mothers who have sons have worked out that society could be a quite difficult place for their offspring in twenty years if certain voices get their way. At the same time the kind of public harassment described is undeniably vulgar. How to combat it whilst continuing to enjoy the freedoms that many women fought for is at the crux of the matter.

Discussion questions

  • What do you understand by the word ‘consent’ in terms of sex and relationships?

  • Do you agree that men should be encouraged to attend ‘consent classes’ at university?

  • Do males and females of your age talk to each other or do individuals tend to talk to friends from their own gender?

  • If all formal sex education from schools was stopped tomorrow, what do you predict would be the consequences for younger generations?

  • What is a students’ union at a university? What do you understand by its role?

  • Is it the role of a students’ union to protect students?

  • What is sexual harassment? Is it easy to define? Are there any grey areas?

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