Much Remains Confused about Men, Women, Sex and Power

Here, there, women crying “rape” are everywhere. I worry about the sudden onslaught of rape charges. Of course, I support a woman’s right to raise her grievances publicly and have them addressed in a legitimate forum, but I worry that others might not. The men being named are sporting heroes, and it wasn’t all that long ago that author Helen Garner questioned the legitimacy of young women bringing charges of sexual assault, both because of serious damage the resulting publicity had on the man’s reputation, and because she felt it was the job of young women to take responsibility for the effect their sexuality had on the opposite sex.

For those feeling cynical about the sudden onslaught of allegations, it is critical to understand that “date-rape” charges come in waves for good reason. Unless they have been violated by a bush-leaping, balaclava-clad stranger, women tend to doubt themselves when it comes to labelling a disturbing, violative or even abusive sexual encounter as assault. Was it really rape, they wonder, if I flirted with the guy earlier than evening, was drinking, had a short skirt on, consented to all forms of petting short of intercourse?

Even if they are savvy enough to know that no one – no matter what she said, wore or did – asks to be raped, they may worry others will disbelieve their story, or claim that they did. This is where other women speaking out is critical. When others tell their story and have their complaints taken seriously, those keeping silent gain the courage to speak, too.

The media, police, and the clubs deserve credit, in other words (with the exception of St Kilda, who having spoken only to the two accused have now publicly declared themselves 100% behind their “boys”) for responding appropriately to the women’s charges, and therefore encouraging other women to emerge from the shadows.

But the avalanche of accusations has another cause too, one which I think testifies to the success of feminism, and bodes well for gender relations in the future. Many of the women making charges against players are from Generation X and even Y – young women in their twenties and thirties – who see as their birthright to either receive respect from the opposite sex, or to demand it. These confident, assertive women have come of age with the knowledge that no man has the right to use either his advantage in strength or power to disadvantage her; either in the bedroom or the office. When men do abuse either, they see little problem in bringing them to account.

It is hard to see how such forthright attitudes from young women, if widespread and sustained enough, will not fundamentally alter the behaviour of young men. After all, the whole reason gender relations are so fraught is that men and women want and need each other: they want and need each other in bed, to build the long-term intimate relationships so fundamental to their emotional well-being, and to form and raise families. This means that when one gender change the rules, the other – no matter how much they moan and complain – has little choice but to adjust their ways. If women won’t sleep with or marry men until they are treated with respect on all relevant turfs, in other words, then men will start seeing their role in the attainment of equality for women as a bread and butter issue.

Renegotiated power relations between the sexes are to be welcomed, to a point. While Australians rightly don’t want to wind up where many American college men felt they were during the 1990s – needing a signed consent form before they could safely have sex with a woman – we do want all sexual engagements to be conducted with an awareness not only of the exciting and unpredictable frisson of Eros, but of the potential that unequal power and intoxication has for causing misunderstanding, and the importance of mutual respect, open communication and excellent listening skills.

When men understand that women who bring their stories of abuse into the open will be heard, it will go a long way to redress the power imbalance in sexual encounters. This will particularly be the case in relationships between high profile athletes and their fans, that are so often the cause of trouble.

Publication history

Much Remains Confused about Men, Women, Sex and Power   Sydney Morning Herald