Sexual Freedom Won’t Spare You Regret

Here’s how a 15-year-old West Australian girl described a sexual encounter she had with three boys at a party after too much drink: “It felt really good at the time but afterwards I felt cheated and used.”

The Matthew Johns affair is the last in a long line of incidents and developments – including burlesque, pole dancing and lipstick parties – to have sparked welcome debate about power, consent, vulnerability and responsibility in contemporary relationships.

But regret – what provokes it and what it reveals – has been left to one side. Either that, or it is deployed by authoritarian forces (radical feminists and conservative Christians) as proof that women are vulnerable victims when it comes to sex, sexuality and relationships, who need as much protection from others as they do from themselves.

Consent and regret are different. You can’t regret someone forcing you to do something because regret suggests responsibility and you weren’t in control in the first place. You can consent to something, even drive it, yet realise while it’s happening you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Or, as the West Australian teenager did, feel good about something at the time but repent at leisure.

How this happens speaks of the affinity between regret and our personal and collective ethics. Sometimes regret comes from within, after we’ve sobered up and emotions have had time to settle. Sometimes, other people compel our regret. Schoolyard and office gossips can cause us to rue not what we actually did but what they are making sure is the resulting damage to our reputation. In the rigid and unforgiving social world of adolescent girls and young women, public contrition and lots of tears (for sleeping with another girl’s boyfriend, for agreeing to group sex) may be the only route to absolution and a return to the fold.

The upshot of all this is that regret is inevitable – a consequence of mistakes we are big enough to own and the policing of moral boundaries by others.

That this is the case means the young, who don’t actually know as much as they think and run in packs, are at particular risk of regret. I try to teach my teenagers to respect other people and the law, and to require others to do the same. I welcome the public health messages that facilitate good decision making by helping them see the consequences of choices made under the influence. But I’m not foolish enough to think this will guarantee their journey to adulthood is free of risks, mistakes and regret.

My children happen to be boys but unless we want to return to the days of the sexual double standard, chaperones, backyard abortion and illegitimate children – social stigmas and restrictions that may have kept women safer but only by keeping them in their place – we must accept this is true of girls, too. The sexual and feminist revolutions that are challenging rules that have governed female behaviour for thousands of years are only 50 years old. Missteps and uncertainty are inevitable. We need to hold our nerve.

We must let girls know that we don’t see them as vulnerable victims in need of protection but as women-in-the-making who are as capable as boys of owning their choices and, when they stumble, righting themselves.

Being free doesn’t make you wise, it doesn’t keep you safe and it won’t inure you from regret. It just makes you free. The rest is in our hands.

Publication history

Sexual Freedom Won't Spare You Regret  Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)