A society that's gone off the sexual rails

Claims about teenage boys' sexual misbehaviour suggest a wider social pathology

Dante's Divine Comedy; William Blake, 1757-1827

An Oxford student who claims that her complaint of rape was dismissed has inadvertently drawn attention to what’s being left unsaid about the related tsunami of claims by girls of a “rape culture” perpetrated by male pupils at mixed-sex schools.

The Times reported that a member of Oxford university’s women’s boat club claimed she was sexually assaulted by one of the university’s top athletes. She said she reported the allegation to Sir John Bell, the distinguished scientist who sits on the boat club’s executive committee, but claimed that he diminished her allegation. 

A disciplinary officer informed her that no action could be taken because she hadn’t reported the matter to the police, even though her alleged attacker had written her a letter apologising for having “crossed that boundary”.

But the female student had had consensual sex with this man, who then allegedly had sex with her again while she was drunk. The Times wrote: 

The woman had gone back to the man’s room on campus and they had sex, which she does not remember. After going to sleep he allegedly woke her up at about 5am to say he wanted to have sex again. In a report to the university she claimed: 

“I was half asleep and did not give a verbal response to consent. He continued to grope me and then told me to turn over so he could have sex with me . . . He then has sex with me while I lay on my front; I do not believe I was fully awake, but drifting in and out of consciousness . . .

“I do not believe that I was fully aware of what was happening, or in a position to resist due to my drunken semi-conscious state. I did not give him consent to engage in sexual intercourse and feel deeply affected by him taking advantage of my inebriation.”

But how can she be sure she was taken advantage of? For by her own admission, she was too drunk to know what was happening or even to remember.  

Although the broader slew of allegations erupting at present involves high-school pupils rather than students, a similar point springs to mind that none of these complaints acknowledges any responsibility by the girls themselves. 

There have been many claims, for example, that boys have been circulating pictures of some of these girls when naked. But who took these pictures that apparently provoked their abuse on line, if not at least some of the girls themselves? Instagram and other social media are reportedly full of images of girls in sexually tantalising poses or clothing. What kind of girl has such a picture taken at all?

And how many of these claimed excesses arose, as in the case of the Oxford student, in the ambiguous context of a consensual sexual relationship that then developed in a way the girl didn’t like? How many took place after both girl and boy had been drinking or sharing a joint?

This is absolutely not to absolve the boys involved of blame for such loathsome activities as up-skirting, lewd harassment or groping and other assaults. Indeed, some of these accounts of sexual violence by boys are horrifying. It would seem that some are behaving appallingly and even committing criminal offences.

But as in the case of the Oxford student, how many of these girls may have persuaded themselves they are victims and blame others (such as dragging Sir John Bell through the mud) while ignoring their own responsibility for helping create whatever situation that developed? An entire cohort of boys is being collectively trashed as sexual predators on the basis of unverified allegations.

Even to suggest such a thing is, of course, to invite instant denunciation for “blaming the victim”. It’s beyond time that this is called out as a morally bankrupt tactic of reputational intimidation and assassination.

Responsibility is not a zero sum game. If someone leaves their back door open or the windows unlocked and a criminal enters and burgles the house, the householder surely bears a measure of responsibility for helping enable the break-in. The fact that the householder’s carelessness was a contributory factor does not detract from the fact that the burglar is guilty of committing a crime. Equally, to point out the householder’s carelessness would not be “blaming the victim” but would self-evidently be a justified criticism.

In similar vein, a sexual assault by a boy is a crime. But to call ambiguous sexual relationships “rape culture” is to devalue the offence of rape; and to pretend that sexual provocation or flaunting by girls doesn’t itself signal to boys that they can dispense with respect for such girls is irresponsibly and morally obtuse.

Clearly, though, responsibility for this wave of allegations about misbehaving boys goes far beyond the boys or girls who are actually involved. In the storm of accusations against the boys’ schools, there’s been scant acknowledgement that much of this behaviour takes place off school premises, at parties and so forth. Where are the parents in all this? Do they know what their children are up to? Do they care?

What about the responsibility of the government in failing to curb the accessibility of pornography that is reportedly teaching boys to regard such grossly abusive and predatory behaviour as what girls want and as how ordinary men and women behave? What kind of moral and emotional vacuum has the adult world allowed to develop so that boys fail to realise that this porn culture does not represent any kind of relationship norm but is pathologically sick and twisted?

As I suggested here, in a society where women have torn up the sexual contract that formerly tamed male behaviour and instead declared themselves sexually free and available; where pornography is widely available; where girls dress with an almost total absence of modesty or decorum; where sex educators in schools don’t say “don’t do it” but instead say “do it without any tiresome consequences;” where many boys are no longer brought up within a stable family background with strong and civilised male role models; where chivalry is said to be “patriarchal,” and where sex has been generally de-sacralised and reduced to little more than a recreational sport, it’s surely not just the boys who should be criticised. This is a society that’s gone off the sexual rails. 

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