The Day I Totally Misunderstood a Man’s Point. For A Change.
Now far be it from me to say he didn't make it very well. Oh. Not that far actually.
He didn't make it very well.
The man is question is Hugo Rifkind. He was writing in The Times yesterday about the bill on Sex and Relationship Education, which sadly failed in the Lords last night.
Now lots of you won't be able to read it because a subscription, even to the online version, costs a shed of money and assumes computer access. I know that I am very privileged to be able to read it.
Mr Rifkind became rather uppity on Twitter this morning suggesting that people - EVB for example - must read his article to get his point before jumping in to a debate. Mr Rifkind assumed I was joking when I pointed out HIS privilege and off he flounced.
So, sorry that I will have to give you snippets of Rifkind to back up my point that his article was unsupportive and muddled on the SRE debate. I will try not to misrepresent him because he doesn't like that much and largely I do think his intentions may have been good. I imagine he is in a coffee shop somewhere now humming Nina Simone to himself and cursing feminists gently. Secretly. Because they just will not UNDERSTAND!
Rifkind tells me on Twitter that he is very much in favour of SRE. I'm pleased. But reading this you can see where I wondered.
"Yesterday a letter in this paper from various activists called for compulsory sex education in schools, essentially so as to hammer home the principles of consent. It sounds perfectly reasonable, all this. Whenever people call for more sex lessons, though, I do find myself wondering whether they’ve any memory of what it was like to be in school, or in a lesson of any sort. And, whether they aren’t perhaps slightly overestimating the beneficial impact that your geography teacher’s excruciating explanation of fellatio is likely to have.Faltering attempts like these aside, my generation learnt about sex pretty much like every previous generation. Sometimes, sure, there were magazines, in which athletic women displayed internal organs I still don’t know the name of."
This suggests that attempts at Sex and Relationship Education are usually, in his experience, rubbish and delivered by inept staff. So.... best not bother then? This rather misses the point that campaigners hoped the bill would ensure issues such as consent were an intrinsic part of Sex Education. This is not just "reasonable". It is vital. He resorts to the familiar urban legend of Sex Ed lessons where someone is humiliated putting a condom on a cucumber. Some schools would deliver the type of lesson needed very well. For those who don't or felt ill-equipped, organisations would be queuing up to help them do so. What's the problem with that other than funding? The right kind of legislation backed by appropriate funding would ensure that teachers and education professionals throughout the land were properly equipped. Not with cucumbers. With expertise. Saying it doesn't exist now isn't a good reason for it never existing.
He then tackles porn. Badly. Meaning well, but choking on it.
"Before we declare it a very bad thing, however — and I am eventually going to, so please don’t get cross just yet — we should probably try to be crystal clear as to exactly what is so very bad about it. In fact, that’s surprisingly difficult. The great paradox of the porn problem, see, is that porn and society seem to be moving in opposite directions. Or, to put that another way, if internet pornography really is normalising the brutal subjugation of women, then how come women aren’t getting the damn message?"
He leans out of the article to pat strong women on the back and suggests that women are managing to resist the "nasty" porn onslaught really well. Go us.
"Women in their twenties today have passed through teenage years saturated with the stuff. And yet, they have not learnt to be increasingly subjugated. Indeed, the opposite is true. Never, probably, has there been a female generation more outspoken, fighty and instinctively confident in their own intrinsic equality. What worries me a little about anti-porn campaigners, noble as their intentions obviously are, is that they seem to be motivated as much by problems that they simply assume must exist as they are by problems that actually do."
Here I go about to willfully misunderstand the well-meaning Rifkind again. I read this as - porn isn't that bad, because women are getting better at coping with the awful message it presents. Though actually the message is sometimes only there in the minds of camapaigners.
Yes, then perhaps I am misunderstanding the rush to beauticians up and down the land by young women in their twenties, (and thirities, forties etc) keen to yank out their pubic hair by the roots in order to present the pre-pubescent version of their vaginas as demanded by men who watch porn. Go on Hugo, log on to any Beauty salon website. You won't find a "hairy muff conditioning treatment" there. You will find Brazillian and Hollywood. So, whilst some women are certainly packing a full set of springs in their pants, others are unable to resist the constant pressure to emulate porn stars. This is the least of the dangers of course. The violence of the sexual act committed "upon" women and done "to" them within porn is the thing that we really need to be honest with young boys and girls about.
I have a daughter. She knows about consent. She knows about child sexual exploitation and grooming. She knows about coercion. She's under 12. She looked at me this morning when I told her about the Lord's vote and asked, "so who is going to tell the boys now?" She's been asking her teacher when consent would be discussed because she is starting to feel the uncomfortable weight of the male gaze upon her. She has been told "later". Well now there won't even be a "later". Boys will soon be directing that gaze upon her and expecting a porn-
dictated version of her. Those boys are being let down by society as much as the girls who will become victims of their entitled behaviour.
But, Rifkind continues,
"For all we know now, this will turn out to be a generation with a far healthier attitude to sex than their forebears. Less conflict. Less frustrated desire. Less bleak infidelity, in search of a sexual ideal they never learnt was a chimera."
Presumably this can all happen by the magic of strong women and their unicorns then? I'd love to think so. Realistically I know that this will take state intervention. Largely because unicorns don't carry cash or legislative knowledge. We often go to feed our unicorns and hope they've crapped out a big bag of gold and lawyers but it just doesn't happen.
To be fair to Rifkind he does agree that the picture currently is,
"pretty ugly. Two years ago, based on a study by the NSPCC and the University of Bristol, the Home Office estimated that a third of girls between 13 and 17 have suffered sexual violence from partners"
and I congratulate his appreciation of this horror and acknowledgement that something must be done. He also virtually commits to the idea that porn is a contributary factor,
" It may be hard to prove any concrete link to this and early exposure to porn, but come on. It’s hardly going to be helping."
On Twitter he was keen to tell me that he is doing "exactly that". But what he also does is undermine the very valiant attempts being made to challenge this. He asserts that it is all a bit hopeless really,
"What, though, will? Sex education matters but I’m wary of an approach that puts this stuff in a box, hands it to schools and presumes that everything will be OK. Indeed, I’m wary of any approach that forgets that sex is only very rarely just about sex. Sure, you can start with teaching the difference between reality and fantasy. You can explain to boys that there’s a difference between a Page 3 model and a porn star and then remind boys and girls that the vast majority of women should feel under no compulsion to behave like either. You can, and should, talk about consent again and again and again.But you can’t stop there."
No disagreement here. You really can't. But it is a start. Surely supporting any moves in the right direction is in line with feeling this way Mr Rifkind?
Because after all when a girl tells a boy "NO" and is "misunderstood" it is called rape. Your indignation at being misunderstood Hugo Rifkind comes nowhere close to that scale of ruined life.
Who will tell the boys if the people in government decide they don't need telling?