Date rape: are we going too far?

January 9, 1998

A RECENT television drama has kept date rape a live issue for students, their universities and the public. Last year a 22-year-old Oxford University student was jailed for a year after he had admitted indecent assault after drunkenly climbing into a woman student's bed.

The grey area of sexual behaviour between university students has become an increasing preoccupation among those concerned with students' welfare. Discussions about sexual harassment and date rape highlight an apparent problem of men pushing women into something they do not want to do. It is assumed that the right thing to do is to find ways of preventing men from taking advantage of their female peers, through greater regulation and more severe punishments.

But is the extent of this concern, and the regulation that goes with it, necessarily the right thing - even for women?

When date rape became the focus of feminist campaigns at United States universities a few years ago the British seemed to be cautious about going down that line. Because the classification of date rape is necessarily subjective - some women would feel emotionally pushed into spending the night with an undesirable partner and put it down to experience while others would prosecute - many found this term to be unmanageable legally. When some US universities attempted to introduce a "sexual checklist" (can I stroke your knee? can I kiss you? can we have sex? and so forth), we in Britain laughed. Talk about a way to kill a romantic evening!

Yet somehow the ideology behind "date rape" became incorporated into British colleges. Sexual harassment, according to almost all college policies, can mean any kind of "unwanted sexual attention" ranging from a look to a comment. The "No means No" campaigns have got bigger and bigger: to say "I thought she really meant yes" is now assumed to be the catchphrase of a hardened rapist. If those standing in judgement over cases of harassment or indecent assault were to accept that the man in the dock really had misunderstood his victim, the chances are this would count for nothing. What seems to count is not the intention behind the perpetrator's actions, but the effect of these actions on the victim. So if a young man has a few beers too many and decides to lie down next to a girl who he thinks fancies him, his intentions may be misguided but not necessarily malicious. But if the impact on the girl is all that matters, she could bring a charge equivalent to attempted rape and the fact that the lad had meant no harm would be deemed irrelevant.

The idea that "everything can be deemed abuse" and "the victim's reaction is the only one that counts" is widespread throughout British universities, and the implications are dangerous. We are talking about students: the majority of whom are young, single, attractive and out for a good time.

Sex, alcohol and experimentation, usually taken together in large doses, still form an important part of college life. Sometimes you flirt and fail, and sometimes you flirt and succeed. Often you regret the night before.

One-off mistakes, drunken stupidity, misunderstandings and adolescent idiocy become something for which you can be held to account for the rest of your life. Every time students flirt, they have to be aware they are on dangerous ground: if the wrong kind of person is on the receiving end, they could lose their reputation, their college place or even their liberty. The only way to be sure of avoiding mistakes is to stay in your room, sober, celibate and scared.

It is time to get things into perspective. Shocked as you may be, you can recover from having a strange man in your bed: one day you may even laugh about it. But he will never recover from a year in jail.

Jennie Bristow is a writer on civil liberties issues.

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