The Age of Consent: Slutwalk, Strauss-Kahn, and Secretary Clarke

Three stories have scarcely been out of the news this week. All three involve the issue of sexual consent and all three have elicited or involved the same category mistakes:


After a Toronto police officer reportedly told a group of women at the local Osgoode Hall Law School that they should 'avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimised' a series of demonstrations have been held across the world to challenge such attitudes. [ref].

The subject even came up on Radio Four’s Moral Maze[1] programme and some commentators on the programme (especially Melanie Phillips) repeatedly made the point that women who “dress like sluts”[2] are thereby advertising their “sexual availability”. Now I suppose there is some truth in this claim but, as ever, it misses the point. A young woman may well go “out on the pull” and advertising her “sexual availability” but she is not thereby necessarily advertising her “sexual availability” to me. She is almost certainly out hoping to meet somebody she is attracted to herself.

Even more to the point, just because a young woman is advertising her potential “sexual availability” (if you insist on putting it like that) to men she might encounter and take a shine to during her evening out, this in no way constitutes and advertisement of availability to sexual assault. Arguably, a young man who successfully strikes up a conversation with a young woman “dressed like a slut”, and ends up spending the rest of the evening with her, is entitled to assume he might be “in with a good chance”. He is not, however - if at the end of the evening the young woman decides that she would on reflection rather go back home and spend the night catching up on sleep on her own – entitled to assume that – because she was wearing a short skirt – he is entitled to force her to the floor and rape her.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn

The former IMF head accused (let us not forget[3]), of sexual assault and attempted rape, by a woman who was employed to clean his hotel room.

The media can scarcely report this story without bringing up the issues of French attitudes towards politicians who have lots of extramarital affairs. Why on earth is this relevant?

A case in point is Jeremy Paxman on News Night on 2011 May 17. He seemed to be explicitly suggesting (as I recall his remarks) that relaxed attitudes to consensual sex between adult public figures, in the French press and amongst the French general public, may have somehow contributed to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged behaviour.

This is nonsense. The woman that President Mitterrand had a long affair with consented to sex. The woman, who claims that the head of the IMF attacked her [4], did not.

Ken Clarke

And so to Ken Clarke.

Now the main point Ken was trying to make in the interview I heard is, I would argue, a perfectly valid one. The legal penalties for rape do vary according to the “seriousness” (in the court’s eyes) of the offence. There is a excellent summary of this issue here (though I disagree profoundly with the conclusions at the end of the article and have no particular interest in whether the Labour party are being opportunistic about Ken’s blunders).

It is also perfectly reasonable to suggest, as Ken did, that people accused of rape might be offered deals in order to persuade them to plead guilty rather than subject the victim to the ordeal of a trial. We can argue about the details, but I can see how this might be the lesser of two evils.

It also needs to be pointed out that Ken Clarke was wrong on some matters of fact about the law. An eighteen year old man who has consensual sex with a fifteen year old girl is guilty of unlawful sex, he is not guilty of rape and such cases do not, pace what Ken said, contribute to the rape case statistics.

But the key issue here is what Ken had to say about “date rape” versus “proper rape”. Now it’s not entirely straightforward to piece together Ken’s actual words because they came out in dribs and drabs in a series of interviews and various commentators have picked out various bits and made various comments on them. There’s the Channel 4 news report here and I’ve listened to the original interview throughout (though I have so far been able to track this down on the WWW).

It is, however,(even allowing for the fact the he rather fluffed his words) pretty clear that Ken shares (with many members of the public) the notion that “classic” rape involves a stranger jumping out from behind a bush and grabbing someone. In fact, in the vast majority of rape cases, the attacker is known to the victim [ref].

It is also clear that Ken Clarke also shares (with many members of the public) the related notion that so called “date rape”[5] is often somehow not “proper rape” (though, to be fair, he did concede when pushed that “date rape” can be just as serious as any other kind of rape).

What this episode reveals is that Ken Clarke is prone to exactly the same category mistakes as have occurred in relation to the two previous examples.

As the old slogan goes “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, 'yes' means 'yes' and 'no' means 'no'."

It really is that simple.

[1] I normally find it difficult to listen to the Moral Maze and my GP has advised that it;s not good for my blood pressure, but given that (the currently one-eyed) @DAaronovitch had struggled from his hospital bed to chair the episode I felt duty bound to at least switch on my wireless and stay to the bitter end.

[2] Not a turn of phrase I have ever used myself.

[3] Something Mayor Bloomberg of New York already seems to have forgotten "if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime" [ref].

[4] Again, assuming her claims are true.

[5] So called "date rape" may of course be harder to prove in a court of law, but that's a completely different issue.


Since this post was written, the credibility of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged victim has been questioned and charges against Strauss-Kahn have been dropped. We may, of course, have serious reservations about the balance of power between a rich white man and a poor non-white female in a case like this, but I think we have to conclude that there was no real prospect of the case succeeding (there's an intelligent article here that covers many of the legal issues). None of these developments impact on anything I said in my original blog post, but I suppose it will be interesting to see how Strauss-Kahn's reputation in French political circles fares over the coming months.


  1. Yes means yes, No Means No, and the imputation of the term Slut is that Slut always means "maybe,but I'll only give a clear answer if it gets me attention or something I want".
    Men need women to be clear with their stance.This is never going to happen. The rise of slutwalk shows women DEMAND the right to have ambiguity in their answers to sex. No always means no. Sluts always leave the possibility that Yes might mean No if it suits a woman to hurt the man.

  2. I was in two minds about whether I should publish the above comment. Suffice it to say that I find it extremely distasteful. If "Anonymous" is talking about malicious false allegations in his last sentence, yes these do occur but are extremely rare and I doubt that there is any correspondence whatsoever between a propensity to make false accusations and "sluttishness".

  3. If you take "slut" to mean "woman I have labelled a slut based on my own perceptions", it's quite a good analysis. If I've decided she's a slut, then every time she says "no", she's really just toying with me. Every time she says "yes", I should tread carefully as she may be trying to trick me.

    And of course, the SlutWalk pretty much is about demanding the right to ambiguous answers. Even if we assume the Slut has made up her mind at that point, which she's under no obligation to do, all language is ambiguous almost all the time. The right not to have your answer clarified to a 'yes' according to your clothes and sexual history is a fairly fundamental one.

    Case in point, if I'm asked "Do you want a cup of tea?" and say "Um, er, go on, no, better not, but, er, maybe, I dunno", I'd expect to get no tea, rather than, say, having the contents of the teapot poured down my throat.

  4. Not quite sure I follow the above comment.

    If you like, I could suggest a refinement to the old slogan:

    “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, 'yes' means 'yes' and 'no' (or I'm not sure yet) means 'no'."

    But it doesn't scan as well.

  5. Great post, Mike, thank you!

    Where I live, I see and hear of women being victimised who are not young or glamorous looking and most definitely not dressed like sluts. It's not about the woman's appearance - it's about power. Telling women that their appearance is to blame for assault or worse is the same as saying "men are helpless and can take no responsibility", which is very demeaning to men, even if it does look like a get-out clause.

    As for "Sluts always leave the possibility that Yes might mean No if it suits a woman to hurt the man", I'd love to know the evidence for this. I wonder if men ever worry about getting raped if they walk down the street bare-chested?

    Anyway, I seem to have run into a lot of these arguments recently, and the best thing that's come from them is seeing how very many men are civilised people. Thank you - you improve my life a LOT by treating me and other women as fellow human beings :-)


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