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.



Earlier today (2011 May 10) Spiked editor Brendan O'Neill published another of his presposterous Daily Telegraph articles entitled: Far from being a bastion of freedom of speech, Twitter can be a remarkably conformist, elitist and intolerant arena.

The article begins with a picture of the "liberal overlord of the Twittering set" Stephen Fry, a reference to the super-injunction outing nonsense (which personally I haven't even bothered to look into) and then the following gem:

it’s worth asking if Twitter really is a freedom-loving entity in which you can express whatever’s on your mind or in your heart. Because actually it depends. It depends on what you have to say and whether it passes muster with the shabby and incoherent yet surprisingly influential liberal overlords of the Twittering set.

He notes that twitter tends to give Daily Mail bigots like Jan Moir a hard time and that a celebrity called "Kenneth Tong", who apparently promotes anorexia on his website, was also the object of a great deal of Twitter rage.

Brendan goes on to note that twitterers (or rather tweets - which is not necessarily the same thing) were mainly in favour of AV and only 23.9% were anti.

These startling facts lead him to conclude that:

The liberal consensus, and its corresponding intolerance of consensus-breakers, has been fairly successfully transported into Twitter, making this social networking site a surprisingly conformist and uncritical arena.

It almost goes without saying that all this is complete bollocks. I encounter a huge range of opinions on every possible subject everyday on twitter - I've certainly had a huge number of discussions and arguments about AV. Even groups of people on Twitter who kind of coalesce around themes like scepticism or atheism or interest in science tend to disagree about almost everything else.

I suppose there are some areas of consensus on Twitter. The twitterati do tend to take a dim view of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and paedophilia (though I've also come across BNP supporters and a number of apologists for the Catholic Church). I rather tend to the view that these "intolerances" are entirely justified.

But I didn't really want to talk about the article as such .....

Having read it (and a number of other contributions to public debate by Brendan O'Neill) I offered the following tweet:

Couldn't the US Navy Seals just take out Brendan O'Neill? http://bit.ly/kFVlEI - I'm sure even Noam Chomsky would go along w that

Which elicited the following riposte:

@Schroedinger99 That's hilarious - your response is a paradigm example of the kind of intolerance shown by Twitter users he's criticising.

For a moment I thought this tweet was in the same spirit of my original tweet and a continuation of the same joke. I took the "That's hilarious" literally and "your response is a paradigm example of the kind of intolerance shown by Twitter users he's criticising" as irony. But then I noticed that the tweet came from @P_Hayes who is, like Brendan O'Neill, a fully signed up member of the Frank Furedi Fan Club and a writer for it's mouthpiece "Spiked". In Necker-Cube-like fashion, @P_Hayes's tweet suddenly reversed its meaning in my brain.

So let me explain my tweet just in case anyone else from Spiked is reading. I realize this endeavour will leach all remaining humour from my 140 character essay, but it may reveal some of the true nature of Twitter:

1) I have no hatred for Brendan O'Neill.
2) I often find his views ridiculous, but I do not find them abhorrent.
3) There are a number of journalists (especially on the Daily Mail) whose views I do find abhorrent.
4) Because of 1, 2, & 3 above, I probably would not make a similar joke about certain journalists because it might almost seem as though I meant it and I think that would be in poor taste because, as a member of the aforementioned "liberal consensus", I don't really go only with the view that killing people I disagree with is a proper way to behave.
5) Because of 4, the highly illiberal suggestion that Brendan O'Neill be "taken out" was an example of irony.
6) In spite of the "liberal consensus", there has, in fact, been a very healthy debate on Twitter about whether the US assassination of Osama bin Laden was legal or justifiable - and very little "consensus" at all.
7) Noam Chomsky has famously (on Twitter at least) expressed the view (in this article) that the US assassination of Osama bin Laden was illegal and unjustifiable.
8) Almost nothing provokes heated debate on Twitter like the mere mention of "Noam Chomsky".
9) The final irony was that Spiked is a kind of reincarnation of a former publication known as "Living Marxism"*. The politics have changed, but the cult-like adherence to a set of ideas has not. I'm never quite sure how to characterize this set of ideas but, at least in part, it seems to involve being a contrary as possible - on every subject that crops up. In other words, Brendan O'Neill belongs (quite unlike the twitters he castigates) to "a surprisingly conformist and uncritical arena".

If interested, you can read more about this group (who really do have an "overlord") here.

* "Living Marxism" bit the dust because of a fiendishly complex and highly disputed saga involving ITN, the Bosnian war, and a successful libel suit against the Magazine. Chomsky actually supported "Living Marxism" in respect of this specific case - at least to some extent - and I'm one of the few people on Twitter who has tried to defend Chomsky here (though I think he's wrong about the bigger Balkan analysis). As I say it's very very complicated.


Twitter, Sarfraz Manzoor, and blocking

I've been a fan of Sarfraz Manzoor's journalism for many years and have always enjoyed his appearances on BBC 2's Culture Show (which otherwise often hosts some of the most irritating people on the planet). He has also written movingly about his own family - one piece he wrote inspired a post on this very blog a few months ago: Why I’d be more than proud to have Sarfraz Manzoor in my family.

I began following Sarfraz Manzoor a few months ago on Twitter and tweeted the odd mention, RT, or comment on something he'd written. As with most journalists I like I don't necessarily entirely agree with everything Sarfraz writes, though I've certainly never been consciously rude or unpleasant about anything he's written.

For, I suppose, a number of weeks now (I wasn't paying much attention) I had not noticed any tweets from Sarfraz Manzoor and had vaguely assumed he'd gone quiet on Twitter. The other day, however, I tried to RT something he'd said - my attention to which had been drawn by an RT or mention (I can't remember which) from a third party and found that my twitter client wouldn't let me do this. At first I thought there was some kind of Twitter glitch but, to cut a long story short, I realized that I had been blocked by Sarfraz Manzoor.

Now the only accounts I've ever blocked on Twitter were spambots and a BNP supporter who began following me - as a result (I can only assume) of a misunderstanding as great (though in the opposite direction) as the one the led to Sarfraz blocking me.

Anyway, to come to the point, and to something that might be of interest to a wider audience, this experience of being blocked by someone on Twitter enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of what blocking on Twitter does and does not achieve. This may be of particular interest for those who have suffered from bulling, harassment, or stalking on Twitter (as a couple of people I follow have been).

NB all these finding relate to Tweet-Deck, but I assume other Twitter clients behave in a similar way.

Blocking prevents the blockee from seeing the blocker's tweets in his/her timeline, but the blocker's tweets can still be followed in a separate column.

Blocking prevents the blocker from seeing the blockee's normal tweets in his/her timeline, but un-following (or not following in the first place) would achieve the same thing.

Blocking prevents the blockee from RTing the blocker's tweets using the normal mechanism provided by the Twitter client, but if the blockee simply types in "RT @blocker whatever the blocker said" this gets round the block.

Blocking prevents the blockee from replying to the blocker's tweets using the normal mechanism provided be the Twitter client, but if the blockee simply types a new tweet with a mention (eg @blocker) in it, this gets round the block - though I'm not sure whether the blocker would see this in his/her mentions.

I am also unsure as to what happens once third parties start RTing or replying to the types of tweet mentioned above, but that's not so significant.

Finally, blocking un-follows the blockee and prevents him/her from re-following the blocker. The curious thing is, however, that the blockee has no explicit indication that or when this has happened and, therefore, no way of discovering what his/her offence was (though I suppose this will often be more obvious than it was in my case).

The upshot is that blocking on Twitter achieves much less than I had (vaguely) assumed - though I confess I had never given the matter much thought until now..... oh and (in the unlikley event Sarfraz Manzoor ever reads this blog post) I'd like to apologize unreservedly for any insult I might have caused, but I genuinely don't know what that insult was.

PS Funnily enough, there was some relevant discussion of these issues on Sarfraz Manzoor's timeline yesterday (04-05-2011) - not (unless blocking is even less meaningful than I suggest above) occasioned by anything I tweeted. Sarfraz complained that he gets lots of people he doesn't know tweeting him (which makes me wonder if he's quite got the point of Twitter) & if those people annoy/bore him he blocks them (which seems a bit like taking out an injunction against Jehovah's Witnesses rather than simply politely asking them to go away - albeit while secretly thinking "and while you're at it, stick your fucking Watchtower up your arse"). It also emerged from Sarfraz Manzoor's timeline that he is easily offended by people who make jokes about his hair. I have to plead guilty here - though, in my defence, I feel inclined to point out that when I made jokes about Brian Cox's and Jim Alkhalili's hair they both re-tweeted it. perhaps, flushed with my success, I got carried away.

Anyway, you live and learn. I shall, henceforth, read Sarfraz Manzoor's articles with a slightly different perspective ...... and try and console myself that I was one of the people who annoyed him rather than one of the people who bored him ;-)