With the conclusion of The Archers ‘Trial of the Century’ coming up in an hour-long special this evening I thought I’d have a second go at reflecting on the storyline of Rob and Helen. My first post (Am I Rob Titchener) gives background to the story and talks about coercive control within a relationship, particularly how the dominant figure, usually the man, may not even realise he is being abusive, seeing only his own sense of entitlement and self belief.
During the Trial this week though, it came to light that Rob had raped Helen, not just once, as had been hinted in the show, but many, many times. I know it’s only a fiction but I’m not too brave to admit that when she announced it in court I did get a little teary. The performance was amazing and utterly devastating. Whatever criticism that may be levelled at the show, non can be aimed at the performances of the central characters involved.
So I’d like this time to have a think about consent, be it within a steady relationship or out in the world of dating. Now, I may say some things that could come across as making excuses for men’s behaviour. I want to state categorically this is not the case. As far as I am concerned, No not only means No, but Yes only means Yes. Nothing other than fully Informed Consent is allowable.
I did a little research on the subject of Marital Rape and it makes some deeply uncomfortable reading. There are still dozens of countries where it is not an offence; presumably the view is that, in marriage, the woman belongs to the man to be used as he sees fit and to acquiesce to his sexual demands. I won’t list the countries because, frankly you won’t be surprised by any of them.
Before we feel all superior and morally righteous in the west it was only 1991 that a ruling in the House of Lords outlawed it in the UK. Many other European countries legislated similarly around the same time. Where it is illegal, it is often under a different definition of rape. For an offence to have taken place there has to be an additional use of force or threat of violence such as use of a weapon. Some of the US states have similar criteria. So had Helen even made a complaint to law at the time, would Rob ever even have been charged?
Now, I usually resist blaming the media for social ills; Films, TV, Music, Video Games etc. are often mirrors to society, rather than an influence. But on the subject of consent I am going to throw blame. We are trying to teach our children that a boy should ask if he may kiss a girl, ask if he may touch her, ask if she’d like to have sex. Even just typing that, it seems woefully naive. Almost any film or TV show you care to mention makes this a lie. Where is the romance? Where is the passion, if our hero stops to ask permission to place his hand on his lovers knee? Watch any James Bond film. He is a man held up as the Alpha Male above all others; Men want to be him, Women want to be with him. Has he ever, EVER, asked consent? He grabs and kisses them, even if they struggle and try to resist, he keeps kissing until they melt into his arms and submit? And I’m not just talking about the early Connery/ Moore films. In Skyfall, Bond climbs onto a yacht and slips into the ladies shower without a word, all she’s done is tell him the boat’s mooring! Lucky he didn’t get a shower nozzle shoved somewhere unforgettable. ( I’m choosing to ignore for the moment the equally disturbing lack of safe sex.)
Yes, I know Bond is make believe. I like Bond films, and it’s not just testosterone fuelled action films that are guilty of this. Even in Drama’s, Rom Com’s or anything else there is the belief that two people will just fall into each others arms, which is fine if both people are thinking the same thing. A few weeks ago, ‘This American Life’ Podcast repeated a story about a consent workshop held at an American college, for young men. It was an interesting piece to listen. The guys attending were attentive and genuinely wanted to learn but the stumbling block they kept coming up against was ‘The Mood’. They were concerned that if you paused in your seduction of a partner to ask if they wanted to have sex, it would somehow dispel the atmosphere and ruin your chances. Which seems a plausible concern, ‘cos in the movies it all flows from the kiss to the bedroom. But, if that pause is enough for a girl to rethink and say No, then frankly, she wasn’t that keen in the first place. Forget the mood. Show some respect, and assume the girl is a sentient human being who you haven’t hypnotised into acting against her will with your masculine charms.
Within a relationship though the dynamic changes and there is a certain degree of implied consent. I am going to assume I can lay a kiss on my wife without first asking if I may. However, if she pulls away and makes it clear that the kiss is unwanted, (probably because I’ve got Nachos stuck in my beard again) I’m not going to keep trying to kiss her. Even though we’ve been together since the 15th century she still has the right to say no and I have no right to force her otherwise, whatever the damned law says! (I’m only going to mention ‘kisses’ because my mother reads this and she doesn’t need that mental image)
Is there hope for the future? Maybe, if we can get it into our heads that the ‘The Power of Seduction’ is as much a fiction as magic, Werewolves and tasty low fat Ice Cream. We must start to filter better practice onto our screens. And it is there, not much but it is. There is a lovely moment in the Disney film, Frozen, where Kristoff shyly asks Anna if he may kiss her. It is sweet, and still romantic. In fact most people probably don’t even especially note the moment, but it is a good example to set to youngsters.
Hopefully there will be a happy outcome in The Archers. Helen will be acquitted, Rob will be punished; by the law or some other kind of dramatic natural justice, and a tractor related accident for his father, Bruce, wouldn’t go amiss either.
In the last 50 years or so we have come so far in the field of sexual equality. But to still be in a world where a woman’s protection under law from sexual assault lessens or even disappears, as soon as she marries, is simply monstrous.
If you would like to talk to anyone on the subject of sexual assualt, or any form of abuse, you will find links to organisations who can help you on this BBC webpage. I have written, in this post, about sexual abuse by men towards women. I am very aware it also happens the other way round and in same sex couples.