Tuesday 10 April 2007

What have we got to lose?

On Mothering Sunday last month, I was drinking champagne with some dear old friends on the terrace of their house in Sussex. All was going swimmingly until their 17-year-old son handed over his offering of a folded sheet of A4 paper bearing a cartoon, crudely drawn in crayons, accompanied by a vaguely appropriate message. You could tell at a glance that his mother was far from gruntled. Even before she pointed out that this was the sort of card she might have expected to get from a five-year-old, if indeed it wasn’t the very card that he had drawn in his first year at primary school, and had kept and recycled ever since.

“But, Mum,” the lad protested. “You told us that Mother’s Day was a load of commercialised nonsense, and that we weren’t to waste our money on expensive cards and presents.”

“Ah,” I pointed out in my role of visiting sage, “You’ve fallen into that old trap of thinking that a woman means what she says. When Mum told you not to bother, what she actually meant was that you should go out and buy her the cheesiest card, the biggest bunch of flowers and the highest-calorie box of chocolates that you could afford.”

He asked his mother to refute my ridiculous theory, but she confirmed that it was, in fact, absolutely correct.

“So, Keith.” He looked at me seriously. “What you’re saying is that when a woman says no, she really means yes?”

Oh dear. A sudden vision of the two of us standing side-by-side in a dock at the Old Bailey flashed before me, and I backtracked as hastily as I could. With special reference to the sort of situations in which a teenager with normal instincts might well find himself towards the end of a night out.

The growth of the binge-drinking culture among the young (and 50-something semi-retired PR consultants and newspaper columnists) has led to growing difficulties in remembering who agreed to what in the bedrooms of the nation. This in turn is reflected in a massive decline in the conviction rate for rape, with some 95% of complaints now resulting in no charge or a not guilty verdict.

Given that most cases involve the conflicting testimony of two people who at least vaguely know each other, and were the worse for drink at the time, the reluctance of juries to convict is not altogether surprising. But how to stop genuine perpetrators of this despicable crime walking free?

One way forward would be the introduction of a signed and witnessed consent form, to be completed before every act of sexual intercourse. Notaries could be stationed in pubs and clubs to hand out the documents, and verify that the signatories were sober enough to know what they were doing.

Alternatively, a law could be passed to prohibit the consumption of alcohol before sex. (A sensible public health measure in any case, if it is likely to result in pregnancy.) This could be enforced by making it an offence to engage in sexual relations except in State-approved bedrooms with breathalyser-activated locks. It would be easy enough to clamp down on potential renegades through a modest expansion of the current CCTV camera network to include all car parks, alleyways, bus shelters and patches of waste ground.

Now, I suspect that I and most readers of this column would not be here if it were not for the inhibition-lowering properties of alcohol. I know for a fact that I would never have slept with any woman if beer, wine or spirits had not been consumed on at least the first night of our relationship. So the perfectly reasonable initiatives I suggest could well result in the extinction of humanity (apart from devout Muslims and very old-fashioned Methodists) within 100 years. On the other hand, if the environmental fanatics have got it right, we’re doomed on roughly that timescale anyway. So what have we got to lose?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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