Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Like many men, I have a confession to make

This column comes with a health warning: it has not been easy to write and will not be altogether pleasant to read, particularly over breakfast.

However, in the light of the many thousands of words already written about the strange case of Julian Assange, it seems right to offer my own perspective on the delicate subject of rape. I doubt whether any man can write about this without causing offence to someone. But the issue of where to draw the line profoundly affects us all.

It's all too easy for a man to make a tit of himself when pontificating about rape.

My closest personal acquaintance with the issue arose almost 30 years ago, after I recruited a pretty young secretary over the twitching corpse of the colleague with whom I was meant to share her services. He correctly pointed out that her previous work experience as an air hostess, demonstrating her ability to serve drinks from a trolley and to swim 50 yards without a buoyancy aid, was not directly relevant to the demands of a PR consultancy.

Can't type? Who cares? When can you start?

But then my killer question at her interview had not been about her shorthand skills or typing speed, but simply “Have you got a boyfriend?” We did things differently in the 1980s.

After a few post-work drinks and a trip or two to the theatre, I invited her away for a weekend. She accepted. Ever the perfect gentleman, I booked two rooms in a nice country hotel. But when we arrived, we found that these were not only far apart, but in separate buildings. My guest expressed nervousness about this, and said that she would prefer us to share a room.

My reaction can be summarised in one word: “Wa-hey!”

I assumed then that a young woman removing her clothes and getting into bed with a man constituted an invitation to have sex with her. I now know that it does not. She made her reluctance clear. I carried on.

This, I now realise with crystal clarity, could have landed me in extremely serious trouble. To be fair, I also had my doubts about it at the time. Luckily for me, it became clear early the next morning that my companion had had an overnight change of heart in precisely the opposite direction from the one that has got Mr Assange into so much bother.

This was naturally a great relief to me, even if the glares we received over breakfast made it clear that it was not an equal source of delight to the occupants of adjoining rooms.

We went on to enjoy a happy and loving relationship until it was terminated, as usual, through my own selfishness and stupidity.

At least the experience changed my attitudes so comprehensively that, 20 years on, when another pretty young secretary invited herself back to my flat and started taking her clothes off, I gave her a stern talk about the inappropriateness of her behaviour and ordered a taxi to take her home.

To say that our professional relationship never recovered from this slight would be an understatement of epic proportions, but I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do.

After the extensive media debate of recent weeks, we should all know by now that “no” means “no”; and that even a clear agreement to sex covers a single serving, not an all-you-can-eat buffet; one game, not an entire season.

By the time I need to explain all this to my infant sons, we may well have reached the point where no young man will risk embarking on a weekend trip without a sexual consent form ready for signature in his pocket.

With any luck, this should avert the ludicrous spectacle of one of them blinking in the unaccustomed daylight as he embarks on a self-justifying speech on the balcony of some dubious Latin American embassy.

Of course, the consequences for human reproduction will be simply horrendous. But then, given the growing numbers of us bearing down on this small planet, who can argue that this will be anything other than a force for good?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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