Consent: Yes, but there's so much more

Penny Mulvey on what every woman is feeling right now

In conversation with a female friend today, she used the word ‘exhausted’ to describe how she is feeling in light of the constant efforts to be seen, heard, valued for her expertise, rather than the other ‘stuff’ that invades the lives of women and girls.

I too have used the same word in recent days. I felt it as I walked out of my first live play in over a year, which happened to be a two hander involving a 19-year-old female university student and her much admired older successful author lecturer (male). You can guess the premise of the play!

I have felt it as I watch our Prime Minister keep stumbling. Is it so hard to speak about women without getting defensive?

I felt it as I sat beside an aggressive man on an interstate flight who angrily stated his entitlement to the female flight steward. I constructed a response in my head, but dared not speak it out loud for fear of being berated the entire trip home.

My heart has broken for the thousand plus young women who have posted their own experiences at the hands of adolescent boys, too afraid to speak up due to shame, embarrassment, fear, self-loathing, peer pressure, the list goes on.

I have also felt an overwhelming sense of relief during the last few days as I have read and listened to other women speaking into this very fraught topic of rape, sexual abuse, the objectification of women, and the like.

Their message was a balm for my soul as they so clearly named the issues and found coherent words to describe exactly how a nation of women is feeling. Maybe some of us are angry – rightfully so. Others of us are bone tired. We have danced the dance required as a female. It is something all females know and understand and yet it is so hard to explain to those men who just don’t get it.

Females are up against it in a myriad of ways …

And then we layer the Christian world on top of that. We even have words – complementarianism and egalitarianism – to be able to explain how women fit into the church. There is something called the ‘Billy Graham rule’ which becomes an excuse to keep women out of meetings, offsite overnight work events, clubs, trips and so on.

However, as we know too well, human beings are broken imperfect creatures, whether Christian or not. And so we have had a series of Christian leaders (male) whose stories of sexual abuse or sexual impropriety have come to light over the past few years.

Is mandating ‘consent’ the answer? Is teaching primary students about ‘permission giving’ going to raise up a whole new generation of boys who will treat their female colleagues with respect rather than disdain? An equal rather than a sexual conquest.

Females are up against it in a myriad of ways and the discussion around ‘we need to ensure boys and men understand the need for consent – and what about a consent app?’ feeds our (often male) desire to find the quick solution. This blocks the possibility of us sitting in the very very messy middle of women’s deep, dark, complex, centuries and centuries old anguish.

And what about addressing the porn industry! Melinda Tankard-Reist of Collective Shout has spoken to thousands of school children about the sexualisation of girls and women. Melinda estimates that 90-95 per cent of 11-year-old boys have viewed porn. The kind of porn where the woman is the compliant, willing recipient of the sex act, with never a word of consent involved. And as people crave for more and more porn, their addiction growing, porn has become more and more violent towards the woman! When Melinda asks year 7 girls what year 7 boys want to talk about, the universal answer is ‘porn’. Not sport. Not Marvel or the latest YouTube sensation.

Porn is their sex education and consent doesn’t seem to feature much.

The porn industry has its grip upon our world in ways we cannot even imagine. Look at how sex has permeated our television shows. How often is it presented as an expression of love, rather than power, uncontrolled passion, a weapon of control, a transactional act? Our children have an open door to porn at the click of a mobile phone (theirs or their mate’s). This is their sex education and consent doesn’t seem to feature much.

The ‘quick fix’ of a program at school does not address what are clearly endemic issues within our society and the world at large. In India, 88 women are raped each day which, according to a 2019 NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) report, translates to just 10 per cent of all crimes against women.

What about at home? Does the father model respect to women by the way he treats the mother? Does he always reprimand his son/stepson when the child/teenager is rude and obnoxious to his mother? Do we value attributes such as kindness in men/boys or is that seen as being soft?

I am aware of a recent court case in Melbourne that involved a 28-year-old man grooming three 15-year-old girls online, meeting each of them and raping them on more than one occasion. He pleaded guilty to one offence (not three) and received a four-year sentence. It was only reported in one newspaper. These young girls will carry what happened to them for the rest of their lives. Would a consent law have helped them? Clearly not.

As a society (and as Christians) we need to sit in the hard space. Hear women’s stories. Try and understand how it feels to constantly second guess yourself, worry about whether you accidentally led the man on, blame yourself for their behaviour, put up with sexual banter, deal with unwelcome hands on your body when you were just looking for a lovely night out, stroke the male ego when you are too much of a threat, temper your voice because you are accused of being shrill, emotional, aggressive, loud.

Is consent the answer? Well, no one should ever force anyone to do something against their will, so yes consent is important. Is it the magic bullet? Of course not. Women need to be heard. To be believed. To know that what is being perpetuated is wrong. And then together, men and women, side by side, as equals, can seek to correct a very huge imbalance of power. Perhaps the biggest question is, are men willing to share or even surrender their power to make space for women, for it will only be then that women will start to feel safe.

I pray that such radical change can happen before Christ returns, but we can be assured that God’s Kingdom will be very different to our earthly one.

Penny Mulvey is Chief Communications Officer of Bible Society Australia.