Monday 20 May 2019

We need to talk about boundaries, consent and respect

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

It has been a bad few weeks for the way the issue of consent is perceived by men and women. 

  • A seasoned Maltese actor and household name was found guilty of violent indecent assault on an aspiring actress, and received a suspended sentence.
  • A world famous footballer was accused of allegedly raping a woman in 2009 in Las Vegas.  
  • An American judge was nominated to the US Supreme Court after allegations that he had sexually assaulted a young woman in high school were not proven and he was sworn in anyway (a seat which he will hold for life).
  • A Maltese priest who was well-known in the voluntary sector was acquitted for sexually abusing a vulnerable person, with the Appeals court overturning a previous guilty verdict and ruling that it was consensual.

When the John Suda story first came out I distinctly remember one well-known actress who worked with him publicly disassociating herself from his claims, saying it’s not true that the way he auditioned the young woman, asking her to strip naked, is “normal” practice. He obviously chose those who were just starting out who were easy prey.  As for those clamouring for other young women to come forward, it is not that easy, especially when you see the snide remarks by those with vicious tongues. This woman who went to the police is exceptionally brave. There was a wave of dismay by some who felt the suspended sentence handed down, by a female Magistrate at that, was an insult. However after having thought about it I realized that she probably gave Suda the most fitting sentence of all. Rather than jail, he has to walk around in society where everyone knows what he did, which is probably the most appropriate penalty of all in gossipy Malta.  Whether they laugh at him, making him the subject of endless jokes and one-liners, or whether they turn their faces away with disgust every time he passes by, he is going to have to live with this social opprobrium and mockery for the rest of his life. 

The debate about what constitutes a just sentence in such cases continues.  What I feel is definitely needed is more information provided by legal experts to the public on the parameters of the law within which Magistrates have to operate, and indeed an explanation of the laws themselves.  How do members of the judiciary come to their decisions based on the way the defence and the prosecution present their case and their evidence, including the testimony of witnesses?  Whenever a verdict becomes public, especially in these type of sensitive cases, there is almost always outrage as many people claim that the sentence was not harsh enough and there are invariably demands for our laws to have a complete overhaul and be changed, with harsher penalties.  It would therefore not be amiss to address whether this outrage is justified, or whether laypersons are completely out of their depth because they do not understand how the law works.  Rather than playing judge and jury on Facebook, perhaps we all need to take a breath and be better informed.

In each situation mentioned above, there was an element of ‘he said, she said’, and in each case, the legal proceedings and investigations have led to decisions which have opened up a much wider, contentious debate on the thorny topic of where does consent stop and sexual assault and rape begin.  It has lifted the lid on just how differently all of us view what is acceptable and what is not; and when I say all of us, I do not necessarily mean that the two genders are split down the middle.  You find women who absolutely do not believe the woman making the allegations and speak of her with scorn and disdain (“why did she go into the room?”, “Why did she take her clothes off”, “She probably provoked him herself”) but you also find men who come out guns blazing against the man who has been accused.   There is an ongoing war of words, with lines drawn, and many flatly refusing to contemplate that the other side just might have a point. 

In the US, for example, women are furious because the Republicans have turned the Kevenaugh hearings on their head, saying that “they are worried about their sons” who might be accused some time in the future of having sexually assaulted a girl.   “None of them seem to be worried about their daughters though”, a few commentators pointed out.   

It is a valid point, and one which parents everywhere need to talk about with their teenage children: what constitutes consent? What if a girl agrees to have sex with you but then changes her mind? Does the guy have the right to go ahead anyway just because she agreed to go into a hotel room, or his bedroom in the first place?  Both boys and girls should be taught about learning boundaries, and instilling mutual respect. Consent for me means that both parties are willing participants at all times, especially if there are drugs or alcohol involved which might impair consciousness. Taking advantage of someone who is completely drunk or stoned is not consent. And if, as a man you see that the woman looks terrified of you, I think that it is a pretty clear sign that you should stop.  

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