Sorting out the rules of engagement: Feminism and the students' mating game

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The Independent Online
TWO TEENAGE girls in flimsy smocks, thick tights and de rigueur Doc Marten boots swayed alone on the dance floor to the first live band of the evening. A 100-strong crowd, mainly male, stood around in the dark, drinking and watching.

A few weeks into term, it was the first post-Freshers Week event of the academic year at London University Union.

'The first week is fuck-a-fresher week,' said Thomas Harding, 24, a third-year history student, laying bare the preliminary stages of campus mating rituals. 'But three weeks into term is the best time to shark in on them. Maybe no one has asked them out yet.'

For freshers - male and female - trying to decipher the rules of engagement can be a problem. Last week, Austen Donnellan, 21, a graduate of the university's King's College, went on trial at the Old Bailey accused of the rape of a female fellow student after a drunken Christmas party. He denies the charge.

The case has revived debate over the mating game. If students at the freshers' party were confused by signals given by the opposite sex, it does not surprise Liz Llewellyn, 22, editor of the London Student newspaper and veteran of the student scene. The university mating game had been fundamentally altered by two decades of feminism, she said. Most senior students were still trying to make sense of it.

'There is a lot of free sex,' Ms Llewellyn said. 'Parents aren't around. You can spend 24 hours a day together if you like, so relationships don't last that long. They can burn out in a week.'

She and her friend Zara Abdulla, 20, said that their mothers would not have gone near a bedroom unless they were prepared to have full sexual intercourse. But both agreed that today, naked heavy petting was no green light to penetration. Ms Llewellyn said that actual intercourse was often 'crap' and sex without penetration was now common.

'From a feminist point of view, going to bed and not having sex is very right-on,' she said. 'That's liberation, isn't it - being able to say no at any point? But it is new. It is something your parents don't understand.

'It is not necessary for a woman to make it clear before she goes to bed that there will be no penetration. You can say no at any point. We have rejected all that stuff about men dying if they don't have intercourse, or that their willies will fall off. It is insulting to men to regard them as uncontrollable beasts who cannot stop beyond a certain point. The bottom line is that no means no.'

Women could still be making up their mind about penetration while foreplay took place, she argued. Unfortunately, not only parents' attitudes were lagging. Male students, she admitted, were sometimes unaware that the game and the rules had changed.

Ms Abdulla said partners must be chosen with care. 'From talking to men, I know that it is different for them. It is much less grey. They either want sex or they don't'

And the males admit that they see things differently. In Mr Harding's experience, no does not always mean no. He believes the word is sometimes an integral part of seduction. 'I have slept with women who said they did not want to have sex but I have persuaded them.'

His friend Matt Hanson, 22, said 'no'was part of the female's 'complicated' sexual psychology. 'Girls are conditioned not to appear loose, so persuasion is all part of the game.' Drink influenced more than 80 per cent of encounters and further complicated the issue. 'I have had sex with a girl I didn't really want because I was drunk. I regretted it.'

Jerome Huxley, 23, a third-year English student, said he would regard lying naked in bed with a woman as a strong sign that sex was on the cards. But he knew men and women spoke different languages.

He said: 'Ihave been in a situation where it seemed obvious to me that a girl wanted to have sex. But after two hours of conversation with me she changed her mind. I have also read it wrong the other way. One girlfriend said she had been giving signals for weeks but I had not spotted them.

'You get so paranoid that nothing short of a girl lying naked on the bed, with her legs wide open, shouting 'Come on' will do. The confusing thing is you are expected to do the chasing and to show commitment by being persistent and taking a few knockbacks.'

In the United States, campuses are drawing up 'politically correct' solutions to the problem. At Antioch College, Ohio, there is now a stringent written policy on 'date rape', a phenomenon named in 1985 by Mary Koss, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, which led to claims that one in four US students had been raped.

Antioch's policy demands that 'verbal consent be obtained with each new level of physical and/or sexual contact or conduct in any giveninteraction, regardless of who initiates it'. At each stage there must be no attempt to sweet-talk.

The widest definitions of date rape include 'verbal coercion' or old-fashioned persuasion. This may seem a ludicrously mechanical way to regulate male-female relations but quite rational if you agree with Andrea Dworkin, the influential American feminist, that 'romance is rape embellished with meaningful looks'.

Patricia Gillan, a consultant psychologist with 30 years' experience in sex therapy, believes that modern sexual relations are far more complicated than US solutions suggest.

She claims that women in their twenties - conditioned by the 'chilling effect' of Aids and the power of feminism - now have fundamentally different attitudes from middle-aged women. 'Today, women expect to be able to be petted or touched without penetration. Many women don't get anything out of penetration and the research shows only 10 per cent of women get an orgasm that way. Most want clitoral stimulation.

'But my clients in their forties and fifties believe you go to bed to please a man. To them, bed means penetration, so they would remain sitting on the sofa.'

Dr Gillan thinks it is reasonable for a woman to go to bed and stop short of intercourse, but she is sympathetic to 'confused' young men. 'Men get excited and they think women want penetration because it is what they want. Often it is not a matter of a crime being committed but of profound misunderstanding.

'Unfortunately you don't sit down and analyse sex before you do it - that is considered to kill off the romance.' Dr Gillan considers herself a feminist. 'But men and women are different sexually and some feminist notions of sex don't take that into consideration.'

For Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, there are no grey areas when it comes to rape. 'Date rape is no different from rape rape. It is always a question of consent.'

Jane Harvey, a barrister with the legal campaign group Rights of Women, is equally unforgiving of male 'excuses'. 'Women have a right to say no to anything at any time. Consent is the crucial legal point. There is nothing unfair about that position.' The problem for rape victims, she said, was that judges were out of touch with social trends.

Back at London University Union, things are a mite more grey. Adam Barr, 19, a first-year student of Japanese, believes that most of the first-year males who have bedded someone have not had intercourse. But there are already disputes. 'One friend spent the night in a girl's room. Next day she was saying he had pounced on her and he was saying she was crazy about him and had locked all the bedroom doors.'

The university's sex advice is confined to health issues. Students say condoms are 'thrown at them'. According to Dr Gillan, just as much effort must be directed at educating young people about the intricacies of modern male-female relations.

While Ms Llewellyn maintains that no is always no, she recognises current complications. 'I have let sex happen. I was younger, more submissive and inexperienced. It was not seduction but it was not date rape. To call everything rape is to devalue what it really is.'

Ms Abdulla said it was dangerous to absolve women of all responsibility for what happens in a sexual situation, and the excesses of the US campus were unappealing. 'These people are not seeing women in the same light as men. They regard them as weaker and marshmallow-brained. It is just another form of sexism.'

(Photograph omitted)

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