Joan Smith: Let's ditch this pornographic ideology

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A couple of months ago, during a radio discussion on prostitution, I was amused to find myself accused of trying to stop men having sex. I mean, for god's sake - it's about as convincing as claiming that people who don't like sweatshops are anti-shopping; I love clothes, but that doesn't mean I want to wear a dress made by children working 12-hour shifts in a factory in south-east Asia.

I explained patiently that I'm not against sex, far from it, but I am opposed to all forms of sexual abuse. And I don't happen to think that men paying to have sex with teenage runaways in cars or with Romanian sex slaves in seedy massage parlours in Birmingham comes under the heading of good clean fun.

I feel the same about rape, which is why I'm delighted by the Government's hard-hitting campaign, launched earlier this week, to warn young men that having sex without first getting consent may result in a prison sentence. One of the adverts shows the lower half of a woman's body, with a no-entry sign on her briefs. Another has a middle-aged man sitting glumly on the top bunk of a bed in a prison cell above the slogan: "If you don't get a 'yes' before sex, who'll be your next sleeping partner?"

The campaign started running on radio stations a couple of days ago and next week the ads will begin to appear in lads' mags and the gay press, as well as in nightclub lavatories. It's one of those rare occasions when I can't fault the Home Office - except, I suppose, for being over-optimistic about the chances of anyone being convicted of rape in this country, which are abysmally low.

That won't stop ministers being denounced as killjoys, which may be why one of them, Fiona Mactaggart, emphasised earlier this week that the message isn't that people shouldn't have sex. Mactaggart understands the danger of being misrepresented after her remarks about cracking down on kerb crawlers at the end of last year were wrongly reported as a move against prostitutes. "It is about ensuring that sex is mutually agreed," she insisted, launching the anti-rape campaign.

Such a message shouldn't even be controversial. Until very recently, the Tories espoused a family-values rhetoric based on an unappealing combination of puritanism and hypocrisy which often blew up in their faces, as the death of John Profumo reminded us last week. But Labour is relaxed about sex, passing legislation (for instance) that allows gay and lesbian couples to form civil partnerships.

What Home Office ministers are getting tough on is exploitation and coercion, whether it's in the form of street prostitution, trafficking or sexual violence. "For a long time," Mactaggart says, "work to raise awareness of sexual violence has focused on the need for women to take responsibility for their personal safety. That is still important, but I believe that we need to start putting the onus on to men and make them aware of their responsibilities."

What this means, for the thousands of British men who use brothels and massage parlours, is that they have a duty to tell the police if they suspect a woman has been trafficked or face the consequences, which may include being charged with rape.

As the new Home Office campaign suggests, it also means - duh! - that men have to be certain that a prospective sexual partner really wants to have sex with them before going ahead. How difficult is that? I've heard all the moans about the fun being taken out of sex or having to produce consent forms to avoid trouble, but I'm sure most adults won't find it too onerous.

The problem, in the case of men who either can't be bothered or don't care, is that we live in an atmosphere where there has come to be a general assumption of consent. This, I think, is what lies behind some of the rape allegations against professional footballers, most of them dismissed without charge but occurring frequently enough to suggest that something unpleasant is going on. The young men who are the target audience of the Home Office ads live in a misogynist, lads'-mag culture, predicated on the fantasy that all women are young, voluptuous and available.

Popular culture is saturated with images of women that worry me not because they're naked - I like my body and wish more women felt the same, instead of being in a perpetual state of anxiety - but because they've migrated from commercial pornography. It's one of the negative consequences of the 1960s sexual revolution, which was always double-edged for women, freeing us to explore our sexuality in a way which was heady and exciting but simultaneously validating grossly exploitative attitudes to women and girls.

I'm not arguing that all men are rapists (if you think I am, it's time you grew up about feminism, frankly), but I do believe that the result is a libertine, rather than a liberated, culture. Whatever the law says, we now have a situation in which the burden is on women to prove that they didn't want sex, unless they happen to be 85-year-old widows who've been raped in their homes.

When cases do get to court, juries are reluctant to convict, listening sympathetically to defendants who claim they believed a woman wanted sex even in circumstances where the proposition is self-evidently preposterous. A modern version of the parable of the Good Samaritan, I sometimes think, would involve a man finding a woman lying by the wayside, wondering what to do for the best and deciding that what she'd really like is for him to have sex with her.

This is a very serious problem, and it's getting worse. The police recorded 60,900 sexual offences in England and Wales in the 12 months to March 2005, an increase of 17 per cent, and there is wide agreement that it does not represent the true total of sex crime.

Most women feel unprotected by the law, to the point where I've heard a woman barrister say she would be reluctant to tell the police if she was raped, so poor is the prospect of getting a conviction. I'm always surprised that this state of affairs isn't recognised for what it is, a scandalous failure on the part of the judicial system to protect women and girls; but it's clear that changes in the law, while welcome, can only do so much.

What is urgently needed is a shift in attitudes away from the pornographic ideology that all men have a right to sex and all women are hot for it, regardless of the circumstances.

The most important right, for both sexes in fact, is to be free to enjoy sex without the threat of violence. Full marks to the Government then, for finally confronting the fact that a laddish culture, far from being a post-modern joke, is one that allows rapists to flourish.