Letter: Do we need a 'social compass' to plot sexual signals?

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Sir: I disagree with Katie Roiphe's assertion that the current discussions about acquaintance rape and verbal sexual coercion mark a return to the 'denial of female sexual agency' and the portrayal of women as delicate and easily offended as in the Fifties ('No means no. But what does rape mean?', 21 August).

It is sadly true that the use of 'rape' to describe an increasingly broad range of unwelcome sexual behaviour may for some detract from the seriousness of an accusation of rape as it stands in law. However, I would not like to see women or men denied this means of speaking out against whatever they perceive as threatening, coercive or unacceptable in their personal lives.

When I hear and read complaints about dirty jokes, sexual coercion or harassment I don't see 'endless images of women as victims', the 'delicate female' of the Fifties. Instead, I see images of women trying to take some control of their sexual lives; using, rather than denying, their female sexual agency.

My 50-year-old mother agrees that in the Fifties there was 'a definite social compass' to guide her through dating. But she prefers my changing and sometimes blurred map; this at least includes the possibility of a specific and definite 'yes' or 'no' to sex, and doesn't restrict me to the endless rules of 'maybe'.

I appreciate the concerns of those who fear that increasing cries of rape or harassment may result in a backlash, or define women forever as overtly sensitive and nave. But I doubt that this is more likely to put women back 40 years than questioning or denying their right to protest in this way.

Ms Roiphe suggests that by encouraging and supporting the woman who dares to stand up to say 'I have been raped' we risk promoting women as overpowered, delicate and intimidated. On the contrary, I believe it is by offering support and legitimacy to women who thus speak out against such intimidation that we affirm the assumption of their 'basic competence, free will and strength of character'.

Yours faithfully,



22 August