Jamie Heckert (guest blogger)
Lambeth Council in London is attempting to address sexual violence committed by men with a website and poster campaign: Know the difference.
While the council might be appreciated for encouraging men to take responsibility for their behaviour, the campaign is full of contradictions that I fear will undermine that intention. The posters try to draw a very neat line between good and bad sexual behaviour – the difference between “back to mine” and “back off” or between “get it on” and “get off me”. They then go on to say, “Real men know the difference. And so does the law.” The difference, of course, is between consensual and nonconsensual, between desired and undesired, between playful and harassing.
But does the law really know the difference? The basis of the state is a social contract to which we are deemed to have already given our consent. Consent here means to put up with rather than to actually desire . We aren’t asked our desires (other than to vote for very limited options every 4-5 years). If law assumes that we consent to its authority without caring about the complexity of our desires, how can it possibly “know the difference”? If the law is the role model for “real men”, it doesn’t surprise me that we still see so much sexual violence in our culture. Sex, we might hope, takes place between free and equal people choosing together to make it happen. State law, on the other hand, is imposed by a small group and enforced by another. It is neither free nor equal.
Likewise, while the law may try to present itself as cut and dried, as good versus evil, as order versus chaos, the reality doesn’t seem so clear.
For example, the government is currently attempting to impose an austerity regime upon the people of the UK without our explicit consent. People are taking to the streets to demonstrate that we do not give our consent to these choices made on our behalf. Much like the ongoing war in Iraq, this assault on public services, including universities, is not made in our name. Of course, police and politicians might say, students and others have a democratic right to protest. And the legal way to go about this is to ask permission from the police in advance. From the start, any expression of disagreement with the laws made in our name is viewed with distrust and protestors are presumed to be criminals until proven innocent (which means, of course, obedient). The police use any disobedience to justify kettling protestors. When the protestors said, “back off” or “get off me”, many were ignored and some were beaten. Then the protestors are blamed for violence in much the same way that some women are said to “be asking for it” and blamed for the violence committed against them.
When police themselves want to act very differently from that, they themselves are policed. Just over a year ago, Thames Valley officers were reprimanded for using their riot shields for sledging whilst on duty. They got in trouble for being playful, for being human instead of being real police. Their job, after all, is to act as a symbol of authority, of law and order.
Law as we know it attempts to individualise culpability for violence in a militarised culture. I can understand the violence of police and others. No one acts on their own; we are all part of a larger cultural pattern of domination, of getting other people to do what you or I want them to do, of ignoring your own conscience, of forgetting how to live, work and play cooperatively with others.
Knowing the difference between desired and undesired sex involves capacities not usually associated with either manliness or stateliness. It requires slowing down and really being aware of another’s emotions and desires. It requires setting aside ego and the desire to succeed, to score, to be in control. And it requires listening carefully and compassionately to one’s own desires and to accept that they do not all have to be fulfilled. To stop sexual harassment and violence, we need a culture where people feel free to say yes, no or maybe to any relationship – sexual, economic or political. To nurture our social development in this direction, men, women and everyone else need compassion and space to practice.
 For more on this, see Wendy Brown’s (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity