What do Carrie Bradshaw and the State Government have in common?
Not, so far as I know, a shoe collection to make Imelda Marcos appear restrained.
Nor do they share a penchant for falling into bed with inappropriate men. Not habitually, anyway.
The thing Bradshaw and the Government have in common is that they’ve both been thinking lately about the issue of consent.
Bradshaw — the fictional star of Sex and the City spin-off And Just Like That… — complained in a recent episode about a potential love interest unromantically asking if he could kiss her, instead of just doing it. A spontaneous smooch from another man, in contrast, is played as more swoon, less contracts-at-five-paces.
The WA Government has not been kissing strange men but it has been asking questions about whether we all need to be asking questions before jumping into bed.
As revealed by The West Australian, the Government has ordered reviews into the State’s sexual assault laws. The reviews will look at a bunch of things, including whether to criminalise the act of removing a condom without a partner’s consent and whether we need affirmative consent laws.
Affirmative consent laws typically mean that a prospective sex partner needs to do or say something to show they want to have sex for it to be consensual. It’s an acknowledgement that victims can “freeze” during a sexual assault, meaning they’re not in a position to physical or verbally resist.
Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins and former Australian of the Year Grace Tame — last seen with flamethrowers in hand at the National Press Club — are among those to have voiced support for affirmative consent laws. NSW has them and Bills have been introduced in Victoria and the ACT.
The reason this column opened with Bradshaw, whose former on-screen husband has been accused of sexual assault in real life, is that it’s not just laws that need to change: it’s society’s attitudes.
And those attitudes, whether we want to admit it or not, are hugely shaped by the TV shows, movies, books and music that we consume.
The time has come for pop culture to lift its game and stop treating conversations about consent as romance-killers, glamorising stalking and blind-drunk hook-ups and generally implying that asking to kiss someone is akin to throwing a bucket of ice water on their genitals.
The problem with rape culture is the problem of the frog in the pot of water being slowly cooked alive: it’s very hard to recognise when it’s all around you.
A culture of on-screen romance that suggests men just need to try harder if the woman’s not interested, that stalking is OK if it’s true love and that first kisses should always be a surprise, is the thin end of a very big wedge.
The examples are many.
The Twilight book and film series somewhat famously involve an elderly vampire breaking into the bedroom of the girl he likes in order to watch her sleep. Later, he prevents her from leaving the house because he fears she’s in danger. But he’s hot and he loves her, so it’s fine.
Basic Instinct and Blade Runner are two classic films that feature sex scenes played straight at the time but which read, to modern audiences, less like titillating good times and more like sexual assault.
Popular TV shows Pretty Little Liars and Dawson’s Creek both portray statutory rape by schoolteachers as romantic. The age and power dynamic is represented as a tragic obstacle and not, say, a reason to call the cops.
Nor has the music industry covered itself in glory, from Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines, which is exactly as rapey as it sounds, to the creep-show of a Christmas carol, Baby It’s Cold Outside (“Say, what’s in this drink?”).
There are exceptions and, encouragingly, some are aimed at young people, suggesting that society’s future leaders might be raised with a more healthy idea of what consent looks like.
The 2020 film, Promising Young Woman, in which a stone cold sober woman acts too drunk to consent to sex only to turn the tables on the men who take her home anyway, should be mandatory viewing for high-school students.
Even the romance in Disney’s smash hit Frozen, which culminates in a big showy kiss, is a true teachable moment. The hero doesn’t just plant one on the heroine: he asks if that’s OK before she kisses him by way of an answer.
Now, that’s romantic.