In the distant past, perhaps twenty years ago, the world was very different, almost unknowable. Old TV ads on YouTube are a revelation, and less laborious than making a trip to the Natural History Museum in London to see dinosaur bones.
One of the most startling ads is for Impulse Body Spray, popular throughout the 1980s. An early one, by Ogilvy & Mather, shows a young man in a bookshop spotting a pretty woman (they were seen in that binary way back then), then rushing to buy some flowers. He pursues her, wielding the bunch like a weapon, and thrusts them at her.
Most puzzlingly to our modern eyes, the victim of this ‘micro-aggression’ looks delighted. A voice-over explains: ‘When a man you’ve never met before suddenly gives you flowers, that’s Impulse . . . men just can’t help acting on it.’
In another, an unfeasibly handsome white male can be seen doing the same: assaulting a young woman in the street with a bunch of flowers, yet – extraordinarily to our eyes – he is not arrested and charged with assault. The victims all look bemused for a moment and then pleased. Today, realising that their lives had been ruined, they would call the police.
In August 2016, a woman did just that after William Freeman, 58, an ex-company director from Warwick, put his arm around her and recklessly kissed her on her shoulder, neck and back of her head, without her consent, when they were on a roof looking at a wasps’ nest. Not pleased, she pulled away and he apologised.
After talking to her sister and partner about the incident she reported him to the police, and he was arrested and charged with sexual assault. He originally denied the charge but changed his plea to guilty on the first day of his trial.
Earlier this month, Judge Sylvia de Bertodano noted at Warwick Crown Court that Mr Freeman had committed no previous misdemeanours, not even a parking offence, and had not committed any more crimes whilst waiting eighteen long months to go to court. But she said she could not ‘belittle his crime’ and said: ‘This was an impulsive act. You have had a very serious lesson taught to you. You do not make advances towards women who don’t want you to. I am glad you have accepted today your responsibility for this, rather than putting this lady through a trial.
‘It is difficult to know what to say to someone like you. I don’t know what was going through your mind, and I don’t suppose you do either.’
Prosecutor Bernard Linnemann said the incident had caused the woman ‘a great deal of hardship’, that she is now having counselling and living ‘a life of avoidance’ when she is out because she is worried about seeing Freeman.
He was given a 12-month conditional discharge and put on the sex offenders’ register. No doubt many people would think his victim should have been spared further suffering by his getting a good long stretch behind bars.
By acting on impulse in that dreadful way, without gaining the woman’s consent before he kissed her, Mr Freeman’s whole life and that of his family has been changed for ever. After a trip to look at wasps, he now finds himself joining 29,000 other criminal perverts, including the worst convicted paedophiles and child murderers in the country, on the Violent and Sex Offender Register.
This list, set up in 1997, when our society was beginning to worry much more about paedophilia, is run by the police and contains the details of anyone convicted, cautioned or released from prison for a sexual offence against children or adults. It was tightened up in 2003 along with the Sexual Offences Act to include a much wider definition of consent.
Freeman had to register with the police within three days of his conviction, to be photographed and give his full name, address, date of birth, NI number, bank and passport details. Visited by Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements Officers, he would have provided his internet service provider details, car registration and telephone numbers.
He must inform the police within three days if he changes his name or address or spends seven days or more away from home. If he and his wife decide to take a holiday, he will have to give them his date of departure, destination country, point of arrival, carrier, accommodation details, and date of return to UK. I doubt if they will bother.
All his details are now on a national computer database. No more damaging impulses for Mr Freeman as from now on his every movement will be watched and checked. He will never be able to work with or have contact with children. Head teachers, doctors, youth leaders, sports club managers and others are notified of the local presence of a sex offender on a confidential basis, but he will never be sure who in his community has those details.
A life has been ruined and a severe penalty had to be paid. If you are one of those old-fashioned people, probably still using ‘old media’ and wearing Brut aftershave, you might have trouble working out which life was destroyed, and where justice and common sense lay in this case. If you have doubts like that, it shows that you have not yet embraced the new culture of consent.
In the US, where these forward-thinking ideas often originate, academics, feminists and writers and soon, no doubt, law-makers are discussing ‘hard ethical sex’ where consent must be gained not just at the start of sex but right the way through, from the pizza to the post-coital cigarette.
The idea of a man (or transgendered person) giving flowers or anything else to a woman (or transgendered other) without permission are over. Sexual opportunism, even at the basic level of flirting, is of the past. Perhaps sex itself, at least as a frivolous recreation, is over. Control those impulses, or there could be highly unromantic consequences for you and your family.