All freshers and new undergraduates attending Oxford and Cambridge universities are to be given compulsory “sexual consent” lessons. The objective – launched by the National Union of Students – is to prevent rape and halt sexual harassment. It is also an attempt to stamp out the “lad culture”. The students are to be taught that when it comes to sexual engagement of any kind, “No means no”.

This isn’t entirely a new idea. In fact, the Catholic Church was supporting something similar in the 16th century when Baldassare Castiglione, Count of Casatico, published his Book of the Courtier in 1528.

This is a codification of the concept of gallantry and chivalry, and was intended to refine the “rougher” manners of men – what you might call the lad culture of the Renaissance. Being courteous and considerate to women, treating all women as ladies, was central to Castiglione’s code.

The Church even broadened this out to say that a Christian man treats all ladies with respect in the name of Our Lady.

Believe it or not, the Irish Christian Brothers – more famous for being fierce with the cane than with courtly ways – were teaching a version of Castiglione’s code right up until the middle 1950s. They distributed a little book called Politeness for Boys which contained extensive instructions on “showing proper respect for ladies”. It’s pretty antiquated by now – it would be considered a right laugh, indeed – and it’s quaint to think of lads from a Dublin slum being told they must always “remove your hat when you enter the compartment of a lift in which there are ladies”. Still, if you treat a lad like a gentleman, he is more likely to aspire to behaving like one.

Circumstances have changed radically and some Oxbridge students regard the “consent” programme as patronising. And I think there may also be some crossed wires when it comes to cultural differences. In business, the French say “No” even when they mean “Yes”, and the Japanese say “Yes” even when they emphatically mean “No”.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection