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To Prevent Rape We Need To Rethink How We Do Sex

13/11/2016 17:39
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Five years ago, I was raped while a student at the University of Oxford. The day after, hungover and in shock, I sat down with a friend to try to find out what I could do: who I could talk to, what support I could access, how I could deal with the aftermath while trying to continue my studies. To our complete and utter surprise, we found absolutely nothing on the University website concerning sexual violence. My friend was from America, where universities had been engaging with the issue of sexual violence for years. I am from New Zealand, and remember seeing stickers and posters about sexual consent plastered across the campus when I was an undergrad. But in 2011, the UK didn't seem to be talking about it.

It was about the same time that the National Union of Students had identified the same problem, and started to campaign about sexual violence on campuses. And this year, half a decade later, we finally have recognition from Universities UK that universities have human rights and equality law duties to their students to address sexual violence on their campuses. It's an amazing step forward, and those of us campaigning have our fingers firmly crossed that universities will rise to the challenge, prioritising (and funding) preventive measures and better support services for those affected by sexual violence. But, the responsibility does not just lie with universities.

During my five years campaigning, I have come to the conclusion that the most important thing that needs to happen is a shift in our cultural attitudes toward women and sex. Improved laws, better university policies, all of these things can help, but without broader changes in culture, we will always be fighting a losing battle. One-hour consent workshops are a start, but are hardly going to overthrow a lifetime's learning of sexual and gender narratives. We need as student communities to be having open conversations about sex and consent all the time, not just in freshers' week. We need to be bold enough to challenge our peers when they don't quite get things right. We need to be brave enough to ask questions when we don't quite understand.

And one of the most important aspects of sex that we need to be talking about is its relationship with drinking. It's a topic that's almost been taboo amongst campaigners on sexual violence, for fear that talking about drink will inevitably lead to victim-blaming. "Why was she so drunk?" Or that it will lead to excuse-making. "Well, he was drunk too." But we cannot afford to avoid the topic. Alcohol is a factor in so many instances of sexual violence on campuses. And our hook-up culture normalises sexual practices that are at best high-risk and, at worst, sexual offences. It's an uncomfortable truth we need to face. And if what I just said doesn't ring true for you, perhaps you don't understand consent as well as you thought. It is your duty to educate yourself, and then to educate others.

So, just in case, let's get technical for a second. Here are the basics on sex and drink.

A person can only consent to sex if they have the freedom and capacity to choose to have sex (this is in the Sexual Offences Act 2003). If they are very drunk, they might not have capacity to make this choice. It will always be a matter of degree. You can consent when drunk. But, at some point, a person becomes too drunk to consent - they lose capacity. And they can lose capacity well before they pass out (this is in the Court of Appeal decision of R v Bree). This means that if someone is very drunk - maybe they are sick, they are disorientated, they are having trouble walking - they might lack capacity to consent. In many cases, both people will have been drinking. In determining whether a sexual offence has occurred, it will always be a question, then, of whether or not each person had capacity to consent. If one person is so drunk they lack capacity to have sex, then they will be the victim. The person having sex with them might be drunk, but if they have not also lost capacity, then they will be the perpetrator. It is no defence to a sexual offence that you were also drunk.

All of this means that if you have sex with someone who is very drunk, you might be raping them. This is not a risk you should ever take. And yet, it is a risk people take regularly. It is normal to have sex while hammered. This needs to change, and university administrators cannot change this for us. We need as a community to challenge these norms, and to collectively rethink how we do sex.

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