From the opening sequence, I knew. I knew Ellie had been raped. I watched the whole episode with an undercurrent of fear and dread, my heart was beating fast but it was beating fast in someone else's body. I noticed I was disassociating, detatching, disconnecting. The way I have learned to protect myself from my scars, the way I am consciously trying to unlearn how to protect myself, every day.
As the episode unfolded I was in awe at what the Hollyoaks team are doing, tackling head on the issue of consent. I shouldn't be surprised; I'm of the generation that watched the Luke Morgan rape 16 years ago, and before that, Mandy Richardson taking on her father in the courts for child sexual abuse. Hollyoaks has been pushing forward the discussion about rape for a very long time and has never shied away from shining a light on the real world.
The facts: Ellie was drinking, a lot. She voluntarily kissed Nick. She voluntarily took him home with her. He said, "you're wasted." She said, "I'm so drunk." Next day, Nick seemed genuinely unaware that she was traumatised, or even just distant and upset. From watching, I don't believe that he knows he's a rapist. I think he is going to be surprised when he is faced with that word to describe what he did. He thinks a rapist is a monster, and he is going to struggle with identifying as such.
Nick raped Ellie. It is irrelevant that she kissed him, or invited him into her bedroom. She couldn't stand up, she was talking nonsense about pandas, she turned away from him. The next day, she couldn't remember what had happened. If someone is not enthusiastically demonstrating with their words, their body language, their actions, that they are consenting to sex, then they are not consenting to sex. There is no such thing as mixed signals. If you think the signals could be mixed, then you have not established consent. End of.
One way of looking at what happened would be to say, oh, he made a mistake. He had been drinking too, his decision-making powers were also diminished by the drink, it was a mistake, he's sorry. In fact, he could be mortified. It won't change the impact on Ellie. A drunken mistake for Nick, can equal a life-time of pain for Ellie. I hope Ellie gets the support she'll need to minimise the impact on her, and help her live a full life despite this.
I was drunk. I drank a lot. Like Ellie, I don't remember getting home. I don't remember everything that happened. In fact, the morning after, I was in total denial about what happened, putting it down to drinking, blaming myself, not naming it for what it was. She might not remember everything now, but flashbacks might happen. The flashbacks during the day will send her into panic. The flashbacks at night, in her dreams, will make her fear sleep. If she sleeps at all, it'll be with the light on. She feels violated. She feels that her body doesn't belong to her, that her autonomy was ripped away. She'll feel shame, she'll feel that she was to blame for this, at least in part. She wasn't to blame, in any way. She'll be very confused as to how this could have happened. She'll distrust others, she will fear being blamed and shamed by others too. I hope her friends support her and believe her and don't question if she's sure, like some of mine did. She might hide away and retreat from the world; or she might become the archetypal party animal, sleeping around, just to prove to herself she can be in control. She might fill the hole in her soul with food, or she might deny herself instead. She will find ways to numb her pain, through alcohol, drugs, sex, food, retreat, attack. I know I did. Her life will be changed. A mistake in one night for Nick has longstanding repercussions for Ellie. The price for a mistake is not paid by the man who makes it.
The accompanying documentary that Channel 4 and the Hollyoaks team have released is also difficult viewing. It shows how common not understanding consent basics is. And that's truly frightening. Some of the young people in the focus group recognised just from the case study that drunkenness meant consent wasn't present. But some of them believed it was just something that would happen. The number of times the young people in that focus group said, this is real, this happens a lot, you think of it as, I was drunk, I was stupid. That's so heart breaking. Hearing the girls blame themselves for what has obviously been something they've experienced too. Hearing the boys excuse Nick and wondering if they're thinking of their own actions too. No-one used the word rape in the documentary, it was only used to explain consent in the closing credits.
It was interesting that it was said the casting of Nick was to ensure he was someone "every guy can relate to." Every guy needs to know they could become Nick. They might not be monsters, but their actions could become monstrous if they do not pay respect to the concept of consent. There are no mixed signals. You either have consent, or you don't. I believe that there are some rapists who do not care about consent - they will take what they want without care for right or wrong. But I also believe that there are some rapists who would be devastated to learn that they are a rapist - that they are the monster. I believe that these men can be educated out of rape. And that is why it's so important to raise the level of conversation in society about consent, and rape. It's why there should be SRE taught in every school, and why consent should be on the curriculum. It's why it's so important that Hollyoaks are doing this, and working with Rape Crisis and The Mix.
Every year, 85,000 women are raped in this country. Some may move on fairly easily, that's not unheard of, but even those that don't develop full-blown PTSD will be changed. I work with women who are still carrying the burden. For some, that's still very raw, with panic attacks to keep at bay. For others, it's never wanting to look in the mirror, to see themselves, despite decades later, outwardly living a life as a wife, a mother, as a successful professional. We are changed by rape; for many it feels like a life sentence. It doesn't have to be. Through the ReConnected Life Experience, I help survivors shed self-blame and shame, and live a full, connected, whole, life again - from merely surviving, to living. The free ReConnected Life Community is where you can get the support of others who know, who understand, who will hold space for you and be your strength when you need it. Join us, and take the first step in the recovery path.
Emily Jacob is the founder of ReConnected Life, a pioneering whole body/mind/self approach to recovery after rape. You can link with her on Twitter here, and follow the Facebook book page here. If you'd like to support Emily's work to offer pro bono help to those who need it, you can donate here.