I like my tea like I like my similes - hot, not too milky, and ill-thought through. On the other hand, I don't like my tea to be likened to sexual consent. Because it isn't. Last year a campaign involving Britain's favourite hot beverage wanted to make it clear that sexual consent is very straightforward. That you wouldn't force someone to drink tea who had said they didn't want a cup. Nor would you pour tea down someone's throat who was so drunk they couldn't function.
Simples... now, who wants a cup of tea?
But it isn't that straightforward. When bedroom doors are closed, it can sometimes be decidedly un-straightforward. The tea analogy doesn't cover all the things that make the debate around consent a very real one - power imbalances, age differences, capacity, whether someone genuinely believes there was consent. Reducing this heady cocktail of factors down to a simple cup of hot tea does a disservice to men and women who are genuinely confused about whether what happened to them was rape.
"No" always means "no". Of course it does - but that is only the beginning of the conversation. By setting up consent as so clear cut, we then imply that anything less than a clear "no" isn't clear enough. For me, the biggest problem with the current limited debate around consent - the over simplification and binary nature of the discussion - is that it creates a hierarchy of victims. If the victim shouted "No!" but was raped, is she more of a victim than if she didn't say "no" because she lacked the capacity to do so? Or didn't understand what she was consenting to? Or didn't know that she could say "no"? Of course not. In research for the Office of the Children's Commissioner, children's charity Barnardo's said that victims of sexual exploitation "often find themselves vulnerable to abuse as they are unable to identify when they are in an abusive relationship". "No means no" only works if you have the knowledge, power and capacity to say no. It is not a panacea for sexual assault and rape.
I can't have a meaningful discussion about consent without looking at the statistics. Some recent National Office of Statistics figures look at how different age groups attribute the fault of rape or sexual assault. Of 16-19 year olds a staggering 45% believe the victim is "a little bit responsible", "or "completely/mostly responsible" for the rape or sexual assault if they had been flirting heavily before the attack. Why is this a prevailing sentiment amongst young people? The answer is undoubtedly complicated, but one key factor is our repeated insistence that consent is as simple as "No means no".
So how do we back away from this unhelpful binary definition of consent and change these statistics? We normalise the discussions around consent. And that's the primary objective of the Schools Consent Project, with whom I started working last year. The Schools Consent Project is a lawyer-led initiative established in 2015. Legally-trained volunteers provide workshops to young people (aged 11-18) focused on the legal definition of consent and key sexual offences. The aim is to encourage conversations about consent amongst young people in order to challenge sexually harmful attitudes.
Creating a space for secondary school boys and girls to discuss consent, and realise it's a bit tricky, is far more important than simply telling them that "No means no". For me one of the standout parts of the workshop involves asking the young people to say whether they would be comfortable, uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with a series of scenarios. The scenarios range from being wolf whistled, to their boss flirting with them, to being touched inappropriately on the Tube. The young people are all surprised by the different ways their friends react to the same scenarios. One person's deeply uncomfortable reaction to a scenario is countered by their friend's shrug of the shoulder and unimpressed, "Meh".
The intention of this piece is not to muddy the waters around consent, but rather show that the waters have always been muddy. Often, consent will be straightforward. But other times, it will need a far more nuanced and sensitive approach. So let's pop the kettle on, make a brew, and talk about it. Every discussion about consent will help create sexual safety for men and women in the future.Suggest a correction