Withdrawn Consent: The Line Between Sex and Sexual Assault

15/08/2016 16:11 | Updated 15 August 2016

Notes: A) Trigger warning for descriptions involving sexual assault. Please don't read if you think it might be upsetting for you. B) This also discusses a new play called Zero. know Zero's cast and production team but would hope that personal knowledge doesn't affect my judgement. C) This contains sort-of spoilers. D) it's fairly long, apologies. I'd be grateful if you stick with it, and E) if you just want the review without context, scroll down- I take a bit of a tangent.

You've always believed that words have superpowers. They can bring out the strongest emotions and form the most elaborate stories. They can create new worlds, make people laugh, help you fall in love and spread empathy and understanding.

But what if your words aren't listened to? What if you say stop but he doesn't hear, so you say it again but this time he chooses not to? What if he thinks he knows what you mean and he thinks you mean the opposite?

If that one syllable can be misunderstood, mistaken or ignored - if someone can put their orgasm before your consent - then what's the point of using any words at all?

The law acknowledges that it takes a few seconds for a man to gather his wits and pull out or away, but this is longer than a few seconds.

You tell him to stop because it's too loud and you don't want your family to hear and you tell him again and you mean it and you're more nervous now and he's not stopping and you're not turned on anymore and as your body reacts to your brain it's not exactly painful but it's not feeling good and he's not listening and it's like when you're on your phone and someone's talking to you but you don't really hear them because you're too engrossed in the conversation and it's not an excuse and you can see from his face that it's going to end soon so you stop saying no and you give up and you look to your wall by your right side where there's a bunch of photos of you and your friends from school and you're all smiling and you wait and you're silent and he doesn't even notice and he finishes and he's triumphant and he has no idea.

It's maybe only a minute but for that minute you don't want to be there, and you told him that by saying no. He gets louder when you want silence and now he's gone and you can't deal with the silence so you distract yourself by putting on a scary TV show to scare yourself in a different way.

That night you send him a message. He should have stopped when you said stop. You curl up in your sheets and hug the teddy who has been with you since you were two. You get out of bed and drink a lot of water and brush your teeth until the taste of him is gone.

He gets your message in the morning. He hadn't realised what he's done and begins to apologise so much you think his fingers will weave an enormous sculpture of the word sorry and his mouth will turn into a stitching patterned in the same shape. You thank him for accepting it and not being defensive. He says he would never do that. But then he says he only continued because he thought you wanted to. He didn't think you meant it when you said no.

You keep wanting a shower.

When you ask directly, he admits he wouldn't have said anything if you hadn't told him. He doesn't really realise it's wrong until you point it out. He says he wants to cry. You tell him it's okay. You find yourself comforting your - no surely, can you call him that? He's still your friend, isn't he? But he did it so surely that makes him-?

You're fine. You're not scarred for life. You tell him that. You try to joke. But as you say that you wonder if maybe you are just a little bit. If you'll be more hesitant about going home with someone from a club, or be more wary of Tinder, or if you'll ever be able to trust a boyfriend so completely that you know they'd never do that, that they wouldn't be with you like that without your consent. That they would stop if you asked them to. You wonder if you should give a contract to every boy you ever consider messing around with, make them sign an oath that they will never do that. Insert a chip into their neck that automatically pulls them back to the opposite wall as soon as you say the word stop.

You would say it's a conversation we don't have enough, but we do. Everyone knows it's wrong. And of course he thinks it's wrong too, it's just that he didn't see that he was doing it. He was 'lost in the moment'. And you talk to a friend and ask if that counts as rape and the friend says yes and you google it over and over on incognito and the time from you saying no to him finishing was only maybe a minute so surely it's not that bad, you think, but that minute has been playing on your mind and made you feel like you need to hold yourself together slightly in case you fall apart. You hide how much it affects you so as to save him from more concern. To be fair, you've just accused him of something pretty hefty, so he's got thoughts of his own to deal with. You carry on talking and after he's apologised a lot more you start to talk and joke as normal. Your approach to most things is sarcasm, and gradually it re-emerges, but it's hard to forget that one minute and carry on joking.

You're constantly being told off for being too PC, for jumping on everyone's comments in case they could seem the slightest bit derogatory. And you can't tell if you're overreacting, because you both wanted to have sex and up until that moment it was completely consensual, and it wasn't as if he hurt you or treated you abusively. He just put his own desire over everything for a minute. Is a minute really that bad? And you need to write it down in order to make sense of it. Because you kissed him after and you meant that kiss and you like him and he's not the type of person to do that at all, and you'd never expect him to hurt you or anyone else, and neither would he, and he's horrified that he did it, once you told him. He's probably more scarred from the realisation than you are. And he'd never do it again. But he still did it.

You don't want to tell your best friend or your mum because you were one who went searching and you're worried they'll say you kind of brought it on yourself, by putting yourself in that position. But you also realise how dangerous that view is. That is only a step away from saying a girl shouldn't drink because if she gets raped it's kind of her own fault for not being aware or sensible enough.

And you carry on talking and joking but you still feel uncomfortable and you tell him you don't want to have sex with him again and he understands and apologises again. Then you tell him you want space because his continuing to message you with kindness and smiley faces feels uneasy. Because however nice he's been to you for the rest of the time you've known him, you don't want to be reminded of that one minute. But he doesn't seem to understand that's the reason and sends another smiley face, expecting to hear from you soon.

You've just been through an intensely sad break up and you told yourself when getting involved this time - nothing serious, it was just fun and not stressful - that you wouldn't let yourself get hurt. You thought that meant not getting too many feelings. You thought that meant restricting yourself in some way.

Maybe it's not that big a deal. Maybe you're overreacting. Maybe you should just forget about it and not let it affect you. Or maybe you can do without guys for a while, until you're ready to trust someone else with your body and then maybe your heart and maybe even your Nativity DVD's, because you really don't fancy any of them getting hurt again anytime soon.

He sends you another message. 'Are you just not wanting to have someone at all?' Yeah. Yeah that's what you want, for a while at least.

Writing it down helps. Words may not have had much impact in that moment, that minute, but maybe in the aftermath they really do have healing superpowers.


The above is the mindset in which I walk into Zero, a one woman play at the Edinburgh Fringe about broken hearts, broken confidence and broken trust. Those, and sexual assault.

We sit on the curb with Beth as she escapes her 21st birthday party for a moment. Grace Vance plays the gobby birthday girl with a mixture of poise, defiance and shattering vulnerability. She leads us through her story, chatting absent-mindedly and thinking back over the past few years of her life, jumping into the characters she introduces, switching accent with ease and skill.

Beth's story shows the delicacy of relationships and how easy it is for them to be manipulative. It considers how sex and consent must be treated with such tenderness because when they fall out of balance it's like everything turns to eggshells. Above all, her story shows how difficult it is to simply forget and move on.

Debut writer Rachel Ruth Kelly has an incredible awareness of youthful language which gives Beth's monologue an ease to it. There is nothing strained about Vance treading over Beth's story for an hour, getting worked up and calming herself back down. As Beth's secret is slowly revealed, Kelly uses witty, dry humour to prevent this from being a self-pitying wallow in her misfortune. She picks up on traits of female language that I see my friends using all the time, habits and mannerisms that slowly wear down self-belief.

The thing is, in these types of situations- and I'm not comparing myself to Beth, she's had it far, far, worse- it's a feeling of worthlessness. When the feeling of wanting to be cleansed is gone, it's the worthlessness that prevails, that jumps into your mind as the person you're talking to looks over your shoulder for someone more interesting, or as you dig your nail into your skin every time you see a couple holding hands. If you're dumped or ignored or are lying right there with someone you like and they don't even hear you, or choose not to listen, or in Beth's case far worse, it makes you feel like you may as well not be there. It brings your confidence levels down to zero and in Beth's case, where she doesn't have anyone close enough to help her build them back up, there isn't a lot of hope for what happens when she gets up and walks back inside the club.

Zero (made by an all female production team) gives a voice to a young woman rendered silent by the media, by bullies at school and by a man who took advantage of her youth, devotion and desire to be loved.

(Zero is at Underbelly, Cowgate at the Edinburgh Fringe)


He sends you another message. 'Are you just not wanting to have someone at all?'

At first you think: Yeah. Yeah that's what you want, for a while at least.

But on second thoughts, and after seeing this: I have plenty of someones in my life already.

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