When I started at Warwick and began to talk more openly about sex and relationships with the friends I’ve made here, I realised that almost all of them had experienced similar things to me.
This blog has been contributed by Bethan Hewitt. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
TW: rape, sexual assault, child sexual abuse
Growing up, conversations about sex were few and far between, and consent was almost always presented as a yes-or-no question. At the age of fifteen I had an experience with my boyfriend at the time which made me very uncomfortable. I tried to communicate this to him both verbally and non-verbally, but I never explicitly said no, so when our relationship ended, I didn’t think what happened was non-consensual.
When I started at Warwick and began to talk more openly about sex and relationships with the friends I’ve made here, I realised that almost all of them had experienced similar things to me-- they’d had sexual experiences where they were uncomfortable with what they were doing, but didn’t say an outright no to it for any of a ton of reasons: they didn’t want to let their partner down, they felt like they had to, they felt awkward, they were drunk, they tried to communicate it in another way. They’d also refuse to refer what had happened as rape or sexual assault. When I tell my friends that these experiences were non-consensual because they never actually consented to them, they’re usually surprised, or they might even disagree with me, on the basis that they never said no to it. When I talk about consent, I get this in reply: well, it’s a grey area.
The conversation about consent is growing constantly, and we’re broadening it by talking about it on social media and by creating and consuming content which discusses it. We’re starting to talk about how getting consent is a lot more than asking a yes-or-no question – it’s about asking that question several times, checking in with your partner, paying attention to their body language, and a lot more. But despite these conversations we’re having, it’s still a common notion that consent is a grey area. Consent is still a topic of debate: for example, when the story of Aziz Ansari raping an anonymous women was published, everyone had an opinion on whether or not what was described counted as an assault, and whether the woman should’ve been clearer about what she wanted. Some people thought she should’ve just said no.
It’s great that we’re talking more about consent nowadays; it’s something everyone needs to be aware of and understand. But these conversations need to be productive. Calling consent a grey area is not productive. While we argue about what counts as non-consent or rape until we lose interest, we’re not tackling the actual problem at hand: that somebody has been raped. And when we do lose interest, they’ll still have been raped. They’ll still be traumatised by what happened and will have all that healing work that comes with trauma ahead of them. When we focus on whether the victim did enough to express their non-consent, we’re not acknowledging that the rapist didn’t seek consent. This leads to the victim being blamed for, and made to feel guilty about, the assault they suffered. And in all this debate, the victim isn’t getting the support they need to recover and heal.
Dismissing the issue of rape and assault because you think consent isn’t clear-cut is also an excuse to ignore larger-scale, societal issues. Rape and sexual assault cases are still being dismissed from court on the basis of the victim not being ‘clear enough’ that they didn’t consent. This means rapists go unpunished and remain a danger to others – especially considering that most sexual crimes are committed by serial rapists. There are also disproportionately more male rapists than female ones, and disproportionately more female victims of rape and assault than male ones. Being disabled, LGBT, or a person of colour increases your chance of being sexually assaulted even more. This all indicates that people from marginalised groups are scared to say no during sex, and those with privilege over them are more willing to ignore their partners’ cues. This apathetic attitude doesn’t lead to changes to the legal system which are needed to punish rapists and to protect the wider population, or the societal changes needed to address the biases that put marginalised people at higher risk of being assaulted.
If you truly believe the lines between yes and no are blurred when it comes to sex, instead of shrugging your shoulders and dismissing it with empty words, you have two options. You can choose to educate yourself on consent, by reading up on what the other indicators are that your partner isn’t enjoying what you’re doing or isn’t comfortable doing it. You can talk to your partner about it, inside and outside of sex-- ask them what they are and aren’t okay with, establish new ways to communicate with each other when you might not feel able to do it with words, actively try to keep in tune with them during sex. You can learn and become better.
Or you can acknowledge that this belief you have is an excuse. An excuse not to listen to your partner. An excuse to prioritise your own desires over their safety and well-being. An excuse not to hold yourself or those around you accountable for the attitudes you have toward sex. If you really think it’s so difficult to tell whether or not your partner is okay with what you’re doing, but you do nothing to change that, the truth is that you have no respect or concern for them, and that you’re perfectly fine putting them in danger for the sake of your own pleasure. If you don’t understand consent, you should not be having sex in the first place.