Written by Standard Issue


We need to talk about… consent

In the first in a new series about sexual violence, one woman talks about the importance of getting consent. And acknowledging when someone is in no place to give it.

hand pushing away
When I was at university, I got battered one night. Well, not just one night, but on this particular night we’re talking next level drunk. I’d been in a club, and my ex, who lived near me, had been paying me some attention. It felt quite nice, because he’d been pretty unpleasant to me in the past, and so I let him walk me back to my flat.

I’m not really sure what my drunk-self had in mind for that particular evening, but I’m pretty sure my sober-self wouldn’t have touched him with a bargepole because, as I said, he’d been an utter shit when we’d been ‘spending time together’ previously. We sat around in my living room for a bit with my flatmate, then when I drunkenly stumbled off to my room to lie down, he followed me in.

We had a bit of a kiss and a roll around on the plastic-coated single mattress of my campus accommodation and I do remember that I’d been very much a willing participant in that part of the night. It’s just that I don’t remember anything between kissing and waking up on my own in bed the next day.

I remember most vividly being hungover. I also remember those few moments it takes for you to piece together where and with whom you’ve been the night before. It felt like I’d had sex, which made me wonder why I’d woken up alone. My thighs were bruised from the narrow hip bones I supposed had been bashing against them in that kind of drunk sex you have when you’re young and you don’t really know what you’re doing.

I was troubled by it, because I couldn’t remember it – and that hadn’t happened before – but I was sure I must have done it.

“In nine out of ten cases rape is committed by someone known to the victim and is, by its very definition, an issue of consent, not necessarily drama.”

I called him. “Look,” I said, “This is kind of awkward and I hope you won’t be offended or anything, but did we have sex last night?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, I don’t think we did.”

I assumed this meant we hadn’t, and the doubt he’d cast on it was to save face because I couldn’t remember – he thought he was a bit of a bad man, to be honest, and I knew his pride would have been a little wounded. Not least because my flatmate had told me how sober he’d seemed and that, in her opinion, he probably would have remembered one way or the other.

Not long after, I found a used condom down the side of my bed, and with no other potential candidates in the frame, I conceded that unless he’d treated himself to a posh wank while I was out cold, we must have had sex. But I still couldn’t remember.

I was still troubled by it – by the fact that I couldn’t remember, but I was mostly troubled by my own part in it. I was ashamed. Had I really drunk so much that I couldn’t remember having sex with someone? What did that say about me?

After that I just avoided him on campus out of embarrassment and unease. Occasionally he would approach me when I was out clubbing with friends. I remember one time he caused a bit of a scene, and shouted at me on the dancefloor: “Why have you switched on me?” It didn’t really occur to me until quite a bit later that his behaviour suggested he might have felt at least a bit guilty about his actions, reinforced by my frostiness towards him.

In fact it wasn’t for a while until it occurred to me that perhaps he shouldn’t really have been having sex with someone who was too drunk to remember. But I wasn’t going to call it rape, and I still don’t call it rape, not least because I can’t remember whether or not I agreed to it. But I did know it was at least morally reprehensible, if not criminally so.

I wouldn’t have called him a “rapist” because that’s not how I thought rape worked. I thought rape was, as dear old Ken Clarke defined it, “serious rape” – the kind where you get dragged by your hair into a bush and left for dead.

I didn’t realise that rape could be considerably more innocuous than that. That rape is, in fact, in nine out of ten cases committed by someone known to the victim and that it is, by its very definition, an issue of consent, not necessarily drama.

I also didn’t realise just how common it is: that one in five women aged between 16 and 59 has experienced sexual violence of some sort. As I grew up, through conversation with friends I realised that almost every single one of my close friends has had an experience that has at ‘best’, like mine, been morally ambiguous.

“‘Look,’ I said, ‘This is kind of awkward and I hope you won’t be offended or anything, but did we have sex last night?'”

It transpired that I know friends who’ve been abused by family friends as teenagers, who’ve routinely woken up to find their boyfriend having sex with them, or to find someone they’d been out with the night before interfering with them while they slept.

I have a friend who, as an 18-year-old, had to quit her temping job after being sexually assaulted by her boss in the stationery cupboard. And not one of those had been reported to the police – largely because the victims had all been young and hadn’t really understood they could.

One in five women is a shocking statistic, and it means if you’re reading this and you’re a guy (or a woman, for that matter) there’s a good chance someone very close to you has experienced sexual violence – your girlfriend, your sister, your mum – and never spoken out about it. Quite possibly because she’s not even categorised her experience in those terms.

So if one in five women experience sexual violence, and not wanting to sound like Donald Trump here, who’s doing all the raping? Because I certainly don’t think one in five of the men I know are.

But the point we as a society must deal with, and particularly with young men (such as the one I had the misfortune of getting involved with all those years ago – he’s married now, a cursory Facebook stalk tells me, and looks like he has a pretty serious job) and women, is that this is an issue of consent. It doesn’t matter if s/he is your partner, that s/he had been up for it before s/he passed out, or seemed keen earlier on in the night.

If s/he is not able to say “yes”, or the law deems her or him too young to say “yes”, it must be considered that s/he has said “no”.

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Written by Standard Issue