We've Talked A Lot About Consent In 2016 But Have We Made Any Progress On Understanding It?
The Debrief: For every step forward we take in understanding consent and sexual assault, we take two steps back. But how much actually changed this year?
Illustration by Marina Esmeraldo
‘Grab them by the pussy’: five words which will, depressingly, forever remind us of 2016. Next year, America will have a leader who openly doesn’t give a damn about sexual consent. He is a man who was chosen by 53% of white female voters, despite multiple women coming forward to claim they’d been groped, pinned down and raped by him.
Ironically, Donald Trump’s win came at the end of a year where ‘consent’ and its definition have been widely discussed. Perhaps, even more so than ever before. From kitch ‘consent pants’ featuring messages like ‘no means no’ to the Bad Neighbours 2’s frat-boy-hating feminist protagonist: the message that you need to ask permission before you perform a sexual act on someone appears to be getting louder. When 'pro-rape pick-up artist' Daryush Valizadeh planned to do talks in the UK in February, 55,000 people signed a petition to stop him. Indeed, comments which went under the radar when they were made in 2013 by film director Bernardo Bertolucci about Marlon Brando performing a non-consensual sexual act on co-star Maria Schneider in Last Tango, caused outrage when they resurfaced this month (he says it was a ‘misunderstanding’).
So, has all the discussion actually made things better for women? Is there a greater understanding that sexual assault doesn’t just involve a creepy man in an alleyway? Are there higher conviction rates and lower numbers of reported sexual assault? Does all this talk translate into change?
For a start, the levels of groping and sexual assault in bars, clubs and music venues is still high. There were numerous sexual assaults at festivals both in the UK and internationally this summer. The most shocking number of attacks was at Putte i Parken music festival in Sweden where there were 35 reported sexual assaults. Dangerously, the assaults were blamed on immigrants, not only reinforcing the negative rhetoric around immigrants, but also the narrative that sexual violence is always done by some ‘other’ and external force. The reality, howecer, is still that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.
Bea Bannister is an 18-year-old college student, she is also a founding member of anti-groping campaign group Girls Against. The group launched a year ago and have since worked alongside bands like Peace and venues alike to help promote a pro-consent messages and protect gig goers. She says that she's found the number of victims they've heard from shocking, 'we were aware of the issue occurring, obviously,' she says. 'However this really opened my eyes of the scale of victims we were looking at. If this is a reflection of consent as a whole then this is a worry.'
While levels of violent crime are down, crime against women is on the rise. There were 23,851 reported rapes in Britain in 2015, but only 11% of them were convicted. It’s highly likely that one of the key components of this low conviction rate is public and jury-member perceptions of what equals consent - especially when alcohol is involved.
In October, the professional footballer Ched Evans was found not guilty of a rape he was originally convicted for in 2012. The case involved Evans and another player having sex with a girl who was so intoxicated she woke up in a hotel room with no idea what had happened. During Evans’ retrial this year, prosecutors brought two of the girl’s previous sexual partners to the stand, presenting her previous behaviour in bed as new evidence to demonstrate that she, as a sexually confident and experienced women, couldn't have been raped and must have consented. Evans was subsequently let off, while she was attacked her on social media for ‘ruining his life’ and has received so many death threats she’s had to change her name four times to keep her identity hidden.
The retrial - specifically the court's decision to allow the girl's sexual history to be used as evidence - was described in a letter from 40 Labour MPs to the Attorney General as setting 'a ‘dangerous precedent’. There were concerns that it could deter the victims of rape from reporting the crime in the future because they don’t want to have their own sexual history dissected in a similar way. Reflecting on the retrial, Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a research fellow at Durham Law School and expert in sexual violence prevention, tells me that the case as one of the biggest disappointments for consent education over the past 12 months, ‘it was a massive step backwards in lots of ways,’ she says. ‘Including public understandings of what consensual sex (and communications of sexual consent) looks like in practice.’
This wasn't the only case this year where a girl’s sexual history was dragged up to prove a reported rape was consensual. A Spanish case in May saw a 21-year-old man argue that he didn’t rape his 17-year-old ex-girlfriend on the grounds that the pair had previously engaged in consensual rough sex. Court documents allege that while ‘he held her by her wrists, pulled off her tights and penetrated her’, the judge ruled ‘it was not rape because such sexual practices were so common between the couple that he thought that this time was no different.’ Like Ched, he was acquitted.
In America we saw case after case where universities failed to investigate campus rape properly, including one which led to the victim hanging herself. The most shocking campus sexual assault case to hit the news though was that of Brock Turner. Turner was the Stanford student who assaulted an unconscious woman behind a bin on campus. Instead of admitting assault, he blamed his actions on a culture of ‘binge drinking and sexual promiscuity’. He told the court, that when he roughly penetrated her with his fingers, without her consent he 'in no way' was 'trying to rape anyone'. 'In no way was I trying to harm anyone', he said 'and in no way was I trying to take advantage of anyone.’ When he was sentenced to just six months in prison (because a longer time would have a ‘a severe impact on him’), his victim wrote a powerful open letter about the ‘severe impact’ his sexual assault had on her. It’s worth reading in full.
All of this makes George Lawlor look even more of an idiot than he did last October. The student at Warwick University was photographed holding up a sign saying ‘THIS IS NOT WHAT A RAPIST LOOKS LIKE’ when asked to attend a consent workshop. He wrote for The Tab arguing that most people ‘know not to rape’, yet an NUS study into lad culture at universities this year found that 50% of people asked identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at their university’. Thankfully there are positive changes being made. Oxford and Cambridge have been running compulsory consent classes for undergraduates since 2014. This year new students at the University of Bristol were given a consent quiz on arrival, Lancaster introduced compulsory consent classes for freshers and Loughborough launched its first ‘Consent Week’ for students and staff.
One of the biggest steps forward in the UK this year was a change to university legislation that previously meant that they wouldn’t investigate rape cases on campus. The Zellick guidelines were introduced in 1994 to protect universities from getting sued by those accused. They’ve now been switched for rules that state institutions have to investigate allegations sexual assault and react appropriately, even if the victim doesn’t want to go to the police. Plus, there are also steps being made around the world to protect women from sexual violence and to increase conviction rates. New Zealand is trialling two new specialist courts for victims of sexual violence this month, making it easier for them to come forward and to cut jury misunderstanding about what constitutes consent out of the equation. In addition, a bill will soon be passed in California saying that if you sexually assault someone who passed out, you won’t be able to avoid prison time. The Assembly Bill 2888, mandates prison time for sexual assault perpetrators whose victims are unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to give consent for sex.
Ultimately, it takes us continuing to push for better education, prevention techniques and higher conviction rates to make a change. For Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray that means long-term investment in ‘evidenced, large-scale preventative work focused understandings of consent but on sexual consent’ via organisations that specialise in violence against women, particularly those in minority groups, as well as awareness raising campaigns as well as in schools.
She describes how the Women and Equalities Select Committee report that looked into widespread sexual harassment and violence in schools was the biggest step forward for consent education this year, as well as the biggest disappointment. She explains: ‘The time spent on this report and the range of experts called to give evidence makes it, for me, the most up-to-date resource currently on how we are failing young people. But our government is still refusing, despite overwhelming evidence of need, to action the need for a whole school approach to ending violence against women and girls including comprehensive sex and relationships education on topics such as consent.’
As our government’s views on sex become increasingly conservative, it's reasonable to be worried that these attitudes are going to continue into 2017, unless we fight for change. Thankfully, we’ve got young people like 18-year-old Bea from Girls Against leading the way - and she’s hopeful things will improve. ‘Negative attitudes about women, sex and consent are still lingering,’ she tells me. ‘But I would like to think that views on consent are changing within my generation. I can really see a difference already in the amount of people speaking out to promote the idea of consent.’
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