Trigger warning: Rape and sexual assault.
In the past I have talked about my mental health issues and how it affects my blogging. What I haven’t mentioned on my blog before is that November is a difficult month for me, and in particular, today is a difficult day for me. But this week, I am struggling to think about much else.
Today, I am thinking about consent.
Here in the UK, consent is rarely taught in sex ed. At most, we are taught that “no means no”, and that rape is a very damaging thing, but the nuances of consent and sexual interactions, anything deeper than “say no and everything will be fine!”, is almost always skipped over. Over the past few years, there has been an increased movement (mainly from feminist and independent sex ed organisations) to bring better education about consent into the classrooms. I feel this can only be a good thing, particularly in universities, a place where young (frequently inexperienced) adults are suddenly given independence, placed in contact with many other young people, and usually end up clubbing and partying multiple times a week.
However, recently, an article has been making the rounds, from the perspective of a young university student who does not believe he needs consent lessons, and is, in fact, offended at the fact that they are being offered. That these classes are a “waste of time”, and that being invited is a “massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face”, because “this is not what a rapist looks like”.
There is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t know where to start.
I could start by saying that yes, he is what a rapist looks like, because rapists are normal, everyday people. The vast majority of rapes are not committed by moustachioed men in trenchcoats lurking in dimly lit back alleys, but by someone that the victim knows and often trusts – if we could look at them and instantly identify them as rapists, I imagine the rate of rape would be hugely reduced.
I could say that there is a societal misconception that there are “blurred lines” when it comes to consent, and that consent classes bring up ideas and situations participants may not have considered before, open discussion about how different situations should be handled, and reinforce where the boundaries are.
But neither of those things are really what I want to write about today. I personally think everyone should have consent classes, whether or not they believe they would ever rape someone, because consent classes don’t just aim to deter would-be rapists.
In the context of relationships, they encourage communication between partners, in a bid for all involved to have more open, honest and enjoyable sex lives.
They encourage participants to consider not only how they treat their sexual partners, but also to consider the statistics of rape – to realise that in any given room, they are likely in the company of someone who has been raped, and to realise when certain things they say put blame on rape victims. They remind people to not only consider their own actions, but also to be aware of the actions of people around them, and not to sit idly by if something doesn’t seem right.
But I think one of the most important things consent classes do is that they also empower victims to know that what they have experienced is valid. They affirm to victims that what their attacker did was not acceptable. They let them know that they aren’t being overdramatic or oversensitive, and that what happened was not their fault.
Rapists frequently take advantage of situations where they feel they might be able to get away with it, where their victim will doubt their own perception. They target partners or friends who will not want to admit what happened, they target drunk people because their recollection will be called into question, they groom young and vulnerable people into feeling like it was their idea, they target disabled people who have a reduced mental or physical capacity to resist. And it seems when someone is raped, society is all too quick to nitpick over what they did to try and make excuses for their rapist.
It is all too common to hear that a victim should have fought back more, but when it comes to sexual assault, biology and socialisation frequently work against us. Women are expected to be nice and passive. We are socialised to spare men’s feelings, to let them down gently, because just saying “no” is too blunt. Men are expected to always want sex, and to be able to handle their problems by themselves. They are socialised to be independent, to not show weakness or ask for help if they are in trouble. All of these things become very much a negative when it comes to sexual assault.
On top of that, there are three adrenaline responses. The two that most people are familiar with are fight and flight: if you are in danger, if something is a threat to you, either you fight it, or you run away. One that is often forgetten is freeze. Like a deer in the headlights, you freeze still and wait for the threat to disappear.
For me personally, this meant that when the worst happened, my biological responses worked against me. I found I didn’t have the words to stop it – I just froze. I didn’t fight. I didn’t kick and scream to get him off me. I didn’t yell “no” until my throat was sore. I had just moved away from home for the first time, he was my only friend, I would have to see him every day for the next four years, and I didn’t want to upset him. So instead, I turned my head away. I looked anywhere but at him. I pulled away when he tried to kiss me. I flinched and held my breath when he touched me. I said “stop, we should stop”, even though it wasn’t me doing anything. I just wanted it to be over. Eventually I resigned myself to staring at the wall.
It took me a long time to call what happened to me “rape”.
For months, I tried to excuse what he did. I tried to tell myself that he must not have heard me telling him to stop. That he just liked me so much, he couldn’t control himself. That it was my fault for letting him in my room. But none of that was true.
If the situation had been anything but sex-related, nobody would say my response could be construed as a yes. If you asked your partner if they wanted to go on holiday next week, and they stared at the wall in silence, you wouldn’t take it as a yes and buy the tickets. If you asked someone if you could cut in front of them at the checkout, and they froze completely still, you wouldn’t go right ahead and walk in front of them. But for some reason, when the situation is sex-related – a time when your focus should be even more on your partner and their enjoyment – it is viewed as being the victim’s responsibility to say no louder, rather than for the other person to pay even a modicum of attention to their responses and notice non-verbal signs of non-consent.
To a lot of people, my rape is in a gray area. That if you didn’t fight back, you couldn’t have been that bothered about it. That being raped by an acquaintance isn’t as bad as if it was a random attack from a stranger.
I can’t agree.
My rape taught me that I am not safe. Not with my “friends”. Not in my own room. Not in my own bed.
It has been four years, and I still think about it every day. I still have flashbacks at the tiniest reminders. I can be sitting down eating breakfast and find myself having a panic attack for seemingly no reason. There are entire cities I can no longer go to, once-favourite songs I can no longer listen to, sights and sounds and smells and stories that reduce me to a vulnerable, crying mess.
It was learning about consent that affirmed to me that what I experienced was valid. That I wasn’t misremembering what happened. That what he did was entirely on him. It is also the reason that I became more involved in feminism, and the reason I am so passionate about consent classes. Not because if my rapist had been to them, he might not have done what he did – though, eternally optimistic as I am, I do hope that’s a possibility – but because I don’t want anyone else to ever feel like they brought it on themselves if it does happen to them.
We live in a culture that is frequently apathetic towards rape. We are told that if we wear revealing clothes, we brought it on ourselves. That if we didn’t fight them off, we must have really wanted it. That we should be happy for the attention. That no matter what situation we were in, we should have known better than to be in it.
Consent classes affirm that none of this is true, and that is why I think they are so important. Consent classes are not just for potential rapists – they are for everyone.
You might think that you don’t need classes because you aren’t a rapist, but – as much as I hope it never happens – that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be a victim.
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