We live in a world where the #MeToo movement is making us sit up and realise the need to talk about consent.
The BBC recently created a fictionalised drama showing an incident of sexual assault between a boy and an unconscious girl in the normal situation of a student house party. They asked a group of 16-18 year olds to debate whether rape had been committed. From the teenage panel 33% said they did not know whether Gemma had consented to the sexual act, and 13% found that she did consent to it, despite her being unconscious.
In a real trial in November 2018, a lacy thong was held up in court as evidence against the alleged rape victim.
The man accused of rape was acquitted because the barrister told the jury they should take into account that the alleged victim was wearing underwear which suggested she was ‘asking for it’.
In her closing address, senior counsel Elizabeth O’Connell held up a lacy thong worn by the accuser on the night of the alleged rape and said:
Does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.
The issue of consent dominated the case, with the girl telling the man:
“You just raped me” and the man saying “No, we just had sex.”
And it’s this confusion which makes it so important for parents to talk about consent with their children. So that they can be 100% clear that, when it comes to sex, that only yes means yes. If there is any shadow of a doubt that someone has consented to sex then it just shouldn’t happen.
No matter what has happened up to that point.
No matter how much alcohol a girl or woman has drunk.
And definitely no matter what type of underwear she is wearing.
Confusion over what constitutes rape
When we think of rape we often imagine a scenario where a girl is attacked by a stranger in a dark alleyway. In 90% of cases a women is raped by someone she knows.
A recent report exposes the concerning confusion that even adults have over what constitutes rape.
These members of the public could very well be the ones on a jury deciding whether to prosecute or acquit. And that’s worrying.
What should we teach about consent?
When it comes to sex what matters is that the other person gives their consent to sex.
And that means saying ‘yes’.
Not saying ‘no’ is not enough.
Saying ‘yes’ but then changing her mind and saying ‘no’ means no and everything should stop.
Being in a situation where a girl freezes because she is feeling embarrassed or frightened and is afraid to or can’t say ‘no’, then still means no. If she has had sex then she has done so without giving consent as she has not said ‘yes’.
If the girl has passed out or fallen asleep then it’s definitely a ‘no’, even though she’s in no fit state to say so.
Only yes means yes.
If our children aren’t very clear on this concept then they could very easily become either the victims of, or stand accused of sexual assault.
Beyond that talk
It’s hard to talk to our children about sex. The whole topic is awkward and embarrassing. It’s tempting to avoid it altogether or to brush over it quickly and get it over with. It’s easier to believe that our children will learn about sex and consent at school.
The truth is that might not happen. Finally in 2018, guidance has been given to schools to include the issue of consent as part of sex education.
Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said :
It’s vital that every child knows about their rights and that nothing should happen to them without their consent.
As it has only just been introduced, this element of sex education may take a number of years to reach all schools and all children. Older children may miss out on this education completely. Yet the law on consent is still the same and the issue of what consent means is still confusing for them.
As parents it’s up to us to talk about consent with our children and help them understand the concept.
Consent put in context
There are a number of videos and dramatisations that show teenagers everyday situations where sexual assault may have occurred. They help teens realise how sexual assault can happen within their own lives.
Thames Valley Police have also produced this brilliant video that tackles the whole issue of consent in an arresting way. The video replaces the idea of sex with making and giving someone a cup of tea.
There’s nothing graphic or sexual in the video and so it’s a great one to watch with your kids. It really drives the whole message of consent home. It does this by exploring every variant of situations where you might ask if someone wants a cup of tea.
They might say yes but then when the kettle is boiled, change their minds. Don’t give them tea.
They might want tea but then fall asleep while the kettle is boiling. Don’t give them tea.
If they say ‘No thank you’ then don’t give them tea at all.
It’s worth the awkward talk
We can’t rely on schools to teach consent. We need to talk about it with our kids and make sure they understand. If you feel awkward then start with the Cup of tea video and let the conversation flow from there. It may turn out to be one of the most important conversations you ever have with your child.
See our article on Teen dating and how to keep your child safe, for more on teen relationships.
Rape Crisis England and Wales: Free helpline: 0808 802 9999
Rape Crisis Scotland: Free helpline: 0808 801 0302
- “Irish outcry over teenager’s underwear used in rape trial”, BBC News
- “Quarter of adults think marital sex without consent is not rape, UK survey finds”, The Guardian
- “Lessons on ‘consent’ as schools to update sex education”, The Guardian
- “Sex attack victims usually know attacker, says new study”, BBC News
- “Do people understand what rape is?” BBC News