By Issy McConville
Trigger warning: sexual assault/rape
“This is not what a rapist looks like” . So claims the writer of a controversial Tab article, proudly displaying this sign at his chest; proudly claiming that consent classes are a waste of time, a muscle-flexing exercise of the feminist PC brigade, who cannot understand that not all men have rapist tendencies lurking beneath the surface. So then, what does a rapist look like? Is the image that of a shadowy figure lurking down an alleyway, an image that makes so many women walk home at night with keys between their fingers? Is the image that of the sleazy older man grooming younger girls on the internet? Or is it something even worse?
In the UK, almost 90% of rape victims know the perpetrator prior to the offence (statistics from Rape Crisis). Martial rape was only criminalised in the UK in 1991, and in many countries it retains legal immunity. More often that not, sexual abuse comes from someone the victim loves, someone they trust. And this is why consent classes are so important. We need to challenge the myths surrounding abuse that paint it as a violent aberration from a twisted stranger, and recognise that it often occurs much closer to home.
It is easy to understand the basic premise of consent – ‘Yes means yes and no means no’, but this question needs to be asked every single time we have sex – whether that be for the first time or the hundredth time. “Guaranteed sex” is an often trotted out reason for relationships, especially among teenagers, but there is no such thing as entitlement to sex. Establishing consent, and ensuring that it is enthusiastic consent, is just an important inside a relationship as outside one. And if you are saying yes to sex just because you don’t want to cause an argument, because you feel like you ‘should’, then something is wrong. If someone you love is fixated on your sexual behaviour, telling you that should not go to that party; that you cannot wear that skirt in front of other men; that you are a slut, and yet asking you for sex, then there is so much more behind a simple ‘yes’.
And no wonder the notion of consent within a relationship gets so blurry – women are constantly bombarded with different opinions about their sexual behaviour – you are a slut if you’re having sex outside of a relationship, and frigid if you aren’t. Glossy women’s magazines help pedal the idea that a woman should be a complete freak between the sheets, but then we are told that you should only be sexy for your boyfriend. Any hint of previous sexual partners is something to be ashamed of, something that makes a woman somehow less ‘girlfriend material’. How is it possible to fulfil the expectation to be both innocently virginal and full of wild sexual abandon at the same time?
These attitudes towards female sexuality are encouraging cycles of abuse. We need to change how we understand consent, because it means so more than we think. It is not just about one night stands, it is about love and about relationships – and we could all benefit from taking a class.