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‘Sex On Trial’ reveals the true extent of our consent crisis

ByBeth Sexton

Nov 10, 2015

Fresh off the back of the ‘This is not what a rapist looks like’ campaign spearheaded by Warwick University student George Lawlor, comes BBC Three’s documentary, Sex On Trial. The programme saw a panel of 16-18 year olds judge a fictional scene and decide if it was rape. The incident, which took place at a party, was very clearly rape, but shockingly just 54 per cent of the participants agreed that it was.

The documentary has sparked outrage and highlighted that contrary to Lawlor’s claims, a university education does not equal an understanding of consent. However, the documentary’s findings – shocking as they were – reveal nothing new, as we already know that one in seven students are likely to experience rape or sexual harassment while at university. Unless there is just one very prolific rapist travelling the length and breadth of the country, this statistic would suggest that there does exist a large number of students who either do not understand or simply do not respect consent.

The responses to the scene were divisive, with some participants adamant it was rape and others more hesitant to use the term, for fear of ‘ruining’ the rapist’s life. Instead of condemning the actions, terms such as ‘semi-rape’ and ‘80 per cent rape’ were instead favoured by participants, highlighting exactly how problematic our conceptions of consent have become. Instead of viewing consent as the binary yes/no issue it should be, it is clear consent has become a grey area replete with technicalities and false justifications. Of the 24 participants, 33 per cent said that they were unsure if a rape had occurred. If this does not highlight the need for further education then perhaps the 13 per cent who falsely believed the girl did consent is enough to persuade Lawlor and his supporters of the need for further education.

Typical arguments against consent classes are usually founded on a sense of outrage at being a ‘presumed rapist’. Not only is this a wildly inaccurate misinterpretation of the aims of consent classes, it is extremely self-involved and detracts from the real issue. In the same way that the BBC participants were all too quick to consider the repercussions for the rapist, people who feel personally victimised by consent classes perpetuate the idea that in some ways, rapists are victims too. 

Furthermore, detractors of consent classes such as Lawlor usually speak from a position of privilege, as they are usually men who just by sheer biological luck, are not surrounded by people bigger and stronger than them. For these people, walking home alone at night is not usually accompanied by a nagging fear that they might suddenly be abducted, and this is why they are free to dismiss consent classes as a frivolous waste of time.

One particularly laughable argument put forward by Spiked is that consent classes ‘police intimacy’. The piece argued that the establishment of consent kills the mood, because as we all know, there is nothing sexier than rape. It begs the question, if you are not establishing consent during sexual contact, then what are you doing? Just silently fucking with no idea whether the other person is enjoying it. How erotic.

The programme was extremely heteronormative, but the diversity of participants and their reactions displays just how little consent is understood across demographics. If one thing has become clear from this documentary, it is how hazy young people’s understanding of consent has become.

Image Credit: ssalonso

By Beth Sexton

4th year English Literature student

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