On consent

Siân Ruddick, an independent sexual violence advocate, unpicks how revolutionaries should understand the politics of consent.

In this article perpetrators are referred to as male and survivors as female. This is most common, but in no way seeks to deny that women can be perpetrators of sexual violence, that men can be survivors, or deny the experiences of survivors who have other gender identities. 

Emma_Sulkowicz,_Mattress_Performance,_19_May_2015_(cropped)The questions of what consent looks like, and feels like, and its potential limits, have become aspects of renewed debate on sexual violence. And this is hardly surprising – consent is at the core of sexual experiences and interactions. Without it, that act is sexual assault or rape.

The law in England and Wales states that a person must have both the capacity and freedom to consent in order to do so. The capacity aspect asks the jury to consider whether the person was drunk, drugged or asleep, had the mental capacity to consent or was over 16 (which is the legal age of consent). Freedom considers if the person was free to consent without fear of violence or other reprisals, if there was physical force involved, and if it occurred within a controlling or otherwise abusive relationship.

Importantly, in rape trials the jury has to consider if the defendant believed she consented and was his belief reasonable based on the evidence. So while the onus is on the perpetrator to explain his reasonable belief, it is explained in the context of multiple myths about sexual violence – where it happens, who perpetrates it and how survivors respond at that moment of assault. Consent is the most frequent defence in rape trials – perpetrators know that there is forensic testing that can prove sexual contact. No test can prove rape, and there is a huge amount of judgement on the survivor and how she responds. There is an expectation that she will scream and fight and run, and that is how we will know she didn’t consent.

It is not just men that hold these ideas – these myths have a huge impact on women too. Myths can stop women from identifying their own experiences as sexual violence because they did not respond in that way. Women who blame themselves for not responding in that way can find it hard to not blame other women. Women that have not experienced particular forms of sexual violence can stand in judgement too, “well if it happened to me I would have done X so how could he know she was not consenting?”. Psychologist and trauma specialist Zoe Lodrick has made a short video which explains the different survival responses the brain is capable of (fight, flight, freeze, flop, friend) and the purposes they serve.

It is clear that both sexual violence and consent are gendered – the way that women and girls are taught to think about their bodies and their pleasure is totally different to men and boys. Girls are rarely encouraged to think about what they want from sex or learn about how they can receive pleasure or explore their own bodies. Penetrative sex is the central issue in sex education in schools, if it is taught at all. Putting male ejaculation at the centre of the debate frames it in such a way as to recreate the notion that sex is something done by men to women.

It is in this context that “no means no” as a slogan, or as a guide to consent has come under fire – the argument goes that it reinforces the idea that women are the gatekeepers of their own bodies when men approach them wanting sex. This idea denies and demonises women who are proactive in having their sexual needs met, and reinforces the idea that men are not in control of their sexual urges, that they have some mystical needs that must be met otherwise their balls will fall off.

This is also used as an excuse for rape, that the man couldn’t stop himself and lost control, when actually sexual violence is all about control. So, no means no, even when yes means yes precedes it, isn’t at all sufficient.

In the past few years, US university campuses have been the focus of the debate around sexual violence, consent, and how institutions respond. There have been several high-profile cases where women who have been raped on campus, or by a fellow student, have been totally let down by their school administration.  In California and New York, universities that receive state funding are now subject to a “yes means yes” law that is explicit in its description of consent. In California the law states that “lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent. Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.” For some, affirmative or radical consent is seen as just that – radical – and men’s rights groups have claim that describing consent in this way is a victory for man-hating feminazis. It is absolutely a victory for all women, and one that is a product of survivors and their supporters speaking out on the issue of consent and sexual violence, but the concept is one that should form the most basic understanding of consent and not be unsaid in the hope that perpetrators can hide in the grey areas.

There are no grey areas or blurred lines when it comes to consent. It is not about a misunderstanding or miscommunication. I do not buy the “I didn’t realise she wasn’t consenting, but now you’ve said that, I’m sorry” line that extremely few, but some, perpetrators come out with when the survivor has this amazing courage to speak out. Men that rape (and women that sexually assault) have made a decision, a choice, or a series of choices to behave in this way, to take control away from someone else and feel powerful and entitled at their expense.

The idea that male perpetrators have lost control does no one any favours. It does men who don’t rape and abuse a massive disservice – as if all men are thoughtless animals, some of them managing to hold it together more than others, and it lets rapists off the hook.

So when we say that consent should be mutual and enthusiastic that means all partners being comfortable and feeling in control.

And it is the perpetrator that should be the one in the spotlight, having to explain what they interpreted as consent and why, rather than a survivor having to justify herself while feeling ashamed for freezing or flopping, not being able to shout or say no or push someone away. Who is asking men why they feel sexually aroused when a woman is still, not responding, asleep or unconscious? Is it normal to have sex with someone while they are crying, not looking at you or frozen?

Nadine at Edinburgh Rape Crisis writes, “We need to start framing sex as something which people can explore as equals, discovering what feels good rather than enacting what they perceive is expected. Talking about the role of enthusiasm in consent is a key step towards this.”

So I think that, as revolutionaries, instead of saying that consent isn’t good enough, we have to say what consent should really be like. It is impossible to have that conversation with young people, with our partners, with ourselves, without talking about pleasure instead of performance. This does not mean that all sexual activity has to be mind-blowingly wonderful to be consensual, but by talking about the possibilities of consent we can broaden the horizons of what we deserve from our sexual experiences. Feeling confident about consent not only helps ourselves, but can also help to challenge the myths that silence survivors of sexual violence and provide a space where survivors can talk about their experiences without fear of judgement. Consent – hopefully awesome – is never optional.


For some really accurate information on sexual violence, the law and what happens in the criminal justice system Rights of Women have From Report to Court and other great resources available here 

If you are a woman that has experienced any form of sexual violence at any age and would like a space to talk, call the national rape and sexual abuse helpline on 0808 802 9999 open every day of the year, 12-2.30pm and 7-9.30pm

If you are a man who has experienced sexual violence Survivors UK provide a range of support services and information https://www.survivorsuk.org/


This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the rs21 magazine


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