The Ched Evans case shows why we must start talking about consent

Footballer Ched Evans arriving at Cardiff Crown Court
Footballer Ched Evans arrivin at Cardiff Crown Courtg

By Sian Norris

There's a lot to be said about the Ched Evans case: its cultural significance, the legal wrangling around using a woman's sexual history as evidence, the impact it has had and could have on a woman's willingness to report rape, the list goes on. But perhaps most importantly it revealed a lot about our attitudes towards consent.

In order to get a guilty verdict on rape, our legal system demands proof that an alleged victim did not consent and that the alleged perpetrator "does not reasonably believe his alleged victim was consenting." The problem is that our collective understanding of consent and what it looks like is fundamentally weak, and that ultimately impacts women's access to justice.

It's clear that there is a crisis around consent in the UK. A survey published by Havens in 2010 demonstrated some deeply troubling attitudes towards consent in young people aged 18-25, including:


  • 53% of young adults would not assume the person they are intimate with doesn't want to have sex with them if being physically pushed away
  • 43% would not assume the person they are intimate with doesn't want to have sex when they say "no"
  • 63% would not assume their partner does not want to have to sex with them if they are crying
  • 46% of men surveyed did not consider it rape if you change your mind and the other person continues with sex

Meanwhile, the much-cited 2005 Amnesty survey on attitudes towards sexual consent found that 37% of respondents thought a woman was responsible for rape if she didn’t say "no" clearly enough – while a significant number of respondents believed a woman was responsible for her rape if she had been drinking.

These survey responses demonstrate that young people are not educated in recognising what enthusiastic, mutual consent actually looks like. Young men in particular haven't been taught what it looks like when their partner is actively consenting. If they believe no means yes and being pushed away is a-ok, then they can argue that they reasonably believed consent was given.

My generation had scant sex education, if we had it at all. So we cannot claim the moral high ground. But the difference between people of my age and those growing up today is the proliferation and mainstreaming of violent pornography that is filling the gap left by a lack of informed sex education.

Whatever one's views on the sex industry and pornography, it simply cannot be ignored that much of mainstream porn eroticises male violence and domination, and unquestioningly portrays acts of male violence and coercion. A survey quoted in Banyard's The Equality Illusion found that 88% of porn films surveyed featured physically aggressive acts towards women.

Young people are going to be curious about sex – that's a given. Nothing is going to stop young people experimenting with sex and sexuality. But they are being let down by a system which fails to give them comprehensive sex and relationships education. How can we have laws that require proof an alleged perpetrator believes a woman is consenting, when we are not teaching young people what consent is?

We are severely letting down young men and women if we leave them to negotiate sex and sexuality with nothing more than violent pornography that fetishises male sexual aggression, coercion and women's submission to guide them.

Over and over again we hear research and reports about sexual violence in teen relationships. It's estimated that one in three 16-19- year-old girls have experienced some form of intimate partner violence. If we don't act now to teach young people about consent and respect, this is only going to get worse.

It's right that the law asks that an alleged perpetrator proves they reasonably believe their victim consented. But while we are not talking about what consent looks like, this aspect of the law is going to tip the balance against women. If we are not showing young people that the violence and coercion they see on the internet does not represent consent, how can a law which demands a reasonable recognition of consent possibly serve women?

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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