by Simone Gosden

The STARS Dorset Consent Tent Team deliver activities designed to promote meaningful conversation around sexual consent. We attend music festivals, student and community events and engage with the public in a light
hearted and fun way. Our aim is to educate and to allow space for people to really examine where their value base sits. We want survivors of sexual violence to know that they are not alone, that there are services available and that we stand with them. We want people who may be part of a support network for survivors to understand how the language they use and the attitudes they portray may impact on their loved one. For example, not ‘quizzing’ someone who has approached you for support or using phrases that could feel like victim blaming, such as, ‘why didn’t you stay with your friends?’. We also want to educate future jurors, employers and community leaders about what rape and sexual assault really looks like.

Most people imagine that if they were attacked by a sexual predator they would kick, bite, scratch and scream but this is rarely the case. When in a traumatic situation most of us flop or freeze and so in the absence of ‘fighting back’ people don’t recognise rape. With the support of Dr Peter Hills at Bournemouth University we realised that we needed to rephrase the question. Instead of asking people to define rape we ask them to identify when consent is given. Using a series of vignettes about either sexual contact with a person or rape we ask people to tell us whether the contact is consensual. The conversations that follow give real insight into societal beliefs around consent. People will often describe sexual assault or rape as a ‘bad experience’. It’s not until you ask them to tell you at what point consent was given that you see the lightbulb moment.

In 2018 research for the End Violence Against Women Coalition by YouGov found that of the people surveyed a third of men and 21% of women believed that if a woman flirted on a date it generally would not be rape even if she had not consented.

This highlights that many people still hold outdated beliefs about sexuality. It feeds in to the myth that women are sexual creatures who use their alluring ways to get what they want and that all women say ‘no’ at first when really they mean ‘yes’. There is still a section of society who claim to be confused about what consent is or is not. So I believe strongly that we do need to talk about it. We ask people to think about what consent might look and feel like. To consider what an enthusiastic and freely given yes might sound like. We also talk about ways in which consent might be given under duress which I think throws up some challenging questions for people.

If someone has sex with you because they are worried that you might become angry or physically aggressive, that is not consent. If someone has sex with you because if they don’t you will:

  • Sulk
  • say they don’t truly love you
  • refuse to go out
  • refuse to see their family
  • accuse them of seeing someone else
  • complain about them to other people
  • call them frigid or boring
  • have sex with someone else

That is not consent.

All of the activities we deliver are deliberately gender neutral. Whilst we recognise that women are more likely to be the victim of sexual violence and perpetrators are more likely to be male we are clear to acknowledge that women can also be perpetrators and men can be victims.

In the year to the end of March 2017, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated: 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, equivalent to 3.4 million female and 631,000 male victims

The activities are written in such a way that puts the participant in the scenario with whoever their chosen partner may be. This helps people to connect with the issue. Often victims of sexual assault become sexualised in people’s
minds. There is an assumption that some level of desire or pleasure must have been there. When in fact sexual assault and rape are humiliating, degrading and terrifying acts which leave a massive impact on survivors. By putting participants at the centre of the scenario we can remove some of the characterisations given to sexual violence survivors by film and tv. I also believe that the vast majority of people would not rape or sexually assault someone when you flip the statistics we see that two thirds of men and 79% of women do not believe that flirting on a date is consent. By giving people the time and space to truly formulate their thoughts and beliefs we can start to breakdown some of the stereotypes and myths that perpetuate our society. It’s certainly encouraging to hear friendship groups challenge each other and talk about consent in a positive and responsible way.

We all have a responsibility to seek consent in our relationships. Regardless of who you are attracted to, whether you are long term partners or meeting for the first time. Consent is vital and should never be assumed. We’ve all been told that the key to good sex is communication but when you strip this back what we’re really saying is the most important thing for good sex is consent. In other words ‘is this ok?’

We also need to be clear that there is no such thing as ‘non-consensual sex’ there is sex and there is rape. There is no ‘grey area’ we need to be confident to use the right language and to challenge inappropriate sexual language and behaviour. By doing so I believe we can go part way to removing the shame and guilt carried by survivors and put it back where it belongs with the perpetrator. 

The work we do is not about judging people or shaming them into saying the right thing. It’s about being honest and open. We’re saying what do you think of this, can you imagine this scenario, can you identify consent? If this happened to you would you know it was not your fault? If this happened to a loved one would you know how to support them? If you were sat on a jury would you recognise sexual assault or rape?

Simone Gosden is the Volunteer Co-ordinator for STARS Dorset. If you are interested in getting involved with our consent work please email Simone on [email protected]