There's been a lot of talk lately about how universities can reduce rape by reinforcing the idea of consent. Students at the University of Bristol are now doing a compulsory sexual consent quiz as part of their induction. It's five yes/no questions, focusing on cases where two people chose, at some point, to initiate sexual contact. The message is "don't sleep with someone who's drunk."
I know the intention is good, but it's insulting. It might teach someone not to sleep with people who are too drunk to consent, but that's about it. The quiz - and focusing on consent as the sole cornerstone of good sexual ethics - is a lazy way to try and improve students' attitudes to sex.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate. When I started university, I wasn't sure I liked guys at all. I spent most of high school pining for my best friend. I didn't get anywhere, and she broke my heart by dating a boy because it won her acceptance from our peers. I was cripplingly shy, but I managed to make some friends at uni, including a young man I'll call the Karate Kid. We sat in lectures together and doodled on each other's notes, because it was first year and first year is not to be taken seriously. We ate lunch together, we texted when we went home, we whispered and giggled and held hands and... Oh.
It wasn't a surprise when The Karate Kid asked me out, not after days and days of the teasing frustration of sitting close in lectures, acutely conscious of where our bodies touched. In fact, I even went to lectures I wasn't enrolled in a few times, just to spend extra time stewing in the eroticism of the situation.
A boy liked me. A boy liked me. A boy liked me!
So, we went on a date. We went for coffee, because neither of us really knew what to do. The Karate Kid had had a girlfriend before; all I knew was that she had broken his heart and it hurt to talk about it, so I respectfully let it be and didn't ask what they'd done on dates. When we finished our coffee (neither of us actually drunk coffee) we both got a bit awkward. We went back to his dorm.
He pulled me onto his single bed with its generic-university-dorm bedside cover, where I perched awkwardly until he lay down beside me and pulled me on top of him. I knew what I was meant to be doing now, so I tentatively leaned down part of the way toward him. He moved towards me; it was a moment I'll never forget, because all I could think was OH GOD, WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME? His full pink lips started to pout a little, gleaming unappetisingly as they inched towards me.
I shut my eyes, and kissed.
First kisses are meant to be glorious, aren't they? Meaningful. They're meant to be meaningful. I recall letting my lips slither wetly over his as my mind wandered. Oh, I actually am a lesbian, aren't I? This room is cold, and it smells funny. It smells like boy. What time is it? Will I get home in time for dinner?
We kept kissing. I performed my role dutifully. I got better at it. Soon, the sight of his face leaning into mine didn't evoke the same feeling in me. I was even looking forward to further improving my skills. He promised we wouldn't take things too fast.
I felt so proud. I knew exactly what my best friend had felt about that poor sweet boy who was so besotted with her. We changed our Facebook statuses to 'In a Relationship' and watched our friends like it. And I wasn't going to have to come out to my parents, because I enjoyed being in a heterosexual relationship!
The next week we went on another date. We drunk another awkward not-coffee and then we went to his dorms. Some more making out took place, and then we somehow ended up naked.
Let it be said that I was very sheltered, or more to the point, very immature. I got to the age of seventeen without having watched any porn, or looked at any naked bodies outside of classical art. I'd just never investigated sex because I didn't feel like it held much interest for me at the time.
So when I saw his shiny, erect cock, I blurted out "Bloody hell, it's huge!" He laughed. "What... What do I do with it?" I asked. Yes, I was really that clueless, but it took staring a dick in the face to realize exactly how clueless I was. He showed me how to stroke him up and down, and it was gratifying to watch as he gasped and his head tipped back, and I knew that I was doing something right. Very right.
A few minutes passed, and the Karate Kid had quieted down. I slowed my wanking. "Um... Shall I stop?" I asked.
"Only if you want to be a pricktease.”
Ohhh. I was meant to be making him ejaculate.
So I resumed my rhythm. My arm hurt. How long did it take a guy to come?
And then he came, leaving my hand covered in sticky white gloop.
"Did you enjoy that?"
"I prefer no hands, actually. My ex used to do that for me."
I left speedily after that.
In the car, on the way home, I looked at my hands on the steering wheel and felt amazed that they still looked the same. I wondered how they could ever feel clean again. The Karate Kid sent me a message asking if I was okay; I'd seemed upset. I told him I was fine.
By the next week, I’d decided I was okay with handjobs. If we had sex, he told me, it would be a Real Relationship, and we could go on actual dates, to restaurants and to the cinema, rather than just fooling around in his room. Two of his friends had gotten together and spent an entire week in bed; couldn't we do that?
If he said he loved me, I decided, I'd fuck him; that would keep him interested. How could dumpy, awkward Beth hold anyone's attention for reasons other than sex?
He refused to go to a Christmas party with me, so I tagged along with my friend's flatmates. Around 4am, I went outside for some fresh air. I ended up watching a couple leaning against the wall outside; their faces radiated happiness, both of them looking like they thought they'd lucked out. I want that, I realised.
I texted the Karate Kid; unusually, it had been a full day since I'd heard from him. There was no response, so I went back inside to drink wine from a plastic pint cup and fall down the stairs. I'd have sex with him after the Christmas holidays. I'd tell him I loved him first.
I texted him the next day. No response. I texted to say merry Christmas. No response. In January, he ignored me at uni. I couldn't get a hold of him for long enough to break up with him, even though I saw him every day. I cornered him just before Valentine's and did the deed. Then I cried.
I stopped speaking to my friends, who seemed to have silently condoned his behaviour.
(Incidentally, one of said friends accosted me on the way out of a lecture with Esmé, my now-partner, in tow. I didn't even look up, I was so desperate to get away. Esmé was desperate for an introduction, but I scuttled away and didn't find that out for another couple of months.)
I consented to every single thing I did with the Karate Kid. He explicitly asked if I was okay with sexual acts, and I said I was. I consented over and over again, but the situation wasn't okay, it wasn't okay at all.
Abuse goes a lot further than "does tab A go in slot B with or without the permission of slot B’s owner?" People usually know what they are doing. The reason why consent isn't so easy isn't because someone was drunk when sex was initiated, it's because of a fundamentally skewed set of values.
We are both to blame, I think. He must have known that I worshipped the ground he walked on and that I wasn't getting pleasure out of the sexy stuff. He took advantage; there were points where I felt abused. I should have listened to my gut, but I felt so cool for having a boyfriend. I think that's just part of being young. I doubt I'd have listened if someone tried to explain to me how I'd feel later.
These days, I’m kinky, and kinky people talk about sex a lot - after all, consent differentiates a good time from aggravated assault. But we’re also very much aware that consent isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of sexual abuse. We talk about whether our activities are SSC, or safe, sane and consensual: consent on its own isn’t enough to prevent abuse. It'd still be abusive if, say, I ordered my partner to stick their finger in the plug socket, and if I have the power to influence someone to do that, then I'd better take that responsibility seriously rather than saying, "Sure, of course it’ll be fine!"
We also talk about RACK, or risk-aware consensual kink: this is a reminder that it's up to both of you to assess and minimize the risks involved in your play. I think it's quite an apt metaphor for relationships as a whole. They're all emotionally risky, but people don’t always talk about, or even consider, what they’re looking for, especially around sex.
People need to talk more about what they want and what they expect. It's hardly a novel concept, I know. But really, teaching young people to respect each other by talking to their sexual partners and finding out what they personally want, without any preconceptions, would be so much more helpful than telling guys not to fuck drunk girls.
Through all the teaching about STIs, pregnancy and rape I got at school, nobody ever talked about being emotionally ready for sex. I pushed myself to have sex because of a desire to fit in. I didn't want to be gay. I loved the legitimacy. The Karate Kid? Either he was manipulative as hell, or he was not much less naïve than me and acting out what he perceived a heterosexual relationship to be.
People are all different. They're not a gender role or a scenario. Take one of my friends at uni, who had a lot of one night stands with guys she met in clubs. There's nothing wrong with one night stands, except for the fact that she desperately wanted love, not sex. The next day, she'd check her phone constantly, waiting for texts that didn't come, feeling used because she and her sexual partners were looking for different things.
We need to expand our discussion of abuse, and sexual ethics as a whole, past consent. Sex is always inextricably tied up with emotion, and emotion is a serious thing. I'm highly dubious that a consent quiz will stop people with malicious intent from raping.
And what about the manipulators, the douchebags, the thoughtless or the people who’ve just gotten their wires crossed? Instead of consent classes, why not have communication classes? Why not encourage them to understand what their partner wants from sex instead, and let us all benefit?