BBC Three’s ‘Is this rape? Sex on Trial’ documentary received mixed responses in the press last week after a group of teenagers tackled the controversial topic of rape and consent. The group – along with viewers at home – had to watch a three-part drama, specifically scripted and filmed for the documentary, and then vote on whether or not they believed the girl had been raped.
Katie Russell from Rape Crisis was one to raise concerns, stating that if the program, “is not responsibly handled, particularly with the public vote element, it has the potential to upset rape survivors, and make them less likely to seek support.” Whilst there is always a danger of trivializing something by examining it in an objective, matter-of-fact manner, without doing so you could miss important points of debate, and the participants demonstrated a necessarily detailed and provocative one.
Despite her concerns, Katie Russell did agree that educating the public on consent was “vitally important”, as “a number of studies have highlighted the confusion, particularly among young people, around what consent means and therefore what constitutes rape and sexual assault,” and it seems that she was right – there was certainly some confusion. The drama the group watched was deliberately designed to provoke discussion and different opinions, as it seemed to some of the participants, and viewers at home, that the line between whether – in the eyes of the law – the victim had given consent or not was a hazy and complex one.
The fact that the young woman in the video had not said anything or not physically pushed him away, was argued by some of the young people to have been potential legal consent – they felt that, if she didn’t specifically say ‘no’, it wasn’t rape. However, others argued that her lack of responsiveness was a clear sign of no consent, as it is crucially important that someone clearly says yes and consents.
The situation raised alarm bells with the participants, and one young man noted, “I know friends of mine who have used those exact words, ‘She was into it’: the girl’s side of the story? ‘He was all over me, I didn’t like it, I was trying to push him away.’”
Meanwhile, all 12 girls found it had happened to them or a girl they knew, surprisingly shrugging it off as nothing unusual: “we’ve all been in a situation with a boy trying to force himself on us and in the end you’re just kind of like ‘Fine, whatever’. However, even in these situations, the consensus was that it was still wrong, because consent was not clearly given.
Miscommunication, or lack of communication, seemed to be integral in situations of sexual assault, and it seemed the responsibility for communication of sexual consent appeared to rely entirely on the woman. However, earlier this year, Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, issued guidelines that meant that men would have to demonstrate a woman had consented to sex. This was to recognize situations when victims may have been unable to consent, such as being too drunk or being afraid to say no for fear of their attacker.
However, although this is positive news for victims, since accused rapists don’t have anonymity under the current justice system, these guidelines mean that false accusations could result in a seriously damaging impact on the person’s life, even faster. Someone who claimed to have been falsely accused appeared on the show to highlight the effect of these accusations on his career and personal life.
Nearly two thirds of rape cases that make it to court are not convicted, due to lack of evidence, as it is notoriously difficult, as the drama showed, to prove consent was not given, particularly when it appears to be one person’s word against another.
The show made it clear that rape is a serious issue which affects young people – people you might know – in confused situations, and can often be due to people not understanding what consent means. One young man said, “Consent itself is very subjective.” When you are at a party, or when you are drunk, or if you have history with someone, or you thought you they were flirting with you – whatever the situation, you need clear consent. They have to say yes. No one wants to risk losing your job and loved ones, or risk future people you date being afraid of you, or 7 years in prison if convicted, just for not checking if they weren’t 100% okay and consenting.
The show aimed to educate young people about consent, and to do it in a sensitive way, about such a sensitive subject. Although the subject matter – and particularly the title ‘Is This Rape?’ – was controversial, if it helped to get people talking about consent, which it appeared to do even before it aired, then that must be a success.
Understanding consent is important, and these conversations help facilitate that, but preventing life-ruining situations is critical. As many have said before, education is key. In the eyes of the law, if you do not actively consent to a sexual act, or if the perpetrator does not reasonably believe consent was given, then it is illegal. Period. So if you are ever unsure about whether a sexual partner is consensual or not? Be sure. Know what you have to lose.