Consent seems like a pretty simple concept - either you have it or you don’t, right? By substituting sex with stealing, the ingenious New Zealand comedian below makes the whole thing abundantly clear.
And yet there are still cases of sexual assault where the perpetrator and survivor have opposing opinions on whether consent was granted. A recent example is the case of Stanford student and champion swimmer Brock Turner who was convicted of three counts of sexual assault on an unconscious woman whom he claimed gave him a resounding “yes” before she passed out.
His father then went on to plead that Brock had been persecuted enough via the media attention attracted by the extended court case and should be given a light sentence for his “20 minutes of action”.
So what’s gone wrong here? Do this father and son have zero understanding of what rape is, or are they just wilfully pretending to? Sexual assault advocate and co-author of Loveability: An Empowered Girl's Guide to Dating and Relationships, Nina Funnell has sat down to help unpack the matter and get to grips with whether back home in Australia, society has an issue with explaining consent.
What does sexual assault look like?
A common misconception about rape is the accompanying mental image involving an unknown man threatening you unexpectedly and probably with a weapon. The real picture meanwhile is far more wide reaching and close to home.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 78 per cent of female victims of sexual assault know their perpetrators. Assaults are often committed by someone the victim goes to work or school with, a family member, current or previous partner, family friend, and people met while socialising and dating.
Nina is actually a survivor of the former version and says, “I’m always conflicted about talking about my own story in public precisely because it reinforces… stereotypical notions of what sexual assault looks like.
“Part of the reason why people often have difficulty recognising sexual violence as sexual violence is because if it doesn’t conform to the knife-wielding stranger variety, they might think well, this doesn’t really count.”
It comes down to the fact that if you don’t know what other types of sexual assault look like, you may not be able to recognise your experience as abuse or classify it as such if you’re committing it.
Telling teenage girls that sex hurts can set dangerous expectations
Sex is supposed to be pleasurable. So why aren’t we telling girls that?
“[Sex education] often focuses on the risk and harm - unwanted pregnancy and STIs, for example, - but they often neglect to have any discussion of pleasure or desire. They also tend to strategically avoid any discussion about female masturbation or female orgasm.
“Both girls and boys learn about the male orgasm because to learn about how babies are made you have to address the male orgasm, but you don’t need to address the female orgasm.”
On top of the curriculum gap, Nina says, “Girls are constantly hearing that the first time will hurt and it’s normal if sex hurts when you’re young, and actually that’s a really unhealthy message to be sending.”
“It increases girls’ vulnerability and if they are experiencing unwanted sex that they’re not enjoying, then the message that they’ve heard is well, that’s just normal.
“If we had more conversation about female sexual pleasure and if we normalise that conversation, then automatically we’d be saying that sex should be pleasurable and that sex is never pleasurable if it’s not consensual.”
Education is ignoring some pretty important topics
Nina believes that information on the female orgasm isn’t the only thing missing from schools. She says, “sex education at the moment in Australia is doing a really woeful job at talking to young people about consent.
“Sex education still focuses really heavily on the biology of things, on pregnancies, STIs, all of the plumbing, while ignoring a whole bunch of other issues including consent and relationships and also including LGBTI issues.
“There’s very little gender analysis in sex education so there’s little analysis on the sort of pressure and coercion that can exist within relationships.”
The NSW Board of Studies declined to comment when contacted by SBS in relation to this story. However an examination of their Personal Development Health and Physical Education syllabus for years 7-10 only includes one reference to sexual consent. No explicit mention is made of female orgasm or pleasure.
Nina believes that it isn’t only within the classroom environment that change can be implemented. “Even with very little kids you can teach them the basics about consent in relation to any kind of physical interaction,” Nina explains.
She uses the example of a young child who is told to kiss someone their parents refer to as an “aunty” but whom the child doesn't regonise. Despite saying "no, I don’t want to do that", the response from their parents is often that they have to do it anyway.
“That teaches that child that their boundaries don’t count and that if an adult is instructing you to do something that you don’t want to do, well if they’re an adult you better just do it”.
Why “no means no” can be problematic
Community attitudes and beliefs often underpin our actions and therefore have a powerful role to play in helping us understand what behaviour is and isn’t acceptable. One that Nina hopes we can move away from is the well versed phrase that “no means no”, and no, that doesn’t follow that she thinks “no” means “yes”.
“The problem with ‘no means no’ is that boys have heard no means no and they get that, but when I’ve done research with young women what’s really interesting is that very few people actually use the word ‘no’ [when communicating that they feel uncomfortable in a sexual situation],” Nina says.
“What they’re far more likely to use is something else like ‘I’m not really sure about this’, ‘maybe later’, they might change the subject [or] use no verbal messages like moving somebody’s hand off their thigh for example.
“There are a whole bunch of ways that people say no that don’t technically include that word ‘no’, and if all boys have ever been taught to hear is ‘no means no’ then if they don’t hear that dog whistle word, they might just carry on regardless thinking well, she’s not saying no therefore this must be okay.”
The issue here isn’t so much that the phrase is incorrect, but that it’s misleading when not used in the context of a wider discussion about what signals a 'no' and how to appropriately respect someone’s limits in a sexual context.
When asking teenagers and young women why they wouldn’t specifically use the word “no” in situations where they feel uncomfortable, Nina says that in some cases it can be because they actually like the person and don’t want to reject them outright. They may not want sexual intercourse at that stage, but perhaps want to do other things or leave that option open in future.
“Another reason is that if it’s a casual hook up and they don’t know this person well and they are extremely pushy and borderline aggressive, saying no to someone who’s 20 kilos heavier than you can actually be a really scary intimidating prospect. So adopting strategies where they don’t have to outright refuse someone but can try to manoeuver their way sideways can be seen as a socially safe option,” she explains.
What does the law say?
The definition of sexual assault in NSW is clear. A spokesperson tells SBS, “if there is no consent, it’s a crime, no matter the circumstances.”
They add, “If a person is asleep, unconscious, affected by drugs or alcohol, or otherwise can't consent, then it's sexual assault and that's a crime. A person under the age of 16 can't give consent, it's sexual assault. Sex without consent, even if it's within a marriage or another relationship, is sexual assault and that's a crime.”
Image by Sarah Robinson (Flickr).