Blurred lines: Consent in the 21st century

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The S Word explores the grey area between consent and rape.

Ever woken up from the night with a complete blackout? Maybe you’ve woken in bed with someone shocked and upset.

In the era of binge drinking and one night stands, the principle of consent is often misunderstood, and sometimes ignored completely.

But how do you know if the line of consent was crossed? And in this day and age would anyone see it that way?

Consent has no legal definition. Under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, a person is unable to give consent if they are under the influence of alcohol, drugs, sleep, if they have a mental disability or if they are unaware of what is going on.

With celebrities like Lena Dunham coming forward and admitting to being raped in their college dorms whilst drunk, it’s time for me to tell my story too.

I’m Zoe, a 22-year-old student at the University of Sheffield, who found myself in this situation four years ago.

Newly 18 and trying to impress my older work colleagues, I suggested a night out.

I tottered into the local pub in my five inch heels and headed straight for the bar.

“Large glass of rose please.”

The barman didn’t even ID me. Glass in one hand, clutch in the other, I joined the work gang at their table outside.

I was the youngest but had become close to Katy*, despite her being three years older. The rest of the group were guys, but we had banter and it felt like a night out with my mates, apart from my burning desire to impress them.

It wasn’t like I was out to pull or anything, I’d been with my boyfriend Josh* for almost eight months.

He was quiet and polite, my mum liked him and we enjoyed each other’s company. We niggled about stupid things like his ex liking his profile picture, but we were happy. It was easy.

At 18 I was a massive lightweight. After two glasses of rose, I felt woozy, but I wanted to fit in with my new, older crowd, so I kept drinking. I spilt my third glass down myself and ended up ditching my pink stained tights in the toilets.

Back at the table, I could feel Steve*, 30, watching me. He kept supplying the drinks, edging closer to me. I was enjoying the attention, but with a 12 year age gap and two kids, I knew I didn’t want it to go any further. So, I swapped seats with Katy, settling down next to Max*, 20, who I got along with well. He was funny, a bit nerdy but a laugh nonetheless, and always offered me a lift home late at night.

By the time we got to town I was plastered and could barely stand up. How I actually made it into the club I will never know.

From here my memories are almost non-existent. I have snap shots of certain moments, like Steve’s hands wandering on the dancefloor and pushing him away as my brain clicked into motion and I realised what was happening. But the rest is a blackout.

Everything else I know about that night is pieced together from other people. The boys told me later that I had been sat on the floor of the outside smoking area with my head in my hands, but I don’t remember. Katy told me that I’d run out of the club, swiftly followed by Max. She found us in an unused entrance where I was bawling my eyes out and hysterically trying to call Josh.

Max told her he was going to take me home. To mine.

To this day, I wish I had been more responsible. I wish I hadn’t got so drunk. But the truth is, I had no control over what was happening to me.



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From the expert:

Found yourself in a similar position? Here’s advice on what to do if you think you may have been sexually assaulted, from Katie Russell – the national spokesperson for Rape Crisis.

“Consent must be fully and freely given and the individual must have the capacity to do so, otherwise it is a serious crime or sexual assault,” she says.

What to do:

Get somewhere where you feel safe.
Try and find someone you can trust.
Call your local Rape Crisis hotline, or if there isn’t a local number, call the national line.
Rape Crisis understand that you may be shocked and confused. You can talk in confidence, and anonymously if you’d prefer, about your thoughts and feelings.

Katie adds: “Speaking to Rape Crisis, you are guaranteed to be listened to, get support and be believed.”

She knows that people may not want to speak to Rape Crisis and may confide in a friend. To which she advises: “It’s really important, as a friend, to believe them and give them the time and space they need to talk.”

If you know that you want to report what’s happened, Katie advises you not to wash, and look on the Rape Crisis website for further instructions:

Rape Crisis can be called on their national line: 0808 802 9999 between 12 – 2:30pm or 7-9:30pm.