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Do you know what rape means?

31st August 2012

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The issues of consent and rape have been making headlines consistently over the last few months, due partly to a number of high-profile controversies in which public figures have debated or questioned their definitions. At the same time, there have been growing concerns that a large number of young people do not understand what consent is - or what constitutes rape.

Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that “a person (A) commits an offence if… B does not consent to the penetration and A does not reasonably believe that B consents.” However, according to a survey by the Havens, a sexual assault referral centre, only 77% of men aged 18-25 agreed that having sex with a person who has said no to sex constitutes rape. This leaves 23% who do not believe this to be the case.

Bradford MP George Galloway came under fire recently for his assertion that having sex with a woman who is a asleep with whom one has previously had consensual sex is not rape but merely “bad sexual etiquette.”

Since a person who is asleep and cannot reasonably be believed to have given consent, this assertion is clearly contradicted by the Sexual Offences Act and has received heavy criticism from a number of feminist groups, journalists and public figures.

However, research suggests that Galloway is not the only one to hold this opinion. According to the Havens’ survey, one in thirty men would assume consent if their partner were asleep; and just 60% of 18-19 year olds said that they believed having sex with someone who is asleep constitutes rape.

The survey showed concerning statistics about the number of young people who understood the necessity of obtaining consent prior to sleeping with someone. There also appears to be some confusion about what constitutes consent. 47% of respondents said that they would assume someone who physically pushed them away did not want to have sex; and 57% said that they would assume that someone did not want to have sex if they said no. This leaves an astonishingly high number of people (around half in each scenario) who would not consider a physical or verbal rebuttal to be an indicator that their potential partner does not consent to sex.

Added to this, 41% of 18-25 year olds surveyed said that they have been pressured into sex that they didn't want, whilst a quarter of women have remained silent and had sex when they had no desire to do so. 

It is thought that many young people’s lack of understanding of British consent law and the definition of rape is a result of receiving insufficient sexual education in school. Simon Blake, chief executive of sexual health charity Brook, recently told the Guardian that sex education in the UK "is incredibly patchy, and what young people have been saying for a really long time is 'too little, too late, too biological'."

Rhiannon Holder, a youth worker for Brook, told the Guardian that some young people she had spoken to “didn't really want to [have sex], but they didn't know how to say 'no' or 'stop'”. She and other professionals who work with young people are now calling for more emphasis on SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) in school.

This teaching would also aim to address the mistaken but widely-held opinion in the UK that the responsibility for ensuring sex is consensual lies exclusively with one party. According to organisations such as Brook, young men should be taught to elicit a ‘yes’ rather than assuming consent unless the other person explicitly says ‘no’.

The government’s review on PSHE (Personal, Social, and Health Education) is set to report at the end of this year, and it is hoped that this may result in greater provision of SRE. Some people remain sceptical about this, and are concerned that the review may lead to PSHE teaching being narrowed further. The current laws regarding SRE require secondary schools to teach only the biological aspects of sex. Government guidelines recommend that teenagers are given opportunities to learn about the issues surrounding relationships, sexuality, consent, pregnancy choices and other subjects, but this is not currently a statutory requirement.

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