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How can we change attitudes towards rape?

4th September 2012

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Recent media attention surrounding sexual consent and rape has highlighted the growing concern that young people do not understand what consent is or about what constitutes rape. But we can we do to change this?

As we previously reported, a survey by Havens, a sexual assault referal clinic, 23% of men between the ages 18-25 don’t believe having sex with a woman who says no is rape.

This shocking statistic highlights just how uninformed young people are about consent - and even more worryingly, it could mean that some of these men are actually pressuring women into sex when they have said no.

This view about what constitutes rape is not one that is just held by young men.

Last week Bradford MP George Galloway said that having sex with a woman who is asleep with whom they have previously had consensual sex with is not rape, but just ‘bad sexual etiquette’. So it shows that it is not just young men who need educated on the law on rape, but everyone.

His comments are not only worrying, but completely wrong. Section 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 states that:

(1)  A person (A) commits an offence if he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis, person B does not consent to the penetration, and person A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

(2) Whether a belief is reasonable is to be determined having regard to all the circumstances, including any steps A has taken to ascertain whether B consents.

Therefore if the person does not give their consent or cannot possibly give their consent (for example when they are asleep) the act is classed as rape according to the law.

Other than throwing George Galloway in a room with women who have had to endure ‘bad sexual etiquette’ it is clear that something needs to be done to educate people on this issue.

According to the Guardian consent is a very complex issue and it not as simple as just saying yes or no to sex: "I don't think many young people are offered the opportunity to explore all of the factors involved in giving consent: peer pressure, alcohol and drugs, self-esteem, coercion, gender issues," said Rhiannon Holder, a youth worker for Brook. 

If this is the case, along with the 23% of young men who believe it is not rape even when a woman says no, then it seems to be a much bigger problem that needs fixing as soon as possible.

With such a large proportion of young men unaware of what rape actually is, schools need to step in and start educating young people about it from a younger age. Most schools don’t have sex education classes at all - mine was one of them. Those schools that do offer sex education only really cover biological aspects of sex and rarely cover any of the important issues such as safe sex, emotions involved or what the law is on consent.

Although secondary schools do have to teach some sex and relationship education (SRE) there is no set curriculum for it so schools can teach as much or as little as they like. Also this means that young people are getting taught different things so there is no way to know if they are aware about the law.

Although the biological aspect of sex is very important, making sure young people know about the law before they start having sex is just as necessary.

If young people are getting little or no sex education then it should be no surprise that they are not aware about what the law says about rape and this needs to change. Sex education needs to be improved dramatically and there needs to be a set curriculum in place so all young people are being educated in the same way. So the government need to step in and take responsibility for ensuring it is a priority.

If schools had compulsory classes on this and made sure young people were aware of the law, it may stop some women from having to endure sexual assault at all.

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