Public Sexual Harassment Series Part 2: Why Is Consent So Hard To Understand?

Illustration: Ana Pau B. Leon @theworldinposters

Content Warning: description of sexual assault, violence (and spoilers for I May Destroy You)

It becomes easy to not know the difference between sexual harassment and sexual assault when sometimes, both experiences intersect.

This article is the second piece in a series addressing sexual harassment, in response to a questionnaire launched earlier this year which asked womxn to anonymously share their experiences of harassment. Inevitably, experiences of harassment and assault overlap for many womxn, so this series is unable to address sexual harassment without amplifying experiences of sexual assault.

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature inflicted on someone. Sexual assault is most often associated with rape, but it is also an umbrella term used to describe rape, but also unwanted touching and groping that doesn't involve penetration. Sexual assault can involve forcing or manipulating someone to witness or participate in sexual activity.

I May Destroy You, a series which premiered on HBO in June, starred in and written by Michaela Coel, broke many taboos in TV culture, by exploring consent. In Episode 5, Arabella, the protagonist (played by Coel), has sex with a man who removes his condom midway through intercourse without telling her. When she finds out, she’s initially more frustrated at the inconvenience of purchasing emergency contraception than the act itself, until she later discovers it is classified as rape under UK law whilst listening to a podcast. Viewers took to Twitter and to discuss the surprise that secret condom removal AKA ‘stealthing’ is classified as rape.

Why was this something nearly all my friends and twitter users alike, didn’t know was a crime until seeing the show? Why were we never told about 'stealthing' in sex education?

Half-hearted sex education in school told many of us heteronormatively that men must be sexually relieved and women..? Ah yes, we need to stock up on tampons because we ovulate and will eventually bear a child! Great.

I remember the word consent being introduced into sex education lessons during latter half of secondary school but the coverage was limited and vague at best. My most prominent memory of sex education during my time at (an all girls comprehensive) school, was being passed a handful of condoms and taught how to put them on the classroom dildos, which sat hauntingly in the SRE cupboard for the majority of the year.

Each table was given a few dildos and after a quick tutorial from our teacher, the fate was truly in our hands. At the time, it was embarrassing and I really tried to act like I had *done it* before.

Being presented with loose definitions of consent growing up, for example; “as long as you’re both sober, because drunk mistakes are bad,” makes it unsurprising that many survivors of sexual assault won’t acknowledge what happened to them straight away, or come to terms with what actually happened against them was a crime, until much later.

Overwhelmingly, womxn disproportionately experience sexual assault on a higher scale than men. Rape Crisis reports that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced some type of sexual assault since the age of 16, and approximately 90% of those who are sexually assaulted know the perpetrator prior to the offence - something which is candidly highlighted throughout I May Destroy You.

I May Destroy You (a show which everybody should see) also expertly demonstrates that trauma is relative, no matter the ‘severity’ of a person’s experience. Through Kwame’s (Paapa Essiedu) plotline, who is sexual assaulted by someone he had previously had sex with; to the character Terry (Weruche Opia) who realises that the two men she spontaneously had a threesome with had planned it without her knowing - essentially manipulating her into sex - the series navigates the realisations and different realities of sexual trauma simultaneously.

When discussing sexual assault, it’s important to remember that trauma is truly in the eye of the beholder - something which seems small or ‘insignificant’ to you, won’t be t