For university students around the country, freshers’ week has just come to a close. Traditionally associated with frenzied socialising and drinking, in recent years it has become notable for another fixture: sexual consent workshops. And this new term saw yet another protest led by a male student that such classes were patronising and unnecessary.
These protesters couldn’t be more wrong. As a criminal law lecturer at Oxford and a campaigner who has facilitated consent workshops, I am disturbed by common and persistent misunderstandings of sexual consent. As a victim of rape myself, who , I have come to expect sceptical responses. If you heard my story, you might say, along with many others, “that’s just sex with regrets” but both legally and psychologically, you would be wrong.
So, during freshers’ week this year, I decided to challenge misconceptions of rape by staging a recreation of the immediate aftermath of my own violation, inviting people to come to see for themselves what rape looks like. In my story, would they be able to identify sexual violence, or would they just see an ordinary sexual interaction?
A better awareness of what constitutes rape is urgently needed. Figures show that the reporting of rapes in the UK has doubled over the past four years – which is thought to be an impact of high-profile cases such as – but also that the conviction rate has fallen in this time. Suggesting a reason for this, professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University, commented: “There is a whole set of social assumptions about what a rape looks like, which most rapes don’t look like.”
My performance took place in student accommodation at the , just as my rape had done. Upon arrival, attendees were chaperoned into the building and invited to enter a bedroom. On entering the bedroom, the attendees found the curtains were drawn and the scene was lit by a single bedside lamp. In the bed I was lying on my side, in the arms of a male performer who held me against his body. This was the position I found myself in when I woke up that morning. I remember feeling confused and not knowing where I was, while also, disturbingly, enjoying being held. I was in shock.
Finding myself again in this position, five years later, I felt something quite different. As I recalled my rape, and experienced being viewed by others in a moment of such vulnerability, I cried and shook. I felt the shame that is so common among victims of sexual offences; the acute fear that those I was sharing this experience with would dismiss my story as many had done so before. I felt the gut-level pain of recognising what had been done to me. I lay in the bed for an hour and a half, as 20 students, some known to me and some strangers, came to view my rape scene.
My performance was inspired by the 1973 art work by Ana Mendieta, , in which Mendieta reenacted the aftermath of a rape and murder that had occurred on her campus. The scene set was harrowing: Mendieta, nude from the waist down, bound to a kitchen table and smeared with blood.
While important in its time, I was troubled by the thought that this rape scene, like so many others portrayed in the media, was overtly violent. There is generally something shocking about those cases of rape we are exposed to, which signals to us that indeed this is an instance of sexual violence. For example, in the coverage of , much was made of the fact the sexual assault took place behind a dumpster, among dirt and pine-needles, with the victim being publicly exposed and suffering physical injuries. I couldn’t help but wonder if the case would have received the same coverage if Turner had taken his victim back to his accommodation, and assaulted her in his own bed, without inflicting physical injury.
After all, that is precisely what had happened to me. And, despite the law, which makes it clear that it is rape when someone has sex with a person who is incapacitated through intoxication, to many people my story was a bad one-night stand and therefore my fault. Even the police, when I first reported it, said that no crime had been committed. It was only when I complained they acknowledged I had reported a rape and offered to reopen the case.
Why the confusion? Perhaps, because what happened to me looks normal. There is nothing to shock or to excite, even to titillate. Those who attended my performance found a scene that was in many ways utterly mundane, having braced themselves for something visceral and confronting. That was the point. The very banality of my rape scene was meant to shock, and it did.
In a discussion after the performance, attendees expressed feeling acute discomfort upon viewing a normal private space, and realising that it could be the site of such violence. They were struck by how violence could take such a different form than that which they normally imagined. There was speculation that perhaps we don’t believe stories of rape of this sort, because we don’t want to believe people are capable of such things. But my performance made it impossible for attendees to disbelieve, forcing them to recognise that sexual interactions that are often dismissed as normal are too often instances of sexual violence.
These misconceptions about rape show why consent workshops in universities are crucial: to ensure that people really understand what sexual violence is. These workshops must continue. So too must journalism casting light on the realities of sexual violence on campuses, such as the recent Guardian coverage of . I eagerly await the imminent examining violence against women on campuses and that its findings will make it clear that all universities must address sexual violence, in all forms.
As I hope my performance demonstrated vividly, we need to take sexual violence more seriously, including cases that do not look like those or reported in sensational news spreads.
• This article will be pre-moderated