Has Britain’s attitude to sex and consent begun to change?

Nosheen Iqbal
Attempts to raise awareness of consent issues among Britain’s higher education students sparked a backlash. Photograph: Flashpop/Getty Images

How do you know if someone wants to have sex with you? It’s a question – about consent and what constitutes affirmative, enthusiastic, mutual desire – that has been under intense focus in recent months. On campuses and in workplaces, on nights out and in the press, the spectrum for debate is vast: serious sexual offences committed by Bill Cosby and alleged against Harvey Weinstein have been evaluated alongside the viral short story Cat Person and the sensational account of a date with comedian Aziz Ansari. After #MeToo, what does the critical mass on consent reveal?

In Sweden, marking a victory for women’s rights activists, parliament last week passed a bill, by 257 votes to 38, to recognise that sex without explicit mutual consent constitutes rape. The law, which goes into effect on 1 July, ensures that prosecutors will no longer need to prove that violence or threats were used by the accused in order to obtain a conviction, making it the 10th European country to amend its legislation in this way.

“It won’t shift the burden of proof but it will strengthen the burden of explanation,” says Katarina Bergehed, a senior policy adviser on women’s rights at Amnesty International in Sweden. “Perpetrators will have to be able to explain how they checked the other person wanted to voluntarily participate in sexual activity; there should be physical and verbal cues. If you’re not sure, there is a responsibility to reframe how consent is understood – passive silence is not a yes.”

The 2013 case of a teenager in Umeå, northern Sweden, being penetrated by a wine bottle at a party proved “[to be] an angry tipping point in Sweden”, says Bergehed. Protests sparked the formation of national feminist movement Fatta (meaning “get it” in Swedish), which campaigned to change the law after the court acquitted the three accused men, ruling that the girl’s refusal to open her legs could be interpreted as a sign of “shyness”. (They were later convicted in the court of appeal.)

The way to get men to back off is to make them feel morally responsible for themselves

Adam Faghiri

But consent isn’t only being reassessed in court. In Britain, following the publication of That’s What She Said, a report on “lad culture” in higher education, the National Union of Students held workshops at 20 universities in 2014, as part of the I Heart Consent project to raise awareness during freshers’ week on how to navigate sex and relationships.

“There was a swift backlash,” says NUS women’s officer Hareem Ghani. “Most students I’ve worked with have been receptive to clarify what constitutes consent as long as a deeper conversation is offered on how both genders are affected … but there was a lot of sensationalist reporting around a couple of incidents, specifically at the University of York where one student protested [against] us holding the talk.”

The York student, Adam Faghiri, now 24, tells the Observer that his position hasn’t softened on the subject. “I don’t think it’s the place of a student to tell another student how to behave in the bedroom, whether they are or are not correct,” he says. “They’re not your parent or even another lecturer ... The way to get men to back off is to make them feel morally responsible for themselves. If you speak down to them, all you will do is spark a rebellious streak.”

Faghiri had handed out flyers on campus to inform students that attending the talk was not mandatory. “I found it strange,” he says, “that it would be rare anyone said anything to me on campus but if I was drinking in a pub or bar, people would come up to me and hug me. They would say: ‘You told the truth. You stood up [to] them. Good for you.’”

He still doubts “that a consent workshop would prevent a rape” but then admits the definition of rape itself confuses him. “Depending on who you talk to, the definition varies. I don’t know how to define rape because the cultural conversation has made it so broad or so narrow that nobody does.”

For Heather Stone, 28, a University of Nottingham graduate who is enrolled on a master’s course this autumn, there is no room for ambiguity. “That’s what the consent workshops are for – to clarify what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Not everyone has the same level of education or comes from the same background, or has the same level of sexual experiences when they get to university.” For her, there is little doubt that more awareness is hugely positive. “From my experience, the culture hasn’t significantly shifted,” she says. “Men still leer on the street or take advantage of women when they’re drunk, or don’t understand what’s OK, and what’s creepy.”

The take-up of consent apps – Good2Go, Legal Fling, SaSie – that have proliferated online, largely in the US, where users are encouraged to record one another agreeing to a sexual interaction, appears limited in the UK. “They are dangerous,” says Felicity McKay, a non-practising barrister who works at a law firm in the city. “They assume once the app has been ‘signed’ that consent cannot be revoked or that the perpetrator of sexual violence is free to do as they please, safe in the knowledge that the app will ‘prove’ their innocence.” Still, she is thrilled that there is change at a legislative level. “Sweden is pretty innovative and on the forefront of understanding sex and women’s rights, but within the legal community this was still a hard-fought battle.”

There is definitely a subset of men using their grasp of the subject in a slightly aggressive way

Elspeth Rendall

Elspeth Rendall, 29, who works in TV, tells the Observer that a different conversation about consent has emerged. Rendall – who attends privately hosted sex parties in central London – describes a culture where “alpha men consider themselves to be very right on, very much part of the scene, and are utilising the notion of consent so it becomes an instrument with which they control the interaction.” Men will ask Rendall if they can hug or kiss or touch her, and thus remove her sense of a spontaneous experience. “Obviously this comes with the caveat that greater awareness around consent is a brilliant, necessary thing but there is definitely a subset of men using their so-called sophisticated grasp of the subject to make that the central thing in a slightly aggressive way.”

It’s a fraught subject for Eddie Chambers, a 24-year-old English graduate from York, who describes himself as “slightly geeky, not that confident” and has discussed consent at length with his friends, particularly with one who was “worried he pushed it too far with his girlfriend”. To Chambers, establishing the idea that non-consensual activity would include a partner being too drunk, or vulnerable, or feeling obliged, is progress.

“#MeToo has been hugely significant in this conversation around understanding consent but I do think our culture sends men mixed messages,” he says, over tea in his work canteen. “Even sensitive nerdy types are sent a message of entitlement that no one benefits from. Films teach us that the geek can get the girl if he doesn’t quit after an initial lack of interest from a woman. The message is: that’s no reason to give up – she just doesn’t know you well enough. That’s obviously not a healthy attitude.”

Faghiri remains unconvinced. “What I have seen is that men are scared to go near women for fear of sexual harassment charges being thrown at them,” he says. “Relationships are difficult enough as it is if you’re not experienced. I have a couple of friends who I’m sure would be sexually more confident if this ‘#MeToo culture’ wasn’t hanging over them. I don’t know if that’s a price that needs to be paid – you pick your evil, so to speak.”

Some of the names in this article have been changed