Over the past few years, there has been a notable rise in concern regarding the question of consent in cases of sexual assault. It’s not simply that someone was raped or assaulted without their consent. It’s that the victim, according to their alleged attacker, was compliant. This, I suppose, is nothing new. Such are the murky waters of sexual assault. Is it not natural that the accused will always try and claim compliance? But when there’s clear inability to comply, you have to wonder, how they can claim as such. Cases like Brock Turner still beggar belief.

So what is consent?

Noun – permission for something to happen or agreement to do something.

Verb – give permission for something to happen.

And why is it so hard to establish?

Well it’s not. This fabulous little video about tea from Thames Valley Police clearly shows how easy consent is to ascertain. So why do our young men and women struggle so much with it? I don’t have the answer to that. I have lots of thoughts, many my own personal ones. But what I do know is consent is not just a problem of youth. Something I was reminded of recently.

A friend of mine, a woman in her sixties, recently joined a new gym. One day, while in the steam room, she was leaning over, enjoying the heat, rolling out her tight shoulders. There was only one other person in the room with her, a man sitting on the other side. He said something but she didn’t hear him. He repeated himself. Still, she didn’t hear him but not wanting to be rude, she smiled, nodded. Threw out a vague yeah, yeah, as you do. All very innocuous, not thinking much of it. Suddenly he got up, sat beside her and asked her to turn around. Now at this point, most people hearing this story would say why didn’t you move? Instead, a little flustered, she turned around and he started to massage her shoulders. Immediately, she asked herself what had he said to me? How have I brought this stranger in to my space? She says she didn’t get a good look at him but he was definitely younger than her. A lot younger. Perhaps late thirties, early forties.

Sitting there she started panicking. Torn between this nice massage and this stranger touching her, she didn’t know what to do. How would she get him to stop? Again as an outsider, it is easy for us to say, just tell him. Suddenly she felt a thigh, his thigh, pushing against her leg. The thoughts now going through her head were “There is no way this young guy is hitting on me, an old foggy.” She’s not an old foggy, by any standards, but rather than trusting her instincts she questioned her part in this scene. Still she didn’t say anything. She didn’t ask him to stop. By now he was standing on the bench, leaning above her, body appendages pressing against the back of her head, just to get a better grip on her shoulder, he told her. If it wasn’t so creepy it would be funny. In fact we did laugh, but beneath it we all felt the shock, disgust and fear of what we, as women, would do in this situation. My stomach turned when she told me what happened next.

Now sitting back down behind her, he asked her to raise her elbow. And rather than pressing deeper into her shoulder muscles as a physio might, he started kissing her armpit. My friend jumped, her suspicions finally confirmed. She started apologising, as women often do. Completely flustered and in shock. He, cool as a cucumber, simply said “No worries. Sit down. Let me finish the massage.” She hesitated, but ultimately turned back around again. He continued with his massage, until finally something snapped, she moved away and told him to stop.

My friend didn’t report this incident. Maybe she should have. But there was a hesitation as she wondered had she said something to encourage his actions? And the likelihood that he would say “I was just giving her a massage. I misread the signs.” In other words, don’t be so crazy, lady. But you have to stop and ask yourself what’s really going on here. Does this man use the steam room to prey on women? My friend convinced herself that he wasn’t hitting on her because of her age. An abusive situation is not simply older versus younger. It’s about power. What can I take here? Perhaps he saw something in her? Simply a woman on her own. Perhaps he sits in that steam room looking for opportunities where women are alone and unsure? Or perhaps he just has a fetish for armpits and spotted hers when she was doing her shoulder rolls?

His motives aside, which we could analyse all day long, what’s also interesting here is my friends reaction to the event itself. She knew she never consented to the massage. Yet, when he first touched her, rather than asking him to stop or simply what was he doing, she questioned herself. Had she said something that led him to believe she wanted him to massage her. Never did she ask herself how he’d manipulated the situation to suddenly be in her space, touching her body, without her consent. That’s power.

When his leg pushed against hers, her reaction was there’s no way this young man is hitting on me in my togs and plastic cap. I’m imagining this. I AM IMAGINING THIS. Again that’s power. She’s a good looking woman but sexual assault is not about the most attractive woman at the party being assaulted. It’s about opportunity. It’s about vulnerability. It’s about control. And again it’s about power.

When he kissed her armpit and she pulled away, he didn’t take a step back, apologise or acknowledge that he was making her uncomfortable, let alone abusing a situation. Instead he told her  to sit down and he would continue his massage. It’s easy for me, or anyone reading this, to say why didn’t you walk away then? Why didn’t you get angry with him? But people like this are cunning. They’re sly and vindictive. They don’t assault you outright. They’re circuitous with their actions. They’re charming. They build your trust. He told her about his wife and kids while giving her a massage. So when they strike you’re questioning whether you imagined it. Whether it was something YOU did to lead them on. That you gave them the consent to touch you. Who knows if she’d continued with the massage would he have tried again? Probably. Who knows whether he’s already tried this on other woman at that gym. We hope not. We want to think that this was an isolated incident but, deep down, we all know they aren’t.

It has taken several weeks for my friend to feel comfortable again in the gym. To no longer being nervous when alone in the steam room in case he walked in. Or on high alert whenever a man walked past in the pool area. Because not only do situations like this ignore our consent, but they add to everything else a woman needs to worry about. Walking home alone at night. Drinking too much on a night out. Wearing “provocative” clothing. Leading someone on. Now watching our actions in public spaces, lest someone might misconstrue our intentions.

Whatever next?

But we do have power. We can action change. We can encourage each other to trust our instincts. Is it not better to be embarrassed than sorry? We can work together to empower women and claw back our personal space. And continue to educate – consent is not just for kids.

Creeps like that will still exist. Crawling out from the woodwork when you least expect it. But just try and hold on to your voice and remember that consent is yours to give.

Not to be taken.

Photo curtesy of Unsplash.com Isaac Benhesed

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