Life

“What we need to consider when we talk about consent”

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Emily Reynolds
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An annual festival is aiming to open up the conversation on consent. Here, freelance writer Emily Reynolds explains why now is the perfect time for us to consider what it really means.

Do you know what consent is?

It’s a simple question, and one we all believe we know the answer to. But beneath the often binary conversations about harassment, assault and rape lie some thornier issues. Enter Clear Lines Festival.

Taking place over three days at the Rich Mix community space, Clear Lines brought together a combination of artists, creatives, activists, academics, journalists and survivors to discuss assault and consent – and how, in the current climate, conversations about those things might change.

“Consent is one of those buzzwords that you hear bandied about a lot – in educational policy, in the media,” festival co-founder Winnie M Li tells stylist.co.uk. “But what does ‘consent’ actually mean in day-to-day situations between two people, such as co-workers, romantic partners, adolescents who are starting to become sexually active…

“It may be an uncomfortable conversation, but unless you really talk about consent in simple, understandable language, it’s hard to make it clear what kind of behaviour can lead to someone feeling violated and worse, traumatised.” 

“What does ‘consent’ actually mean in day-to-day situations?”

To that end, the festival sought to create a safe space for those involved in the conversation on consent to explore these – often very difficult – topics. The whole event was crowdfunded and run entirely by volunteers, according to the vision of festival director Tania Mendes. At the festival, legal experts and counsellors sat alongside writers, survivors, artists and activists on panels and in workshops on justice, literature, marginalisation and more.

Creating this genuinely safe space was something the organisers felt passionately about. “As a survivor, I felt it was necessary to create a space where people could come together and have an open, honest conversation about sexual assault, abuse and consent,” Li says.

“So many people have experiences and stories which have impacted their lives so much, but often there’s a sense that no one wants to hear these stories, because of the stigma around these issues,” she continues. “That’s not true – I think many people would want to share these stories (as you can see with #MeToo), if a space was created for that purpose.

“There are so many talented artists creating very powerful work around these issues, and an audience that wants to see that work. So why not make a platform for that kind of sharing to happen?”

The festival was also clear about the ways our intersecting identities can impact upon our experiences of assault – and our access (or lack of) to the services we may need. Panels on disability, race and queer identities all explored these barriers.

“As a person of colour, I’m very conscious that most rape survivors you see in media stories tend to be young, white and middle class,” Li explains. “In reality, people across all sectors of society are affected by sexual violence, and where they are in society – their class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, if they’re disabled or able-bodied, etc. – all these factors can affect how they’re believed (or not), what kind of help they can get, and how they can recover.

“This is incredibly important to realise – that there are inequalities even within the fundamental inequality of being assaulted”. 

Clear Lines festival

Obstacles are different for every community. Services are often inaccessible to disabled people, as Ashley Stephen, co-founder of Disabled Survivors Unite, pointed out during a panel. Where exactly is the information that survivors are being given located? Does it come in an easy-read format for those with learning disabilities, or via a text number for deaf people? Are services genuinely wheelchair accessible, and are taxis provided to help people get to venues? Queer survivors have to navigate homophobia or transphobia alongside their trauma; BAME survivors experience misogyny and abuse from perpetrators and are exposed to institutionally racist services and organisations that reinforce discriminatory and essentialist ideas about their communities.

This marginalisation also affects how likely you are to be believed. Disabled people are often desexualised, as activist Rosemary Frazer pointed out during a panel: she wasn’t offered any education on sex and consent as a child, partly because it was believed that “people like us don’t have sex”. When disabled people subsequently disclose abuse or assault, she said, they’re not often met with a positive response. “What difference does race make?” asked panellist Subah Rasab, a specialist BAMER (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee) Outreach Worker at Coventry Rape & Sexual Abuse Centre, before quoting research that found refugee women tell their stories of sexual assault on average 11 times before anything is done about it.

Speaking out is one thing: being believed is another entirely.

What this also means is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to sexual violence – something that speakers on almost every panel pointed out. Whilst movements like #MeToo have highlighted the shocking breadth of abuse, other movements that look to help specific groups need to be mindful of the individual challenges they face. This doesn’t always mean simple inclusion, either – “the idea of ‘equality’ can mask the fact that responses have to be different” explained Dr Sundari Anitha, an academic at the University of Lincoln, during a panel.

What was clear throughout the conference is that survivors voices, now more than ever, need to be amplified.

“We’re at a tipping point,” Li says. “At least in terms of society realising how prevalent these experiences are.

“But what needs to happen now are actual changes in policy and practice that can better support survivors and prevent future criminal behaviour. Unfortunately, I think survivors and their advocates will need to continue pushing and calling things out, in order for change to take place.”

It’s clearer than ever that we need to believe women when they share their experiences. To do that, we need to make society a little bit more like Clear Lines Festival: a safe space where women can disclose their experiences and know that they are going to be believed. Organisations, movements and campaigns run by those who have experienced sexual violence are key to understanding assault and tackling it: making sure that the voices of the most marginalised are front and centre when we discuss the changes in policy and practice that we so clearly need. 

As a panellist from the Sexual Assault and Disability panel said: “Nothing about us, without us”. 

Images: Suzanna K Kane / iStock