Slightly different to my other pieces but some thoughts I wanted to share.
Content Warning: Sexual Assault
“They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.” – Louise O’Neill, Asking For It
Growing up in rural Cheshire, I was never into partying so the risk of being drunk or alone after dark hadn’t crossed my mind. Consequently, it surprised me when I first started going out in Belfast and my friends refused to let anyone walk home alone at night out of concern for each other’s safety. Two and a half years later, this is still the case, and, after my friend was harassed by a stranger as she walked home from the library early one evening, I now understand why. However, it should not be the case that anyone fear the nasty potential of different situations, such as meeting a Tinder match for the first time, going on a night out or even walking home in the dark.
Sober, attractive, respectable women who are distraught after an attack by a man they don’t know in a dark alley are treated sympathetically by the press as sexual assault victims, as if this is the only true version of ‘victim’. If a victim’s circumstances do not conform, then they don’t qualify as a true ‘victim’. In reality, there are varying circumstances in which people are sexually assaulted. For example, the victim may be male, drunk, or unconscious. The perpetrator may be known to them, possibly a friend or loved one. The assault may happen in a club, a car, a friend’s house, even the victim’s bedroom. People also process their experiences differently and should not be judged on how they deal with the assault. Just as there is no true ‘victim’, there is no correct ‘reaction’.
Victims are targeted based on what perpetrators perceive as vulnerability, for example if someone is alone or drunk. However, ‘vulnerability’ is not an invitation. Nobody welcomes the physical or psychological trauma of sexual assault, or any other kind of assault. It is never the victim’s fault. Those who perceive and seek to exploit vulnerability are the ones to be held accountable.
Consent is defined as “permission for something to happen or agreement to do something”. Consent is a clear, enthusiastic and verbal confirmation that someone is happy with what the other is asking for and requires a sound state of mind. This can never be assumed. If a victim was too drunk to process what was happening, they could not consent. If they were unconscious, they could not consent. If they were paralysed by fear, they could not consent. If consent is given, it can, at any time, be withdrawn. When consent is given, it does not become a free pass that entitles someone to your body whenever they so choose. It is not automatically carried over into the next day, week, month or year, regardless of relationship.
Current high-profile cases, such as the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, are slowly effecting a deeper understanding and awareness of sexual consent. The complainant in the trial of four Ulster rugby players was criticised for not fighting back, as if a lack of struggle meant she consented. This is wrong. The absence of resistance does not by default signify the presence of consent: no one is entitled to your body. Vulnerability never justifies assault.