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The Frailty of Consent when all you know is Shame

We need to change our attitudes on sex — but to what?

The Pearl and the Wave by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry

Since the revelations of #MeToo, we’ve started some important conversations about not just consent, but pleasure and communicating our desires to our partners. The two are natural bedfellows, but these conversations are difficult for those who have been brought up to feel that sex, and our own bodies, are inherently shameful.

Many of us have lived our sexual lives understanding consent to be what we would permit our partner to do, not what we actively wanted to do. Sex was something that women were not supposed to talk about, or desire. The best I could hope for is that whatever my partner chose to do, I would enjoy. My pleasure was something never to be talked about, and always secondary to my partner’s.

The programming that led to these beliefs began in childhood, like so many of our double-standards. When I was a small child, I always played with the boys, who never really accepted me as one of their own, but didn’t tell me to bog off, so I carried on hanging around with them. The first hint that there was something different that I didn’t yet understand, was when boys would use words like “slag” and “frigid” about other girls. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but teachers would indicate (usually by yelling) that these words were not to be used, but with no further explanation.

As a young child, I asked questions, and many of these would be met with the response “I’ll tell you when you’re older”. I didn’t understand at first, but as I grew up, I learned that some subjects were off-limits and “naughty” or “dirty” — mainly things related to bodies, especially genitals. These beliefs are so ingrained that my 75-year old father still cannot mention certain topics in conversation with me.

Sex education began in Year 5, in middle school. During the first lesson, we all laughed at pictures of naked bodies, and we were shouted at for being “immature”. We didn’t get it but knew that we had to shut up. The whole thing felt excruciating, and no-one would have dared to ask a question. The information presented was basic. Sex was explained as penis-in-vagina, missionary style. Much of the rest of it was about pregnancy and birth. There was no mention of contraception, responsibility, pleasure, recreational sex, diseases or abortion. It was very mechanical.

In Year 6, the girls would have a separate assembly on the subject of periods. I don’t know what the boys did during that time. We did learn a little more about female anatomy, but I still felt embarrassed. This was all stuff that I could never talk about at home, and I was worried about my parents finding the free samples of sanitary products we had been given, in case it was seen as shameful.

Although the sex education we received at school was crap, it was still better than what I learnt at home, which was that sex is a terrible thing that must never be mentioned, let alone engaged in. I grew up in an area that robustly enforced Section 28 — homosexuality was never mentioned once in my years of compulsory education. But more than that, there was a feeling, at school as well as at home, that sex of any form was something that we, as innocent children, should not talk about.

In Years 7 and 8, boys regularly groped the girls in the lower social strata. Nobody ever said anything. Those girls, including me, felt ashamed and knew not to tell. It happened in full view of the teachers.

The boys, and girls from the “in-crowd” would taunt other girls about their bodies. Were your legs unshaven? Your breasts too small? Too big? Did your parents let you wear a bra? Were your legs too white? Did you smell of fish? Was there a breeze when you opened your legs? If you’re not supposed to talk about it, how can you build the skills to deal with that kind of bullying?

Going into high school at age 13, the cool kids would talk about sexual acts and mock anyone who didn’t understand what they were talking about, or who looked like they might be listening in. The rest of us learnt from coming-of-age books like Judy Blume’s Forever, or teen magazines that I was extra-careful to keep from my parents. They would tell me that such things were disgusting for someone of my age.

Near to the end of my school career, a number of my peers were in relationships together. I was never interested in anyone at school, and I felt completely fine about that. But there would be conversations about sex and relationships in the common room, and I might get told that this topic was too “deep” for me. I was excluded, even by my friends, and I felt hurt and confused. It just reinforced the idea that it was something for the grown-ups to discuss, and I was not one of them.

Some of the girls in Year 11 became pregnant, including my best friend. I didn’t tell my family until she’d given birth and everyone knew, because I was scared my parents would stop me from seeing her. My dad was outraged, and thought the police should get involved because she and her boyfriend were underage. I felt even more scared about sex, seeing how angry my dad got about it.

During our ‘A’ levels, we often went round to a friends to watch TV and films together. In an episode of Da Ali G Show (who remembers that?), I laughed at a blue joke, and one of the girls scolded me because I shouldn’t laugh at that sort of humour. But — she must have known as well, right? I remember an old series of Grange Hill, the one where Chrissie gets pregnant, and instead of my parents discussing the issues with me, they indignantly told me that “she shouldn’t have”, and that was the end of that.

I lost my virginity in the first week of university to an Iranian man. When I told him I was a virgin, he stopped midway through sex and demanded to see some ID. He couldn’t believe that an 18-year old British woman could be a virgin because of the permissiveness of Western culture.

During my first year of university, I again identified more with the men and spent the majority of my spare time in the boys corridor along the hall from the girls one I was assigned to. One evening, Eurotrash was on and I was watching it with them. One of their friends walked in and asked me why I was watching “porn”. I knew that women weren’t “supposed to”.

I had quite a lot of sex during my time at university. But very little of it was all that good. It was often at the end of a boozy night out, feeling like more of an obligation than a choice. None of those men ever wanted to see me for more than one night. What I wanted always seemed a secondary concern.

I went out with one dude for a few weeks, but things never really went anywhere because I was expecting him to take charge when he was giving me space to make my own moves. He was a great guy.

I ended up back at a friend of a friend’s house after I had taken the initiative to approach him. We had mediocre sex and he didn’t want to see me again because “he preferred someone with a bit of mystery about them”. Back home, during the holidays, I was pestered in a nightclub all evening by a friend’s boyfriend. Eventually I was too drunk and tired to resist any longer. He said he liked me because I wouldn’t give in.

I began work as an engineer. There were naked calendars on every wall. Men would talk about sex a lot of the time, but not when they thought I could hear. Ladies shouldn’t discuss such things, after all. A labourer on one of my sites apologised for swearing in front of me. My manager was away one day as his wife was being induced in hospital. His colleague “explained” to me in vague terms where he was; it felt like he thought I wouldn’t understand the mechanics of birth or something. I had two children of my own by this point.

In my first job, I dated a colleague who pressured me into a relationship far too quickly. Unsurprisingly with hindsight, he was controlling and abusive. He told me that my body was dirty, hairy and smelly, yet still he would be angry if I didn’t want sex.

In my last job, I dated another engineer. Again I felt pressured, not just to rush into things, but to keep my damn mouth shut. He was either crude and demeaning when talking about sex, or excessively bashful. He would only talk in riddles, intimations, metaphors. I didn’t have time for that shit, but still I felt uncomfortable asking for what I wanted. He made it feel like I shouldn’t ask, that it was something that he did and I had done to me. He would ignore me or walk away from me on breaks, and when we were spotted together by a colleague he freaked out. One lunchtime we were walking back together, and he purposely went into a newsagents’ so that we wouldn’t enter the building at the same time.

The engineer who sat next to him used to make a big deal about women making up claims of sexual assault. He thought he was being progressive by announcing that when speaking with women at work, he always kept his hands on the table. I didn’t know what to say. I made a joke about reporting my years-old abusive ex for sexual harassment. The men looked horrified.

When I was dumped, I was not to tell anyone. I was distraught and wanted to speak with him. He told me that if I tried, he would report me for harassment. Other people in the office started giving me the silent treatment. Someone reported me for speaking ‘abrasively’ with people I didn’t even work with. Hands-on-table man made pointed comments about women being deceitful and vindictive. I quickly learned my place, and internalised my shame and bitterness.

When the media reports of harassment and assault started, I identified with those first brave women instantly. But I never thought that it would grow as quickly as it did. I never anticipated the flood of victims coming forward, I never believed that finally men would be held accountable. I saw it coming, though, when men I knew would claim it wasn’t endemic — when we all knew it was. The claims that women routinely lie about rape, assault, harassment were equally predictable. But we knew. Men aren’t scared of women lying. They’re scared of us telling the truth.

So now it’s all in the open. Now we all know. Feminism hasn’t gone too far; sexism is real, it turns out. And the women were right all along. But what do we do with this information now? How can we improve our interactions and talk openly about sex, consent and pleasure in a climate that conditions women to believe they are sexless objects? We all know the narrative, men are predators and women are prey; but now we find out it doesn’t have to be like that, even that it shouldn’t. Renegotiation is necessary, but how do you begin when you feel your desires are inherently shameful? When you’ve been discouraged from saying something your whole life?

For me, consent has always been complicated. Desiring what I feel I should not, yet am expected to participate in anyway. I give in, and others take. It’s not nice to say no, and nice girls don’t say yes. I’m glad that we’re rewriting the rules, but I wonder how many others feel completely lost along with the liberation we now have? Having had my sexuality defined by others, I now have a chance to define it for myself. The meaning of consent has changed — it’s no longer passively giving permission, but actively taking control. Now we own sex, but I’m not quite sure what to do with it.