***TW: Discussion of Rape and Sexual Abuse***
Recently, I came across a post about domestic abuse on Instagram. One comment was posted by a woman who bravely opened up about her experience with rape and coercion in a past relationship. In response, another commenter bluntly told her that her experience ‘didn’t count’ as rape, because she was coerced, not violently forced. This basic lack of understanding, as well as respect for the survivor, astounded me. Not only did this commenter not understand that coercion can absolutely constitute rape, they also invalidated the woman’s experience. Even for a comment left by an anonymous Instagram account, this exchange struck me as hugely disheartening.
Why do we still lack clarity on a topic as important as consent? Why do many people still insist on using the harmful term ‘grey area rape’ to insinuate that certain forms of rape ‘don’t actually count’? After all, we were taught about consent as a mandatory part of Sex Ed, so what did not sink in? To me, the obvious conclusion is that we were not taught enough. While we were taught the bare minimum of ‘no means no’, the conversation ended there.
My memories of Sex Ed in secondary school consist of the following: a policeman and a policewoman who came into school to teach us about rape and abuse, and P4C lessons (Philosophy for Children), about topics such as porn and FGM. The GCSE Biology syllabus also covered the menstrual cycle, though through conversations with other Exeter students I believe my coeducational school was unusual in this respect — many boys learn nothing about periods in secondary school. As for the lessons about consent laws, and the P4C lessons, there was much room for improvement.
The lesson about porn can be summarised by the image of a teacher awkwardly scrolling through a PowerPoint and reading out statistics proving how ‘porn sets unrealistic standards’. However, I found out from a friend that in another class the teacher just put on the episode of Friends where the guys get the porn channel for free, and did not bother to teach the class at all. The lesson about FGM was spent, unsurprisingly, watching a documentary. The educational programme is what I find fault with here, I do not write this with the intention of talking down teachers who were (most of the time) trying their best. However, the faults of the system were reflected in the teachers’ approaches (or lack thereof) to topics with sexual themes.
The lessons about the legal side of rape are the ones I have the biggest issue with. They made me uncomfortable at the time, and I find them alarmingly problematic in retrospect. The policewoman invited the class to ask questions about abuse in a legal context. One student asked if a woman can be considered a rapist. Her response: no.
Some might think I’m wrongfully accusing the school of spreading misinformation, seeing as what she told us is not actually incorrect; cisgender women cannot legally be considered rapists. But regardless of the legal definition of rape (that insists that the offender must have a penis) the conversation ended there, and many of my classmates went home thinking that cis women cannot commit rape. This simply is not true. The idea that only cis men can rape, and that the sexual act in question must be penetration, stems from two damaging beliefs. One: the belief that men cannot be victims and women cannot be predators. Two: the phallocentric notion that sex always has to involve a penis. Hence, a queer woman who has been raped by a cis female partner cannot, in a legal context, call it rape. But the bottom line is that sex is sex, and sex without consent is rape.
The amount of abuse victims who will stay silent because of this ideology is frightening. One study reported by Annie Garau showed that when ‘men who reported being made to penetrate without consent… 79.2 per cent of the perpetrators were female.’ In an Autostraddle article, one queer woman opened up about an abusive ex, writing: ‘When I tell people I was raped by a girl, they ask me: What does that mean?’ The fact that rape — and even sex — still needs to be redefined in the public consciousness proves how fundamentally the education system has failed us when it comes to understanding consent.
One programme that recently captured the failures of modern Sex Ed with brilliant accuracy is (surprise surprise) Sex Education. In the show’s second season, science teacher Mr Hendricks gives a Sex Ed lesson, and reveals that he knows worryingly little about sexual health when questioned by a student. As a result, the Sex Ed syllabus at Moordale is re-evaluated. This is the sort of thing I wish would’ve happened when I was in secondary school, but in the real world, students are often too uncomfortable to ask about sex, and there is not a sex therapist played by Gillian Anderson who turns up to save the day.
Until the standard syllabus is significantly broadened, it is crucial that we keep raising our voices about what was missing from our educational experiences, and what still has not changed. And let’s ditch saying ‘non-consensual sex’ to soften the reality. It is called rape.
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