What is consent?

We talk to a young person and a consent expert about sexual violence and the importance of boundaries.

Friends and relationshipsSafety and crimeCurrent issues
By VoiceBox ·

Holly (not her real name)

Young author

The point of no return - what is consent?

Please note: this article includes sensitive topics that some people might find difficult.

I had just moved to London. I was bright, eager-eyed, and excited to have packed up and moved down to the big smoke. I was living in the most famous city in the world.

Desperate to be a part of everything straight away, I leapt straight into the dating game. I hadn’t been on dating apps before, I didn’t really know the ground rules, and I was naive enough to assume that everyone else had legitimate intentions. I had dated people before, but the idea of meeting up with a complete stranger was uncharted territory.

We arranged to meet at a bar. I was apprehensive, but felt too weak to back out last minute. I pushed my doubts aside. Who knows? It could go brilliantly. My friends were all on dating apps and enjoying them; why shouldn’t I?

The beginning of the night was a slow burn. Riveting conversation was not on the cards: I don’t remember what we spoke about. Given that this suggests I was bored, clearly, I should have gone home. But being young and a dating-app-beginner, I decided to stick with it.

We drank, steadily at first. I began to relax and lose my safety antennae. I forgot that the man in front of me was someone I had never met before. My alertness subsided. In a cloud of alcohol-fueled fog, I was trusting, innocent, and gullible.

Two or three pints in I started to feel more than a little wavy. Consuming a few drinks was not unusual for my first-year-uni-self at that time, so I was surprised at how much I was already feeling effected, especially as he appeared perfectly composed.

We moved on, finding a second place where he bought me some wine, which I drank quickly, and, it may have seemed, enthusiastically, although I wasn’t enjoying myself. I could kick myself now, thinking back. Everyone knows that mixing liquor is stupid and this concoction was starting to have a negative effect on my ability to make decisions.

What were we talking about? Did I say anything that gave him the wrong impression? Did he notice my fragile state? I honestly can’t remember, and, to be frank, what does it matter anyway? I was starting to lose control.

At this point in the night, I was vulnerable. I wasn’t tipsy, I wasn’t drunk: I was completely hammered.

There is a massive, blank void during this part of the night, where my memory should be. Perhaps he drugged me, perhaps he deliberately gave me far too much alcohol, perhaps he switched places with Bryce Walker halfway through the date - who knows? There’s no point stressing over the finer details now. I was out of it.

My words started to slur, the room started to blur. All I can remember are his staring eyes looking at me intensely. Everything was whirling around, not making sense, not allowing me to think for myself. It was like being in the gravitational pull in a black hole, the point at which you can only be sucked in.

I don’t remember giving him permission to come back to my room and, even if I had, I was far too intoxicated for him to do so. He should never have suggested it, nor accepted an invitation.

The journey home is a complete blank, with only one incident that I can recall, when I nearly fell onto the tube tracks because I was so out of it. I almost fell in front of a train and he took this as… an invitation? Surely he must have noticed the state I was in? Why did he use my fragility to his advantage?

The next thing I remember is feeling his body over mine, and waves of excruciating, indescribable pain.

‘I wanted this, right?’ I remember thinking. ‘We’re at my place, so I must have invited him?’

He violated me and stripped me of my dignity. He used my body for himself, with no thought, or respect, let alone questions like, ‘is this ok?’ or, ‘are you sure?’

Immediately afterwards, I didn’t know what to think. In fact, I didn’t really think anything. I had been a little drunk…so what? I must have wanted it because I let it happen, didn’t I?

Some people would like to see this as a very grey area of sexual abuse - and in some ways, it is. Had there been a court case, the defence could have argued that I didn’t struggle, so he clearly hadn’t forced himself on me. ‘She was on a date so she must have wanted sex; she provoked him with her outfit; she’s a slut; she’s being over-dramatic; she’s lying.’

It didn’t actually occur to me that it was sexual abuse until months later when I was discussing the incident with a friend. ‘You know that’s not right, don't you?’ she said. I didn’t. I had never been taught what consent meant. Sex to me had always been something that women were expected to do. Which is not right.

We were on a date, and that type of activity is normal on a date, right? Wrong. Consent in this sense is not spoken about enough: when you don’t want to, but feel forced to. No one should make you feel that. And being taken advantage of when you are so drunk you can’t see - that’s simply wrong. If you’re not in a position to give consent, then consent is not given. And in that case, it’s rape.

My predator is probably wandering around this city, right now. I wonder if he’s behaved like that again. Just because someone didn’t pin you to the ground or lock you in a room doesn’t mean it isn’t sexual assault. Just because a black hole is invisible, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Final note

This kind of abuse doesn’t just apply to women. It can happen to any gender of any sexual orientation. If you are not a cis female and believe you have been assaulted, do not be afraid to speak out. Consent is consent, no matter what.

My top dating tips

Dating can be fun and exciting, but it is important to approach it with a strategy.

If you have decided that you want to meet up with someone, make sure you tell a friend beforehand. My general rule of thumb is to explain who you are meeting, where, and a time that you expect to be home. It is also handy to send a text every hour or so to let them know that you’re okay.

I’d also recommend agreeing on a code word. Having a code word that you can send to your friend if you don’t want to stay any longer will save you from typing out a long sentence explaining the situation - if your friend receives it, it means one thing: help me get out of here. Your friend can then call you with a fake excuse for you to leave.

Some people have no problem sleeping together on the first date, but that doesn’t mean that you should conform to any expectations. If you don’t want to, then you don’t have to! If you change your mind, that is also completely fine, and perfectly normal. If you are expressing in any way that you aren’t up for it, the other person(s) in the equation should NEVER force you to continue. Being guilted into sex is also non-consensual, so if they complain that they’ve come a long way or paid for the activities, remember that it’s not your problem. Gas-lighting is abusive, don’t ever feel bad for not wanting sex.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t date, or that you’ll never enjoy yourself. I’ve had some great times with extremely interesting people, but bearing in mind that not everyone is going to have your best interests at heart is the most practical way to treat dating, after all, they are strangers until proven otherwise.

Finally, don’t feel as though you have to drink. I know that bars are a popular choice, but there are loads of fun things you can do together that don’t involve alcohol. If your date is insisting on getting drinks even after you’ve suggested somewhere else, take that as a red flag and stop talking to them.

Remember: you owe these people nothing.

Edward Wilson

Edward has worked as a sex educator for both schools and universities. He also has worked for a number of youth charities as both an administrator and as a fundraiser.

Consent is consent

Please note: this article includes sensitive topics that some people might find difficult.

First of all, it is wonderful that Holly feels that she can share her story. Sexual violence is so common in our society, yet few people feel they can speak out about it. Holly can feel pride that she is able to speak about this.

Whenever someone does share a story of this kind it is important to believe them. So often we downplay the voices of survivors. Holly is correct - assumptions like, 'she was on a date so she must have wanted sex' are often used to silence people.

We don't know how common sexual violence is in the UK. It's a hard thing to measure, and much of it goes unreported. However, what we do know is that most of it looks like Holly's experience.

The media often presents us with an image of rapists jumping out at us from behind bushes, pinning us down and forcing themselves upon us. But in over 95% of cases the perpetrator is known to the victim. Alcohol is often used as it blurs the line between consent and crime and can give perpetrators plausible deniability after the fact.

Holly is also correct that any non-consensual penetration of mouth, vagina or anus is rape or the lesser known, but no less serious, crime of sexual assault by penetration. If you did not say that you wanted one of these to happen to you, and it happened anyway, then that's sexual violence, and it's criminal.

The question 'what is consent?' is both easy and difficult to answer. We cannot talk of precise measures of blood-alcohol or how many times someone did or not say yes or no. Instead, ask yourself this: am I certain that my partner is into what we are doing? Do they look happy and relaxed? Are they present in the moment? Am I asking what I would want to be asked? If you think about these things, you will not only be beyond reproach in matters of consent but a far better lover to boot.

While sexual encounters between young people do happen under the influence of alcohol, the more drunk someone is, the less capacity they have to consent. If you do have sex with someone who is anything beyond tipsy, the more you are opening yourself up to accusations of sexual violence after the fact. I always think that anything over one drink is questionable, three is right out. This is especially true of people you have not slept with before, where consent must be far more explicitly sought and given than in more established relationships.

If you think anything of this nature has happened to you, then there is a wonderful, UK-wide organisation called Rape Crisis. They work with survivors of sexual violence in any number of ways and have experienced, non-judgemental and generally lovely people who will be glad to talk to you. To help you in any way that you want, or just to listen. People phone them the night after or years after.

While I would never want to give young people dating advice, if you have an internet date and are worried that there will be social pressure to drink alcohol, suggest meeting during the day in a place without drinks. If whoever you are messaging insists on meeting in a bar, they perhaps might not be the best company, let alone a good choice of sexual partner.


Get involved

Send us an idea →

Do you have a story you want to share on VoiceBox? Get in touch and make sure your voice is heard.

What is consent?

So, what do you think?