On Consent (Caution advised - discussion of a sensitive topic)
Russell Brand posted a video denying the accusations against him. He said this; ‘I was very, very promiscuous. Now, during that time of promiscuity, the relationships I had were absolutely always consensual. I was always transparent about that.’ Last night I drove through my hometown. One long cobbled high street of pubs and cafes. The Old Grey Mare, now houses, where I used to serve my husband a veggie breakfast. My primary school, the same hard concrete where I lost the skin on my knees. The little café I used to take my aunt to for jacket potatoes with cheese. The road that led over the bridge to the canal where my brother and I went fishing for trout.
And then we drove past the road where a man did…. where he… Even now, over twenty-five years and two books later, I cannot find words for what he did and I don’t want to polish this piece until it shines. I don’t want to write about it at all, but I can’t stop thinking about that word, consensual.
Growing up, I wasn’t asked for my consent. My brothers did not ask me to opt in before they used me as human wheelbarrow along the long living room carpet. My parents did not ask me for my consent, nor did my teachers. Sit still and be quiet was hammered into me. And so, consent ‘to agree to do something, or to allow someone to do something’ was not something I knew much about. Perhaps this is why, when that man, that father of a friend of mine did those things to me, I let him. I lay there, blank and useless as the wall opposite me. I never said no. I never said stop.
I was seventeen when it happened. Nineteen when it went to court, and his defence lawyer tried to insinuate that not only was I a liar, but that it was something that I had wanted. I will never forget how, after suggesting I was a girl of loose principles, he asked me if perhaps the hard thing I had felt against my leg was a crystal in the man’s pocket, not his penis. ‘According to you’ I said, ‘I would be able to tell the difference.’
That man went to prison, and I felt…. guilty. I pictured him in a cell, and I felt like I was covered in ants. How dare I think I was so important that what he did to me for one night meant years of suffering for him? But it was not just for one night. While I am happy to say that after many years of bad association, I now love crystals again, I cannot say the same for some parts of my body, touched by him. Briefly but devastatingly. He lives behind my eyelids. He is in every mirror I look into naked. He sleeps between me and my husband.
But I’m safe, I’m fine. I was not ‘even’ raped. Plus, I’m an adult now. I wouldn’t let anyone do anything like to me again, right?
And yet, in January of this year, while in hospital with a kidney infection, an older male doctor pulled my t-shirt up, up, up, to listen to my chest and I did… nothing. I just lay there as he exposed me, his male colleague in the background looking on. A blue NHS curtain protecting them and caging me. Seventeen again. Why didn’t I slap his hands away? Why didn’t I cover myself up? Because I was tired and unwell, vulnerable, and scared, or because consent had been assumed not asked.
Consent. A word we need to learn how to use. ‘I am going to’ is not asking for consent. Silence is not consent. Compliance is not consent.