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7 March 2024

No one asked for it

A new “Affirmative Consent” campaign is troublingly misguided.

By Hannah Williams

The phrase is supposed to be provocative. You can even get it on a T-shirt, the words emblazoned in capitals across the chest, sans serif, lurid pink against white: “I’M ASKING FOR IT”. It is a slant on an expression that we have heard often, in court trials, newspapers, private conversations, one that has been used to excuse a gamut of sexual harassment, assault, rape: she was asking for it. The next part is never said, although it is implicit: even though she said she wasn’t. The phrase has been used for so long that its origin has passed out of recorded history, although if it wasn’t this wording it’d be something similar. It has, in some way, always existed, an oral folk devil, a judgement on the woman in question and a warning to all others.

The T-shirts (£28, with a percentage of profits going to charity) are being sold to mark the International Women’s Day launch of “Affirmative Consent”, a joint campaign by the advertising agency CPB London and the non-profit Right to Equality which pushes for Britain’s legal definition of sexual consent to be changed, so that “anything less than a clear, uncoerced, and informed confirmation of consent like ‘Yes’ cannot qualify as consent in the eyes of the law”. They are accompanied by posters and campaign materials that centre around close-up photographs of Dr Charlotte Proudman, influencer and activist Emily Atack and other women and survivors of sexual assault, with the words “I’M ASKING FOR IT” overlaid in the same scorching pink. The adverts were designed by a female-led subset of CPB (named, predictably, “WMN” and seemingly exclusively tasked with creating ads that target women). The campaign has attracted some criticism online. A spokesperson from CPB told the New Statesman, “Several of the team who created this campaign are survivors of rape or male violence themselves – they decided to channel their trauma to work towards legal change. We believe this campaign is a vital first step”.

Aside from the shock value, what’s the reason for this quest to change the legal definition of consent? The campaign’s website initially defines “Affirmative Consent” as “an active, voluntary, informed, and mutual decision to engage in sexual activity. Consent can be given through clear words or actions through which a person has indicated permission to engage in sexual activity.” The current legal definition of consent in the UK is given by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which says that “a person consents if he agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice”. Disregarding the obvious stylistic differences here, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of difference between what the campaign suggests and what the law currently states (although Right to Equality points out that there is currently “no definition of rape or consent in the family courts”).

The information on the site becomes more complicated as you read on. “Affirmative Consent requires the presence of a ‘yes’ rather than the absence of a ‘no’. This can be expressed verbally, which is the safest and clearest form of consent… If you are not sure you are getting a clear and enthusiastic yes from your partner, it is your responsibility to ask. Consent cannot be inferred from silence or lack of resistance.” If a definite, spoken “yes” is needed, why does it only state that this “can” be expressed verbally? And if “consent cannot be inferred from silence”, how can “clear… actions” indicate consent?

Contradictory wording isn’t the only thing that should give us pause – the entire concept of affirmative consent is fundamentally flawed. As well as being realistically unworkable, it fails to reflect the complex, mutable and deeply personal realities of sexual conduct, where someone can enthusiastically consent without ever uttering the word “yes”, and, on the other hand, can say “yes” without truly consenting at all. If, as both the current law and the “Affirmative Consent” model acknowledge, a “yes” can be coerced – through intimidation, through deception, through myriad other ways – then what is the purpose of emphasising it as a panacea, a fail-safe that can clearly delineate assault from consensual sex? There is an onus, too, that it places on victims: did you say yes? Did you say it loud enough? If you said yes, and then you didn’t want it, but you didn’t then say no, then aren’t you, in some way, to blame? For the majority of women I know who have been assaulted, it happened during an otherwise consensual encounter, one that they entered into willingly, enthusiastically. The banality of the words “yes” and “no” were immaterial to these violations.

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The criminal justice system is failing victims of sexual assault. Despite police services recording an ever-higher number of cases, the past few years have seen the number of charges for recorded cases of rape drop to 1.3 per cent (the statistics are, frankly, staggering, with the volume of completed rape prosecutions dropping from 5,190 in 2016-17 to 1,557 in 2020-21). Lurking behind all of this is the rotting hulk of the UK’s criminal justice system. With budgets slashed, slashed and slashed again by successive Tory governments, what is left behind is a skeleton of crumbling court estates, overworked and underpaid practitioners, and long-delayed trials. And though victim services report that more victims than ever are seeking support, successive government cuts have left these facilities gutted, simply unable to cope with the sheer number of people who need help. How will a change in the law do anything to address the real reason victims of sexual assault are being denied justice?

The Affirmative Consent campaign justify its “I’M ASKING FOR IT” slogan by claiming they “want to stop people in their tracks, get them thinking about how women are often treated by society and the courts – as if they were ‘asking for it’ – and then flip the narrative: actually, she is asking for legal change.” But it seems willfully naive to hope that a misogynistic excuse for assault can be co-opted, much less that serious introspection can be achieved by a slogan that advertises sexual availability, however tongue-in-cheek. With its uneasy, self-conscious mixture of ribaldry and braggadocio shock factor, the campaign seems like a relic from a past era of SlutWalks and choice feminism, flattening the issue in a way that seems to epitomise the movement’s pitfalls. Though the Affirmative Consent campaign seeks to make social change, it doesn’t seem to understand that true behavioural change will only happen when we unravel the emotional intricacies of sex, and the messy entanglement of the self and the other.

[See also: Alabama’s IVF ruling criminalises women’s bodies]

Update: This piece was changed on 8 March to include a statement from CPB and further context on the campaign.

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