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7 February 2023

Channel 4’s Consent starkly illustrates the sexual harassment epidemic in schools 

Adults must watch this drama, which demonstrates how schools’ failure to address a toxic classroom culture enables violence.

By Sophie McBain

Channel 4’s Consent,a single-episode, hour-long drama examining the culture of sexism and sexual violence in British schools, would have been less powerful if the perpetrator at its centre were the cartoonishly awful character Raffy – a teenager who acts a bit like how Jay from The Inbetweeners might have done if he’d been born into the Andrew Tate generation. “FFS. Stick your dick in her gob. Shut her up,” Raffy texts his friends on their #slutsandstuff group chat while the brilliant student Natalie delivers a speech at assembly. Instead, Natalie is betrayed by her friend, Archie, who also feels like a misfit in Burlingdale College, an all-boys’ private school that has only recently started admitting girls into its sixth form.

In this way, Consent perfectly illustrates how a failure by schools to address sexual jokes, sexual harassment, slut-shaming and online abuse creates the conditions for more extreme violence, how toxic classroom cultures can cause apparently “nice guys” to do terrible things. It’s a dynamic that many British school students understand intimately, even if many adults might not: Consent drew inspiration from the real-life testimonies gathered by Everyone’s Invited, the campaign group that spearheaded a #MeToo-style reckoning that swept British schools in 2021.

It’s sometimes argued that consent is a slippery concept, and that in the aftermath of Everyone’s Invited boys are terrified of falling victim to false or overblown accusations of sexual assault. “I definitely would not want to be a boy right now,” the solicitor Sandra Paul told me when I wrote about Everyone’s Invited for the New Statesman, “because whatever you do runs a risk.” Consent offers an alternative perspective: Archie and Natalie both fancy each other, and they have both been drinking heavily at a party on the night of the assault, but as the drama unfolds the viewer realises there is no moral ambiguity, there are no blurred lines. Instead, it’s grimly fascinating to observe the depths of Archie’s self-delusion, how quickly his initial confusion hardens into a sense of self-righteousness, how soon he begins to perceive himself the victim. “I do really like you,” he tells Natalie when he confronts her after the party, unsure of why she is ignoring him. “Of course you remember, I was drunker than you,” he continues. And then: “Why are you being like this!” It’s a pattern any woman will recognise: how when men feel entitled to approval they are quickly enraged by rejection, how easy it is as a woman to be turned from an object of desire into an “evil f***ing bitch”.

Many of the scenes in Consent are profoundly upsetting. The boys’ “banter” is some of the most misogynistic language you’ll hear on TV. Archie’s friends accuse Natalie of experiencing “post squirt clarity”: “it’s when a girl acts like a f***ing slag, and they get caught acting like a slag so they make up shit to make themselves feel better,” Raffy explains. “F**k her, on to the next,” he advises. What makes this drama all the more disturbing is that it’s realistic. Every aspect, from the language used, the details of the assault itself and its messy, contested aftermath, aligns with the stories young people shared with me during my own reporting.

It is hard to give depth to characters in just an hour, and as a result Consent feels a bit like a slicker version of an educational video your teachers might make you watch at school. Which isn’t a reason not to see it. The drama might be geared towards a younger audience, but I suspect that school students won’t learn as much from it as their parents, teachers or anyone else who works with young people might. And maybe many other adults should watch it too. Archie is rich, clever and has received the kind of expensive schooling that churns our future leaders – he expects to do and achieve great things. Will he ever be forced to take full responsibility for his actions? Will men like him ever?

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