‘Prima Facie’ part two: sex education – bringing consent to our classrooms
With a mesmerising performance from Jodie Comer, Suzie Miller’s play ‘Prima Facie’ is leaving audiences spellbound. It’s also started a much-needed conversation about consent and how that’s discussed within our schools.
Read part one ‘Silenced in Court’ here.
[Trigger warning: this article contains references to rape and sexual assaults]
Ever since I saw Suzie Miller’s play ‘Prima Facie’, starring the unstoppable Jodie Comer, I’ve been reflecting on it within the context of my own sexual history. As well as shining a light on the UK’s criminal justice system, the play allowed me to join the dots on incidents that happened to me (and other women) in the 1990s and 2000s when I was a teenager and into my twenties.
For those who haven’t seen it, ‘Prima Facie’ tells the story of Tessa, a working-class criminal defence lawyer, a woman who defends men against allegations of rape. Tessa is then raped by a colleague and sees the system from the other side, the victim’s perspective. It’s intense to watch and there are some very uncomfortable moments for the audience. Mostly, though, I felt a huge sense of relief that I’m not alone.
Knowing that globally nearly one in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence over their lifetimes, I feel relatively lucky. Lucky that although I’ve dated jealous possessive men in the past, I have never been raped. Lucky that my husband, the man I’ve been in a relationship with for the last 25 years, is a kind person.
Until I watched Michaela Coel’s ‘I Will Destroy You’ on the BBC (see below), there were a few things I didn’t even know were against the law. Stealthing, for example, or non-consensual removal of a condom before or during intercourse. If that’s not a breach of trust, and the UK law as of 2020 as it turns out, I don’t know what is.
But there are a whole host of incidents from my past that I always assumed were 100% my fault. Now I’m seeing them in a different light – I’m ‘reframing’ them, to use a contemporary expression. Perhaps I wasn’t to blame after all; maybe I was only guilty of ‘victim blaming’ myself. For example, when I was 19, I worked in a nightclub as a glass collector. On a work night out, the owner of the club hit on me while we were having a chat in the pub. I was surprised when it happened because he wore a wedding ring. Ha! So naïve at that tender age. I knocked him back no bother and he took no for an answer.
The upsetting part came later that evening when I told my male flatmate about it. “Oh, well you must have done something to lead him on,” he said, very matter of fact. I was flabbergasted and started doubting myself. I thought back. We were literally just having a conversation and he’d leaned in to snog me. I wasn’t flirting at all. He was just a 40-something sleazeball with dodgy 1980s-style blonde highlights in his mullet. No doubt he would have chanced his arm with any young woman daft enough to be fooled by him. How could that have been my fault?
When I left home to study in Glasgow in 1994, my mum gave me a rape alarm for my handbag and a pickaxe handle to keep in my room. This might sound extreme – or like a neurotic overprotective mother, which was not the case. In my sixth year at school, a boy I was pals with wanted a relationship with me. He wasn’t a bad guy but I wasn’t physically attracted to him. I realised I didn’t want to kiss him, let alone anything else, just as he became fixated on the idea that we should get together. At 17, I lacked the courage to assertively tell him we wouldn’t be a couple under any circumstances. There didn’t seem a good time or a nice way to say that. One of my closest female friends asked me when I was going to “put him out of his misery”. I didn’t have the language skills to say ‘no thanks’ in a way that made him believe I meant it. I just didn’t have the words. I wasn’t scared of him and it never occurred to me that he would physically attack me. But because I didn’t know how to handle it, I started trying to ignore him completely, which only made the situation worse. He followed me home from parties a couple of times, poured a pint of beer over me in a pub neither of us should have been in at that age. By then I felt cornered. Embarrassed and isolated. My friends quietly blamed me. I blamed me.
At that point it felt out of control and I told my parents. I then found myself in a completely surreal situation; there were two policemen in our front room asking me questions and advising me not to press charges. Press charges? Jeezo, I just wanted it to stop. My mum and dad sat looking very serious. Occasionally the police radios would crackle and I could hear someone talking in the control room. I could barely concentrate on what the policemen said. I kept thinking, how did it come to this? What had I done? Only a few months ago, I’d been good friends with this boy. I’d enjoyed talking to him. It had escalated very quickly. He left me alone after that but it all felt very weird at school. Shortly before I left home, I found out the boy would be living a couple of streets away from me in Glasgow, but I never heard from him again.
I’m grateful and relieved that I never had to use the rape alarm or the weapon. Student life was a fresh start for me and Glasgow in 1994 felt like the most exciting place in the world.
Schools Consent Project
Although ‘Prima Facie’ shone a light on our criminal justice system, which routinely fails survivors of rape and other sex crimes, it also has something to say about what’s lacking in our education system – the logical place to begin transforming attitudes towards rape culture. To help prevent rapes and attempted rapes from happening in the first place, we need to start talking honestly to young people. Before the play itself, ‘Prima Facie’ audiences are shown a segment on the Schools Consent Project (SCP), a volunteer-led organisation that runs workshops in schools teaching 11-18-year-olds about sexual consent, how to talk about consent and what the law states about giving and withholding consent.
In this sense, ‘Prima Facie’ offers a hopeful outlook on the future. Educating teenagers will improve life for the next generation of sexually active adults. Currently the SCP is only running in England. However, lawyer, activist and SCP’s Managing Director, Monica Bhogal, hopes this will change soon.
“We are not operating in Scotland, yet,” she told me. “We have, thanks to ‘Prima Facie’, seen a marked rise in enquiries and interest in our work from all around the UK, including Scotland. We are having some preliminary conversations with various people about how we might be able to extend our reach to Scotland, so I hope that in the next 6-12 months I might have a different answer for you.”
The Schools Consent Project began in 2014 after a conversation that the barrister and SCP founder Kate Parker had with a friend.
“Kate’s friend had been sexually assaulted at work and Kate’s approach to it was very much from a legal perspective; I don’t think her friend really appreciated the gravity of what had happened. Like so many women, her friend dismissed it as one of those things that happens while working in that kind of environment. So really the SCP was born out of that conversation.”
It occurred to Kate that these issues should be addressed earlier on with conversations between young people. Kate thought there must be other organisations that already did what SCP is currently doing, but after a quick Google search she was surprised to find there was nothing out there at all. And at the time there was no statutory basis for teaching consent in the school curriculum either.
“It turned into a passion project,” Monica said. “Kate went to laws schools, to law firms, she phoned lawyers, developed the content, and created the SCP.”
It seems such an obvious point that we need to teach young people, as they become sexually active, how to behave respectfully towards each other, as well as teaching them how to use the language of consent. Talking about sex can be embarrassing, even with a trusted partner. But projects like the SCP are giving teenagers the tools to look after themselves and each other, especially empowering them to say ‘no’ without fearing the consequences.
Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood
I checked the Scottish Government’s information on sex education and their website listed a summary of topics suitable for various high school ages. Under the header, ‘Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood’, everything listed sounded way more helpful and informative than anything I was taught at school in the 1990s, or the dark ages, as my eight-year-old likes to call it. However, the word ‘consent’ was not mentioned once. Surely this should be at the forefront of sex education? Along with discussions about sexting, revenge porn and staying safe. When I was at school the main idea for girls was to learn to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The concept is still a sound one, but haven’t we moved on at all since then? Teenage girls need more than advice about contraception and STIs. Do teenagers know, for example, how consent works when one or both people are intoxicated? Or that consent can be withdrawn at any stage? That as well as obtaining consent at the outset, each person should ‘check in’ with the other, using non-verbal communication, to make sure they are still comfortable.
“Our general premise – and this is my personal feeling too – is that education is really the best way of challenging all sorts of harmful attitudes,” Monica told me. “And there’s a real benefit – and we see it – of early ongoing conversations around consent underpinning all relationships. We’re not just talking about sexual ones, but it becomes so much more apparent when we put it into a sexual context. And with young people, if we educate ourselves and each other and young people, it enables them to have the tools and then they understand it themselves. They understand not just what is right and wrong but where the law is on it.”
We need to teach teenage boys how to listen carefully, how to act appropriately and that the sexual acts they see portrayed in aggressive degrading pornography online bear little or no relation to real life. We know that: “In the context of violent pornography (i.e. degrading and/or aggressive toward female actors), the more individuals are exposed to aggressive and degrading depictions of sexuality, the more likely that these types of scripts are activated and utilised in dating and sexual relationships.”
Or as Monica put it: “I don’t think the impact of online pornography can be in any way underestimated. And it’s not just the impact on boys. The impact is across the board because it also informs girls’ attitudes as to what is expected of them. So it’s wider than just boys looking at porn then behaving in a particular way or thinking this is OK or normal. Pornography is an issue not least because consent doesn’t feature in porn, you don’t see consent being obtained. Kids get a skewed view of what sex relationships look like in the real world.”
The latest statistics show that there is a huge percentage of young people, and young boys in particular, who had seen or had access to pornography by the age of ten, which means pornography is available even to children of primary school age.
“As adults, and certainly as parents, we tend to underestimate what our children are exposed to and know. And I think it’s our responsibility to get in front of those things early, which is why we’re going into schools in the first place. It’s not whether it’s age appropriate etc, it’s essentially whether it’s the right point in their lives, it’s whether it’s developmentally appropriate for them. It’s better to talk to them prior to them being exposed to it, so they’re prepared – because they will be exposed to it and then they come at it from an educated, informed perspective and they get comfortable telling us, the parents, they’ve seen something and it was very scary.”
Although the SCP generally finds parents and teachers are supportive of what they’re doing, some parents, particularly with younger children, can be reluctant to have their kids involved in open discussions.
“Sometimes parents ask me, aren’t we exposing them to things before their time? They should be children, they should be innocent. And I always say to them, giving them knowledge doesn’t take your child’s innocence away; it’s protective, it’s informative. Wouldn’t you rather be the one giving them accurate information or me as a lawyer giving them accurate information, rather than them only talking to their friends who may not have accurate information? Or they’ll try to search it out on social media. And it’s very hard for them to know what is correct, what is right and what our expectations should be when it comes to relationships.”
We also need to teach teenagers about the importance of privacy. It’s not a game you win or lose or a sport to be bragged about. We need boys to understand that sharing sexual photos or videos is unacceptable under any circumstances, during a relationship or after it ends. And we need to teach teenage girls that when boys ask for sexually explicit photos, they don’t need to agree.
As Monica told me: “We can’t keep ignoring the realities of the world we live in and the consequences of the lack of information, of misinformation. We owe it to our young people to teach them. And they’re asking for this information. It’s our responsibility to provide it to them. In the OFSTED report last June, there’s some really scary stuff in there about the realities of young people’s lives and their exposure to certain things and what many of them are directly affected by, whether it’s as a victim or in another way. Even the low-level instances of sexual [mis]behaviour… we find that talking about these issues really empowers them to keep both themselves and each other safe.”
The volunteers who run the workshops are all lawyers and trained before they go into schools. Monica said her team always try to show what a good relationship looks like: “We try to make it a positive, not a negative. It’s very hard, we could easily slip into, ‘Oh it’s very bad and it’s terrible that these things are happening to you’. And as a matter of fact, that’s true. But when we have that conversation and we make it about the positives, about what a healthy relationship looks like, not just sexual relationships but friendships, when we have that conversation, that’s going to help change things for the better.”
There’s only so much Monica’s volunteers can do in a one-hour workshop. But having open conversations at this level is the first step in starting to tackle rape myths and stopping these harmful beliefs being perpetrated by teenagers, the next generation of jurors, lawyers, judges and teachers. Juror prejudices are a significant problem, especially false and prejudicial beliefs. We need to educate both boys and girls so that they don’t believe in rape myths. Tell them an absence of extensive injuries is not evidence that a woman has made it all up. That she’s not lying just because she wasn’t brave enough to shout for help. That not shouting or screaming for help doesn’t mean she implicitly gave her consent. That a short gap between the incident and turning up at a police station means nothing. And that women don’t regularly make false rape accusations. The evidence for all these commonly held misconceptions is compelling. But if we can prompt open conversations about the basics of consent within schools, that is at least the first step to improving things in the future.
Monica’s team has reached around 25,000 students since the project began, which is a great achievement, especially since they exist entirely on small donations and people giving up their time to go into schools. They plan to upscale their activities considerably over the next five to ten years.
“We came to the conclusion that if we can reach one in three of all school-age children, that will create almost a tipping point, in order to change culture in schools. And at that point those who have had the education about consent can go on and be responsible for continuing that education and changing cultures within classrooms.”
Inter-Gender Solidarity and Safety
I believe we also need a strategy to tackle violence against women in a softer, more culture-led way. Before it happens. A strategy that works in tandem with reform of the criminal justice and education systems. We need to enlist all the kind men and boys to step up and call out attacks on women and girls wherever and whenever they witness it and feel able to help. It’s happening before their eyes.
Even the little incidents that might look insignificant from a male perspective. They all add to the culture of fear. Just go up to the girl or woman and ask if she’s OK. We need all the fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and male friends to stand up for women and girls whenever they’re feeling threatened. To give them extra strength in the face of violent men. Please don’t bury your head in the sand; if you see something that feels wrong, trust your instincts because it probably is. Don’t look the other way and think ‘this is nothing to do with me’. Tell the perpetrators that what they’re doing is wrong before it goes any further. Or if you don’t feel comfortable with confrontation, just help her escape an uncomfortable situation. Before those women and girls are scarred for life. Self-preservation only goes so far in a civilised community.
I say to any men reading this, please explain to the younger men and boys you can influence that sex attacks, sexual crimes, are always to do with power rather than sex. That they’re not entitled to a woman or girl just because they find her attractive, that what she’s wearing has nothing to do with sexual availability. That she is entitled, just as he is, to go to a party, get drunk and walk home without being scared. To a certain extent, good men are already doing this. But we need all the good men, all the positive influences out there, to help women feel and stay safe.
I hope ‘Prima Facie’ marks the beginning of a shift in thinking among parents, teachers and teenagers. The beginning of the end of violence against women or at least a recognition of how prevalent victim blaming is within the UK. My mind drifts back to the SELF ESTEEM audio clip I’ve heard a dozen times. It’s a group of young women on a night out. They’re approached by a group of men and the women start barking like dogs. The men laugh nervously and move on. As SELF ESTEEM’s Rebecca Lucy Taylor keeps reminding us: THERE IS NOTHING THAT TERRIFIES A MAN MORE THAN A WOMAN WHO APPEARS COMPLETELY DERANGED. In a few years I will arm my eight-year-old daughter with this knowledge. I have to believe that life will be better, less fearful, for her generation. That when she leaves home around a decade from now, she won’t need a rape alarm or a pickaxe handle in her baggage.