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There are no shades of grey around sexual consent

Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey is just fantasy – but inexperienced young people are vulnerable to the mixed signals presented in this big screen blockbuster.

RAPE IS WRONG. No question. But consent? Well, there are all sorts of shades of grey, right? Not only do we get told the greyness of consent is realistic we also get sold a notion that it is, in fact, sexy. So where is the harm?

The harm for a victim of sexual violence is that we live in a culture where there are questions about rape. The questions range from why did you accept a lift from him? Why did you wear those skimpy clothes? Why did you get so drunk? All of these questions are nonsense, of course; when it comes to rape the only sensible questions that will give us any helpful insight are for the rapists.

When sexual consent is ambiguous, this means that for many survivors of rape, silence and isolation are their only options. If we think of consent as endless shades of grey then we help to sustain a society where perpetrators of sexual violence get away with it.

We should be critical consumers of the Fifty Shades of Grey fantasy 

In particular, we are setting young girls up to accept and tolerate abuse and coercion. It is against this background we should be critical consumers of the cultural phenomenon that Fifty Shades of Grey has come to represent.

This book that is marketed as an epic love story, in reality it is nothing more than a glamorised, abusive relationship. Young people are especially vulnerable to the mixed signals delivered here. If your partner monitors your phone it is not romantic; if he tells you what to wear, what to eat and when to exercise it isn’t out of mere concern; if he shows up at your home before you have told him where you live, it is not sweet; if he hits you it is not love. It is control and it is abuse.

But this is ‘make believe’ so why does it matter? The truth is we have serious gaps in how we address gender equality. One of the most serious that the RCNI have been flagging for some time now is the prevalence of sexual harrasment and assaults that are experienced in schools. The casual corridor gropings and name callings that are minismised and we are told to not make a fuss about.

What does it mean when a young girl experiences assault and is told that her best option is to not ‘make a fuss’. What we have taught her is tolerance to sexual abuse. Fifty Shades of Grey is part of that continuum that teachs us that the ‘inevitable’ gendered sexual abuse environment is something we should tolerate rather than something intolerable we must challenge as a matter of right and justice.

Abusive relationships are being promoted as something good 

At present, schools in Ireland do not have a National Policy to deal with issues of sexual harassment or sexual violence. There has also yet to be any concrete research carried out on school children and their experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Although a recent study carried out by Trinity College Dublin has found that, out of 1,038 male and female college students surveyed last year, 25% of women and 5% of men have been subjected to an unwanted sexual experience.

Fifty Shades of Grey completely bypasses consent and focuses on the pleasure and wants of Christian, regardless of how Ana feels about it. The results of this is that controlling and abusive relationships are being promoted as something good and, indeed, desirable.

Sexual consent and power are important themes here. In this scenario, sex is an entitlement of the powerful and privileged Christian. In Ireland we have become very conscious of power and the abuse of power, particularly when it comes to sex.

What messages are we giving young, inexperienced people?

We need to be aware of the message we are sending for young people. What are we telling a 17-year-old female that she should be looking for in a prospective partner? Is it controlling and abusive behaviour? By the same token, are we telling boys that this kind of behaviour will be valued? In 2013 RCNI National Rape Crisis Statistics Report found that 14% of perpetrators of sexual violence against survivors coming to Rape Crisis Centres were under the age of 18, this number is increasing every year.

Right now schools are ill-equipped to deal with the rising problem of sexual harassment that is going on inside our classrooms. More research needs to be done to show just how widespread the problem is so we can implement adequate protective measures that stop incidents from happening through policy and training. When teenagers are in an environment surrounded by these kinds of messages we need to be empowering them around safety. We need to teach our children the importance of boundaries, consent and respect, especially in relationships, as it is not something they will learn from this big screen blockbuster.

Clíona Saidléar is the policy and communications director for the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

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