Why are we so bad at talking about sexual assault? And why it matters.

This week is Sexual Health Week and the theme is consent. It’s also the week Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is considering whether to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

In the wake of the Me Too campaign, the ‘Rugby Rape Trial’ and the many brave women who have since come forward to share their own experiences (and with them countless opinion pieces), it’s become increasingly clear to me how bad we are at talking about sexual assault. We need to have conversations to determine what consent in sex and relationships should look like, particularly in a social media and sexually literate world which expects different standards of behaviour.

For me it starts with education (something I’ve written about on Slugger before – Just Ask Oprah), and I often talk about the disparity between Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) I received as a child in Zimbabwe and as a teenager in Belfast, and how society needs to change in order to bring about a form of consent that works for everyone. Too often “consent” falls into the categories of bad sex or rape, leaving very little room for the in between.

A decade ago, when I was a student in London, my friends and I threw an anti-valentine’s day house party. It was distinctly average, in fact I remember at one point someone sitting in the living room reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of tea. At about midnight I decided I had had enough and went to bed. My bedroom was on the first floor, next to the bathroom, and had no lock. I was drunk enough to have fallen into bed fully dressed and I could not have been asleep for long when I was woken by a shaft of light as my door opened and a male friend came into the room. He sat down at my desk and started to talk to me, I can’t remember what he said but I do remember him lifting my Laura Mercier powder brush – the only thing on my spotless desk – and idly stroking his hand with it. I said something about being a loser and needing sleep and he said he would leave me – I sat up as I watched him leave with his beer in hand – and then I fell back asleep. The next morning I woke up and my bra and shirt which I had gone to bed in were lying on the floor. Anyone who knows me will confirm I am eternally cold, even drunk and asleep, I do not take my clothes off. On my desk was a spilt beer bottle that hadn’t been there before and my makeup brush lay in a sticky pool. The sickness I felt in stomach was not from a hangover.

A few days later I bumped into the friend outside the library. He looked at me pointedly and said he was sorry and asked if we were ok. Deep down I had known, but those words confirmed it. And because I liked him, and because it could have been worse, and because I was humiliated, and because he was sorry, I pushed it from my mind. But I never used that make-up brush again.

It’s only in the past few years, as I’ve read more about consent, that I began to feel angry. Angry at him, angry at myself for not having the words to tell him we weren’t ok, but also angry I was *thankful* it was the worst thing that had happened to me. My day job involves working with students and as a Councillor who is outspoken on abortion, I have had many people, mainly young women, disclose their stories to me, all so much worse. I have never believed that my experience had significantly impacted my life (beyond discarding an extortionate make-up brush); but as I listened to Professor Ford’s testimony earlier today I had tears in my eyes and I felt desperately sad for her and for myself and for every person who has their story.

It’s why I passionately believe we need standardised Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), and why it meant so much to me when my party adopted policy on this – because Sex Education in Northern Ireland is seriously lacking. Universities are beginning to lead the way with consent classes and bystander initiatives, but it needs to start sooner. Not talking to children and young people about safe and healthy relationships doesn’t stop them from having relationships, it just means they don’t have the confidence or information to make informed choices.

These conversations matter.

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*FPA have brilliant resources for parents and teachers

Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party Councillor for Balmoral.