I LIKE to think of myself as reasonably well-informed about “life stuff”, through a mixture of experience, literature, TV, social media and just good old girl chat, but this week’s episode of Michaela Coel’s staggeringly raw I May Destroy You on BBC1 has caused a rapid reassessment of this. In a scene where lead character Arabella is reporting a sexual assault on her to police officers she asks them about another recent experience she has had: “Secret removal of condom”. One officer snaps back: “That’s rape.” Arabella replies as dead-pan as you like: “That’s very informative.”

Just as I sat in front of the TV, wrestling with a myriad of questions catapulting through my mind, my 18-year-son wandered into the room. “That’s called stealthing,” he observed, before turning on his heels to exit, leaving me gawping, fish-like in the armchair. How did I not know this? Yes, I had heard the odd story over the years from friends, of condoms being removed, but the women involved would always be terribly understanding of the men. “It’s just not the same with one,” they would explain, smiling. But the women's eyes would betray their confusion. This new knowledge that that behaviour has a name and is considered sexual assault was revelatory to me.

A very quick straw poll of a group of pals revealed that amongst our age group of fifty-somethings, I was not alone. And the problem with not knowing, as the police officer said in the episode of I May Destroy You, is that “when people don’t know what is a crime and what’s not a crime, they don’t report it.” The other officer added: “And then people get away with it.”

This all feels like a no-brainer for most young people growing up where teaching consent has been part of their personal and social education classes in school for years. Both young men and young women are more aware of boundaries and can therefore be more assertive and informed about when those boundaries are being breached. But for those in their forties and fifties, many of whom are finding themselves back on the dating scene for a variety of reasons, where consent teaching was not part of their education, could there be some gaping holes in our knowledge that mean we’re not adequately tooled up for the world of sexual human interaction in the 21st century?

Do we know we can remove consent half-way through an encounter? Do we know consent should be ascertained for every sexual activity? Do we know that by secretly removing a condom a man has deliberately violated you?

The more I consider it, the more I wonder how I could have thought such behaviour could be anything less than a crime. The sex that was consented to involved a condom, and removing the condom requires fresh consent. Without that consent, it is rape. It’s that simple. Without that consent there has been no cognisance of the dangers of STIs, unwanted pregnancy and emotional trauma. Because we largely still see rape as an issue of force rather than consent, it’s not surprising that in the UK there have been very few successful prosecutions for stealthing. It seems it is too easy to claim ‘the condom just came off’, but realistically how often does that happen?

Some argue that by including other sexual misdemeanours, including stealthing, under the umbrella of rape we dilute the trauma suffered by those who are victims of non-consensual, forced rape. The reality is that both of these are on the spectrum of sexual assault and share a common denominator – the victim’s lack, or loss, of choice in what’s happening to them.

I May Destroy You has cleverly focussed on other aspects of sexual consent in all their complexities and variations too. We witness a gay sex encounter which begins consensually and then changes to something non-consensual. We see a threesome that appears consensual but which the woman involved begins to question when she realises the two men may have known each other and planned the whole encounter.

The narratives are scattered, confused and non-linear, reflecting the jaggy nature of many of these experiences. Arabella, sometimes under the influence of drink or drugs, staggers along the line between sexual liberation and abuse in a manner that’s both realistic and terrifying. Much of this is down to the writer and star Coel’s own life experience of being drugged and sexually assaulted whilst out for a drink with a friend four years ago. Although the perpetrator was never convicted, the rawness of the writing is a terrible testimony to those events in her life, and reminder to us all to examine what we know about sexual consent in our own lives.

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