Dani Garavelli: Abnormal people need small screen enlightenment about rape

Among many sex scenes in the TV adaptation of Normal People, Sally Rooney’s novel about a relationship between two millennials, one in particular was held up as a watershed moment. It took place early on: Connell and Marianne – the main characters – were still at school. It was their first time together, but it was also Marianne’s first time full-stop.

Connell and Marianne (Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones) from Normal People. Picture: Enda Bowe/Element Pictures

The scene is notable for its lack of slickness. It captures all their adolescent fumblings. It’s very natural: the nervous giggling; Marianne’s bra getting caught over her head as she tries to take it off.

What makes it remarkable, however, is that it deals so sensitively, but also so clearly, with the issue of consent, portraying it, not as a cold clinching 
of a deal, but as a fluid, ongoing 
conversation that enhances rather than dampens the encounter. Realising Marianne is a virgin, Connell reassures her. “If you want me to stop or anything, we can obviously stop. If it hurts or anything, we can stop. It won’t be awkward,” he says.

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It is fair to say that there are many aspects of the Marianne/Connell relationship that are less satisfactory. If only they could communicate as well out of the bedroom as in it, their lives would be happier. But that scene: well, it is perfect – a study in how to look after one another in lust, and a reminder that consent can be withdrawn at any time.

If only all young men were so enlightened; but, of course, they are not, as the scandal at St Andrews University demonstrates. There, dozens of allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape – both on and off campus – have been posted on an Instagram account called St Andrews Survivors. At least 10 of these involve members of a US-based fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi. It has been the subject of complaints in 20 universities across the world.

But campus rape culture goes way beyond one fraternity. Three years ago, a report by Revolt Sexual Assault and The Student Group found the problem was endemic. Harassment, unwanted touching, coercion and rape were all commonplace. In the wake of that report, Oxford University set up a dedicated support service; last week it revealed a 15-fold rise in allegations in the space of a year.

And rape culture goes way beyond university campuses. It’s a problem in sport: see Mike Tyson, Adam Johnson and David Goodwillie. And it’s not just sportsmen, but celebrities generally. Actors like Kevin Spacey; singers like Solo 45 convicted of 21 rapes earlier this year. Comedians like Bill Cosby. Just last week, a string of women accused Hardeep Singh Kohli of sexual harassment.

And it’s a problem on the street. Pubs, nightclubs, public transport, taxis are all hot-spots for groping and grinding. There are contemporary names for contemporary trends. “Hazing” is one from universities. It refers to coercive initiation ceremonies in which individuals are humiliated and sometimes sexually abused. “Stealthing” – the clandestine removal of a condom during sex – is another. “Stealthing” is on the increase. Campaigners say it should be a crime; and it may well be covered by the Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2009, but no cases appear to have been brought here yet, so it is hard to be sure.

When it comes to sexual assault, there is often talk of “grey areas”. These might include the question of capacity when alcohol has been consumed, or young girls agreeing to be choked (are they really consenting or surrendering to social pressure?)

The discussion of “grey areas” peaked when actor Aziz Ansari was accused of ignoring a series of cues that his date did not want to continue with their physical encounter. Is the phrase a useful way of thinking about sex that is harmful, but falls short of criminality? Or is it just a convenient way of confusing the boundaries so men can claim they don’t know when they are crossing them?

These are the issues at the heart of the most talked about TV programme of the moment: I May Destroy You. The series – written, co-directed by and starring, the astonishing Michaela Coel – explores all kinds of non-consensual sex, and gives the lie to the notion of blurred lines. When Arabella, the main character, is drugged and sexually assaulted, there is no question – by the police or anyone else – that what has happened to her is a crime. But what about when the man she is having consensual sex with takes off his condom without her knowledge? She is clear that this too is sexual assault, calling him out during a speech at a literary event. What he did was not “rapey”, she says; it was not “rape-adjacent”. It was rape, and he is a rapist.

There are many other instances of sex without consent in I May Destroy You. Arabella’s gay friend Kwame is sexually assaulted by a partner he meets on Grindr, but he has already had consensual sex with him, so the police won’t take what happened to him seriously. Then Kwame goes on to have sex with a woman without telling her he is gay, and she feels violated. There is also victim-blaming, with Arabella’s partner Biagio screaming at her that she should have watched her drink to stop it being spiked.

I May Destroy You is captivating on many levels; but the reason it is the focus of so much attention is that it forces us to confront sexual misbehaviour head-on. As Coel says about “stealthing” in a newspaper interview: “I think we call this area grey because there’s a lack of transparency. It seems grey and it seems blurry, but all we have to do is shine a torch on it and it will become clear.”

Those St Andrews students who have made allegations will no doubt be encouraged to go to the police; but, as anyone with any experience of the criminal justice system knows, reporting is not straightforward and there is no guarantee of arrest, never mind conviction. The university is also introducing compulsory consent classes – a positive move, though such classes are only really useful for those who are open to self-scrutiny.

What we really need is for discussions around consent to become mainstream. We need more series like Normal People and I May Destroy You which deal with consent – not as if it is something to be considered in the context of an occasional high-profile court case – but as if it is a matter for every one of us, every day.

We need sexual offending to be discussed without embarrassment in schools and around our dinner tables; we need a torch to be shone, and for the lines to be clarified.

Consent must be part of a national conversation because misogyny has been normalised. The failure to fully grasp the concept is not an aberration, but a cultural condition. It cannot be properly addressed by re-educating individuals in particular settings, only by changing social attitudes, until the communication that exists between Connell and Marianne becomes so conventional we take it for granted.

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