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Sexual consent really isn’t like a cup of tea – but at least we’re talking about it

A cartoon that explains how understanding sexual consent is as straightforward as making a cup of tea is doing the rounds. The animation is being promoted as part of a social media campaign by the Crown Prosecution Service, Thames Valley Police, Rape Crisis and other UK agencies. The concept rests on the idea that you wouldn’t force someone to drink a cup of tea they didn’t want just because you made it for them.

It’s a clever idea that has prompted debate over the limits of consent where previous campaigns have failed. The law is a lot more complicated than this video suggests but it has got discussion going.

Shades of earl grey

It is true, as the animation makes clear, that agreement is not unequivocal. People may say “yes” and then go on to withdraw that consent. It’s also true that unconscious people can’t make decisions, either about whether they want a cup of tea or sex. And, as the video reminds us, it is true that wanting a cup of tea (or sex) one day does not automatically equate to wanting it at another time.

But there are limits to this analogy. What of the drunken person who insists they want a cup of tea when they don’t actually have the capacity to make that decision? The animation deals with this rather simplistically, showing that once someone is unconscious they shouldn’t be made to drink tea.

It’s obvious that an unconscious drunk person can’t give consent, but their ability to give real consent may be lost long before they pass out. Drunken consent is a common issue. Whether a person is capable of giving consent is a matter of whether they have retained their capacity – not their consciousness. This isn’t something that can easily be explored by reference to tea.

Then there is the matter of conditional consent. This is being discussed more and more in courts. Rulings so far suggest that where consent has been given on the basis of some condition that is a crucial feature, such as wearing a condom or not ejaculating inside your partner, and the complainant had been deceived about this, then consent may be negated. If we were really stretching the analogy I would suggest that if you have consented to tea being served in a cup – and only in a cup – and it comes in a mug, then consent has not been given.

Nor does this video deal with youth, disability or abuse of trust. The blogger Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess who originally created the concept recognised that it does not cover all bases, prefacing her tea analogy with context missed from the animation.

At least the kettle’s on

Despite the limitations though, the value of getting the basics of consent out to a wider audience cannot be underestimated. Consent campaigns are rarely engaging and have often strayed dangerously close to victim blaming. A local police force in England devised a campaign in 2012, for example, that depicted a woman lying on the ground with the warning: “Don’t leave yourself more vulnerable to regretful sex or even rape. Drink sensibly and get home safely”.

A regrettable campaign.

In this context, shifting the focus onto whether real consent has been given is a good thing. The tea analogy is simplistic but perhaps that is what we need. Attention spans are short in the age of social media and this entertaining animation makes important points easily accessible in a way the lengthy prose of the – albeit well meaning – Crown Prosecution Service cannot.

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