What Counts As Consent: Why This Conversation Is Long Overdue

Netflix show ‘Anatomy of a Scandalisn’t just a great watch – it’s also helping people think and talk more about what sexual consent is.

TW: Sexual assault

When Wellington woman Monique* sat down to watch Netflix’s new hit mini-series Anatomy of a Scandal, the last thing she thought it would do was make her think back to her 20s and relive some unpleasant memories she always thought were a bit ‘ick’ – but she now realises were far more serious.

Netflix’s Anatomy Of A Scandal

The one-off, binge-watchable British drama series is based on an internationally best-selling novel of the same name written by former Guardian journalist Sarah Vaughan (who based it on two real-life UK sex scandals). Over six episodes, the series follows devoted wife and mother Sophie (Sienna Miller) who lives a life of cream cashmere sweaters and unquestioned privilege until things unravel. Sophie stoically stands by her husband James (Rupert Friend), a charismatic Cabinet minister, after it’s revealed that he had a five-month affair with parliamentary researcher Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). Was one incident in a lift consensual?

When Monique, who is married with children, watched the series, she felt “a little triggered”. And so, for the first time, she read up online, from reputable sources, about exactly what is and isn’t sexual consent. For the first time, she realised that on three occasions, a line was crossed.

“So I thought ‘well, I’ve put myself into these situations, and it’s easier to let it happen than make a fuss’. Looking back, I didn’t grasp how wrong these things were.”

“Once someone kept asking me to have sex even though I’d said no, until he wore me down verbally and I gave in. Once, I was having consenting vaginal sex with a new boyfriend who performed a different, unwanted sex act without asking me if I wanted that, and I felt nauseous but just let him finish, thinking ‘well I already consented to [vaginal] sex and I don’t want him to maybe get angry.”

“Once, a friend who wanted to sleep with me got me so drunk and wasted [on a recreational drug] that I remember nothing of the act itself, just that it had happened, and looking back, I don’t think I was in a state to consent.” Monique thinks that, if she’d told him then (or told him now) that she couldn’t have consented, he’d be horrified and outraged. “I don’t think he’d see it like that, and I’d never put that on him.”

At the time, Monique felt “a bit yucky” about each incident, but didn’t see them as sexual assaults, and it never occurred to her to go to the police. “I wanted to find a boyfriend, and was sometimes a bit drunk and wearing skimpy clothing at bars and parties. So I thought ‘well, I’ve put myself into these situations, and it’s easier to let it happen than make a fuss’. Looking back, I didn’t grasp how wrong these things were, and I’m glad that watching Anatomy of a Scandal has helped me realise that these things weren’t okay. And I’ve realised I can talk about these things without feeling slutty or ashamed.”

Through the character of James, Anatomy of a Scandal shows how some men with a certain level of privilege and entitlement may view certain sexual encounters as spontaneous and consensual, not even admitting to themselves that they did something wrong. At one point, Sophie and her mother-in-law talk about how different generations of women view consent in quite different ways.

In an interview with Bustle, Sienna Miller was asked whether she felt a sense of responsibility in playing a character in a story about such sensitive issues. “Understandably, it could be triggering,” Miller said. “These are deep and important issues that I think need to be talked about. I don’t think a story like this would have been told five years ago.” As in, before the emergence in 2017 of the #MeToo movement, which caused a seismic shift in women speaking up about sexual harassment and sexual assault.


What is consent? Here’s the New Zealand Police’s definition: “A person consents to sexual activity if they do it actively, freely, voluntarily and consciously without being pressured into it.” What is sexual assault? “It is any unwanted or forced sex act or behaviour that has happened without a person’s consent.”

That page has a one-minute-long “Quick Facts: Sexual Consent” video, with Dr Cathy Stephenson from Medical Sexual Assault Clinicians Aotearoa talking. “Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact that you don’t consent to,” she says, “but I think most people don’t have a good, clear understanding of that. Consent needs to be active, needs to be sought, and it needs to happen when both parties are in a state that they can consent… Consent can also be withdrawn at any stage.”

If someone changes their mind during sex or foreplay, that means they’re no longer consenting. If someone is verbally coerced into having sex, that’s not consent. If someone doesn’t protest or resist because they fear physical force, that’s not consent. If someone having one type of consensual sex begins a different sex act without asking permission, that’s not consent. If someone is too much under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to reasonably make the decision, that’s not consent. If someone has already had sex on the same occasion or an earlier one, that doesn’t mean they necessarily consent again.

You might think that consent should be taught in schools, to educate boys as well as girls. In 2020, the Ministry of Education updated its guidelines on the importance of age-appropriate consent education, but delivering this isn’t compulsory and is up to each school. Recently there have been calls for New Zealand to follow Australia’s lead; from 2023, the topic of consent will be a compulsory part of Australia’s school curriculum.

“I wish someone had taught me about consent when I was at school,” Monique says. “It would have been a hell of a lot more useful than learning French.”

“I remember lying to the chemist while getting the morning-after pill, saying the condom had torn, because I knew the real reason was A Big Deal.”

After watching Anatomy of a Scandal, Joanne* from Auckland was reminded again of an upsetting incident. “In my early thirties, I did the dumb drunken thing that happens in so many heterosexual friendships and slept with my male best friend one night after we’d both been dumped and had gone out drinking.”

“At one crucial point, I told him he needed to stop and put a condom on, so he went off to the corner to do that, then things resumed. It was only when we were about to have sex a second time that night that I said something like ‘this time, the condom needs to go on immediately’ and he said ‘well, too late for that’. It turned out he had mimed putting on a condom so we’d just had unprotected sex. Realising I’d have to get the morning-after pill no matter what, I thought ‘I guess…’ then had unprotected sex again.” 

“I remember lying to the chemist while getting the morning-after pill, saying the condom had torn, because I knew the real reason was A Big Deal.”

“It was only after I watched [British TV drama] I May Destroy You that I first had to reckon with what had happened. What happened to me happens to the lead character and a cop refers to it as rape. My therapist called what happened to me rape. I don’t consider it rape, but I’ve had to compartmentalise the hell out of the friendship I still have with this guy – and I don’t think he’s thought about the disappearing-condom thing ever again.” 

Joanne and Monique both question themselves about why they won’t use the ‘R word’. “Are we protecting them or ourselves?” Joanne wonders.

“At least,” Monique says, “we’re talking more about what consent means”.


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