what does a relationship without consent look like?

This article is a guest post from an anonymous contributor, who asked to share their story about a relationship where consent was never understood. 

I could talk for a living, but I cannot talk about this. This wasn’t meant to be an open letter to you, but it turned out that way. This is not about you though, it is about me, and about how I am letting go of the anger and the bitterness and the feelings of inferiority.

We were in a relationship for two years, from the age of seventeen until nineteen. Through school graduations, dances, the start of university and all the ups and downs of two years. We is not a word that is comfortable to use, I no longer want to think that I acted as a unit with you. I am writing this to make myself understand, to make you understand, and to make other people understand.

My hands shake as I type, I once loved you but I hate you now. This is not a story about rape, at least not to my mind. It is a story about consent, something I did not know existed when I was seventeen.

It is not something I ever thought could happen to me; it is also something I did not realise had happened until recently, until an encounter with you made it clear. I lost my virginity to you when I was seventeen. It was at my house, in my bed, my parents were away for the afternoon. It was the first time we had been left fully alone. You had broached the subject earlier in the day, and I said no, I didn’t think so.

You pointed out I had said before that I thought maybe we could have sex in the Summer. You said it was now Summer. I said I still wasn’t sure, and you said that was fine. Later, one thing led to another and it seemed like this was happening. I felt like I could not disappoint you, that I could not let you down, even though in my head I never wanted to do anything less. But I still wasn’t sure.

I was shaking and I still remember the marks of my fingernails on your thighs; how much is hurt, how it felt like I was being ripped apart. All that was running through my head was that I did not want to do this, and how we stopped because it was so painful. You didn’t stop until my hymen was broken, you seemed to feel like you had to do that, and I was shocked at the blood. I remember thinking this did not seem right.

I will always remember you saying afterwards that if this were a different culture, and I were your bride, you would not have stopped. I remember the bitterness in your voice when you said that. I remember the colour of my face, which was white as a sheet. I remember you made me hot chocolate. I remember the sense of relief that this mystery had been solved. I remember feeling terrible, and sad and scared and taken advantage of it. I remember the reaction of my friends to the fact that one of us had finally had sex, I couldn’t tell them the truth. The closest I got was ‘lie back and think of England’.

We had sex maybe five times in two years, every time the refrain ‘please make it stop’ ran through my head. I remember the conversations about it, the coaxing the beguiling, the thinly disguised manipulation, the disappointment in your voice. I began to feel insignificant, small, I lost my sense of self. I felt trapped, I could not talk to anyone and I did not know what to do. Why did it hurt so much?

I went to doctors, I really tried. But the thing is, sex was always on your terms, it was your domain, you initiated everything. You tried to teach me things, the implication being that I was the one at fault; belittling me, patronising me, I didn’t know what to do. To you, it was all my fault. But actually, it was all your fault, you didn’t understand that this all started too early, you were too persistent.

I dreaded each sexual encounter. I began to make excuses not to visit, not to stay over. I felt like I was failing at being a woman, I felt there was something wrong with me, I believed what you said, I was chipped away.

There was something very gendered about how we dealt with it as well. When we broke up I immediately felt relief, then sadness. Despite all the flaws of our relationship (and the good parts), I took a long time to mend and heal, to regain myself. I feel now, that this is because I was unable to fully comprehend or deal with the sexual side of our relationship. I realised it was not normal; I did not realise that this was not my fault.

I did not know what consent was. I know now, but it was a recent realisation, something that only began to dawn this year. When I was having sex with someone,  I asked to stop because it was painful and he immediately obliged. When I thanked him and said not many people would do that he seemed shocked, and said ‘What kind of people have you been getting with?’. And I mumbled, ‘not very nice people’.

You made me feel that I was in someway physically or psychologically damaged and that was why I would not sleep with you, or perform sexual acts with you. I know now you believe that I damaged you. You and your new girlfriend decided to ambush me one day to testify to that. That was painful, as she told me that I had damaged you, damaged their sex life, and all I could think was this is my problem, it is not yours.

I was so embarrassed and so angry, and I stayed so calm. Well, calm for me, I have a raging temper. So many people tell me that I am tough and strong, with you I am not strong, but that day I tried to be. I will never, ever forgive you for that day, for bringing her with you, I won’t forgive her for ganging up on another woman like that. I will never forgive you for saying I damaged your sexuality, your physicality, your self esteem, that I emasculated you. You damaged me! FUCK YOU!

Why don’t you understand that it was you who damaged yourself, by damaging me. It was a horrible experience, and I kept thinking a) don’t panic, and b) You don’t get to do this anymore, you don’t get to make me feel small.That encounter was weird, and it forever confirmed to me that you are an arsehole. It is a shame, I like your friends and family, but I do not like you.

The story of the confrontation with you and your new girlfriend was discussed with my close friends, and with my lovely mum. Everyone was aghast, they were so angry on my behalf. That is when I began to rally, and understand. When I came to terms with, and applied the correct terms, to what had happened.

When a dear, dear friend said that they couldn’t understand how you did not feel bad about your actions, why your conscience hadn’t kicked in. They pointed out what had happened was not consent. If you understood, I could forgive you, but until you do I can’t. I do not crave your love, your apology, your respect, your friendship. I have wonderful friends who have helped me so much. I would never discredit or undermine the sufferings of people who have been raped by saying I have been raped. I have not. I would not even say I was sexually assaulted, there is something of a grey area. All I know is I have been badly affected by this, something was wrong and the repercussions of it have continued to damage my relationships with people and with sex.

Some people may think I am making a fuss over nothing, that I need to check my privilege. I understand why they may think that. My unbridled anger may not be appealing to people either, but hey ho. As Charlie says in the Perks of Being a Wallflower

‘I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.”

One of my best friends seemed hesitant to understand, despite my repetition of ‘It’s not rape, but it’s not consent either’, that hurt, but I hope she understands now. I don’t really know what else to say. If I see you again I want to punch you in the face, but I probably wouldn’t, as it will fuel your narrative that I am emotionally unhinged.

I am doing much better, I feel good. I am strong, and I am brave. I am light years ahead of you, I am doing fine. So go fuck yourself, and at least you know you have permission to do that. But you will never read this, for those of you who have, thanks for sticking it out, it’s longer than I thought it would be. And if you understand, thank you.

one year

Trigger warning: sexual violence.

One year ago today I was raped and, about a week or so later, I started this blog to help me process everything that had happened. It has been an incredibly helpful tool for allowing me to reflect, and I hope has done some good in raising awareness of the problems we still face around sexual violence.

Rape is an act of silencing, and one of the most helpful ways to combat it as a secret crime, is to talk about it. I wouldn’t advocate this for everyone, and I certainly don’t think it’s a sign of weakness to not talk about your experiences, but for some people it can really help. I have gained strength from writing this blog and letting others know that they are not alone in what they face. Tragically, most people I know have experienced some form of sexual violence and many have been raped. Rape is not rare, it just isn’t discussed.

One of the more specific reasons I started this blog was in response to the police process which, in my experience, was at least as difficult as being raped. When you give a statement to the police you have to repeat yourself over and over again while they hand write everything. It’s a torturous process and, although it’s supposed to be your statement, I felt as if I had no autonomy over it because everything I said was paraphrased, or jotted down in an approximated version of what I had said.

This blog has helped me reclaim my voice and tell my story on my own terms. Feelings change and should be validated. My perspective on what happened has shifted through the year, with the benefit of hindsight and greater reflection. I have never lied, but it is almost impossible to communicate a whole truth to somebody else, especially in the aftermath of such a traumatic experience. Over the year, this blog has enabled me to reflect on the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is never made possible in a courtroom.

One year on a lot has changed, what happened feels very far away and I am incredibly happy. I have been lucky over the last year and in this post I will reflect on what has happened in the past twelve months.

My five favourite articles 

  1. My first two choices go together in many ways and reference similar themes. The first is on Intersectionality and how my multiple identities interconnect and shaped how I responded to what happened to me.
  2. The second is about the importance of Checking privileges in any circumstances and, for me, that included after being raped. I have many privileges that have made me luckier than many in how everything happened.
  3.  The most difficult part of the experience for me was undoubtedly the Medical examination . Whilst this isn’t the most fun read in the world, I think it is important to know what survivor’s experience and how difficult reporting rape is made for people.
  4. This is possibly the most important article for me, on a feeling I never expected to experience: Shame. It shows the difference between what it is like to theorise on a subject and the lived experience of it.
  5. Perhaps the most formative of my articles was the First post, where I laid out my ideas for this blog and initial response to what happened.

Turning points 

Every month I have written an ‘update’ on what has been going on and how I feel in relation to what happened a year ago. A key turning point was definitely the article I wrote One month in, as it shows both the immediate sense of hindsight, but also the fresh impact of dealing with everything. Progress is not always made in an uphill curve, however, and Three months in was arguably a set back from me.

Whilst not every day is better than the one before, I am much better now than I was a year ago, and the article I wrote for the Ten months post, reflects a more positive outlook than anything contained in the previous ones. Reading back through all the ‘Month by month’ articles, it seems like a turning point in a renewed sense of optimism.

Possibly the biggest turning point was an article I wrote relatively recently: Face to a name. In this post I did just what it says in the title, ‘put a face to a name’ and deliberately undermined the anonymity of the blog. I wanted to be known as myself and chose not to hide what had happened.

Shout out 

A shout out to all the people who have written Guest posts for me. Now I have had a year to establish the blog I will start doing much more outreach to try and get people to share their perspectives on sexual violence, feminism and more. If you know me personally please feel free to send me articles any time, or tweet at me to get my attention otherwise.

The main thank you has to go to One of my best friends, who was by my side for the whole process. She wrote a series called ‘partners in survival’ early on in this blogs history, which I would highly recommend if you have time. If you’re wanting to know how to support a survivor then seriously, just follow her lead.

What I have learnt 

Rape is far too common but I have a lot of faith in our ability to reduce the stigma surrounding it and support survivors. I don’t mean to negate the impact being raped had on me, it was significant, but I am still placed in a very privileged position and am incredibly grateful for the support I’ve received. To everyone out there going through something similar: stay strong and ask for help. Most people who experience this will need support to process what has happened, particularly if you choose to report.

One of the most important things I have learnt is that, as difficult as the police process is, it is not impossible. Reporting rape and speaking out about it are important tools in helping us fight for a safer world.

her sleeping ecstasy

A poem by Heather Farley: 

I’m a fool for that sound in your midnight whispers,
A fool for your young almond eyes,

Foolish for the dark strands locked on in my lips,
For all your ideas and dreams of worlds untainted by humanity.

In my movement,
In my gaze,
In my touch,
I affect you.
I see it in flashes when you look back and say;
You fucker,
You coward…

A tenuous bridge to a world undiscovered emerges in your stares,
And I balance carefully, walking the steps to your fort’s front door,
Grasping at anything to reach your home.
Your haven.
Your rusting brick wall you sit at;
For I want to join you in your dystopian love.

To be in your mind
inside your mazes,
Under your protection, your barriers and your sheets,
On paths of no direction;

Back and forth I walk in the mist,

Up and down I’ll run in your rain,

Spiral and swirl in your hurricane.

To watch the art create itself;
Like looking at a sunrise,
Watching a child growing into a woman or man,
The winter nights turn to spring mornings,
Your blockades and barracks dissolve in your mind as my kiss softens the blow,

You lying there;
breathing heavy,
Glistening in the moonlight,
for the sweat trickles down your side and glimmers on you neck,
This raw physicality,
Felt like the way nature intended beauty to be;
Uncorrupted just caressed in the company of two.

As I move and stroll across your surfaces,
Tracing your outline with my nails,
Painting your fine features with my tongue,
We make beauty implode into an arching symphony of ecstasy

My hands scratch brushstroke in your tanned skins,
While I hold you;
Hold your back off the pale sheets,
Keep close to your quivering frame,
Tenderly resting you down when I resist pulling you harder onto me.

To be the spark in the fire
Or the drop in the floods
The moon that fell asleep to let the sunshine burn alive again
To be part of you,
is in itself my elation

Never has sensuality been this safe for me,
I’ll remain a fool
A fool in your presence I’ll stumble and stutter..

But when time slows,
Nothing’s changing but were evolving,
When your eyes rest,
peacefully into your youth,
For you could just be just a girl,
when your hair is musty and you skin unraveled in blankets

I’ll watch as still life envelopes me,
Becomes the beating drum at which I’ll slow my mind to the rhythm of,
A constancy in twisted sheets and single beds

I’ll let go, and watching you,
I’ll fall carelessly to sleep,
Lying near that which I cannot cage own or possess,
Just hold until the morning sun rises again,
When I’ll fade foolishly like the moon always does at dawn..

four cures for a broken heart

I wrote this at about sixteen in response to the teenage relationships I saw around me: 

Four cures for a broken heart

  • Pray he changes. Try and get him back.
  • Rage and rave over the fact he’s gone.
  • Go further- lose you head; go on the attack.
  • Hold your head up. Do your best to move on.

eleven months

Eleven months ago I was raped and last night I ran Label Fashion Show.

Label is a show I founded to offer people a platform to express their individuality, and partly in response to what happened to me. Rape is primarily an act of silencing and I refuse to be silent. I cannot imagine a better way to reclaim my voice and my body, than to run a body positive fashion show.

Label was a bigger success then I ever could have imagined and I am so excited to see what happens with it over the coming years. To find out more, check out our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or find us on Snapchat @labelshow.

Rape does not have to define you, and I have been in the extraordinarily privileged position to turn it into something positive. A huge thank you to everyone who made Label such a success, especially to the wonderful cast of models.

If you would like to get involved in Label then please message me at inbox@labelfashionshow.com and come along to next years show in St Andrews, or the body positive performance I am running on 26th August in Islington Mill in Manchester.


activists response

Due to the problems with legislation around sexual violence many activists have responded by trying to change the situation. I aim to highlight ‘the role of activists who serve as intermediaries between different sets of cultural understandings of gender, violence, and justice.’ (Merry, 2006:2) The two campaigns I have chosen to compare are Reclaim the Night and the actions of the Gulabi Gang.

The aims of Reclaim the Night (RTN) are to ‘march to demand justice for rape survivors’ and it was established in England in 1977 in response to the ‘Ripper Murders’. (RTN, 2015) Women were angry when instructed to stay indoors to be safe, they marched through the streets with torches and challenged men, asking where they had been at the time of the murders. The purpose of the event is to reclaim their public space in society and, by uniting their collective strength, strive to maximize more power for women. Many participants are friends and families of those who have suffered violence. (RTN, 2015) Similarly, the vision of the Gulabi Gang is to ‘protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption to ensure basic rights of the poor in rural areas and discourage traditions like child- marriages.’ (Gulabi Gang, 2015) The movement is based in one of the poorest regions of Uttar Pradesh, the Pink Gang is considered to be the world’s largest existing women’s vigilante group, with approximately 20,000 recruits in India and a newly established network in France.

Both movements aim to empower women but their differences reflect their respective cultural contexts, for example the Gulabi Gang’s focus is often on ending child marriages. Another key difference is the use of violence, RTN makes a point of being a peaceful demonstration whereas the Gulabi Gang have sometimes used violence to protect women. According to one report, the targets of the Gulabi Gang’s ‘vigilante activity’ are corrupt officials and abusive husbands: ‘their activities range from beating up men who abuse their wives to shaming officials with whatever weapons are available including walking sticks, iron rods, axes, and even cricket bats.’ (Dhillon, 2007) Sampat Pal Devi, the unofficial leader, has defended this approach, saying ‘“To face down men in this part of the world, you have to use force.” (Prasad, 2008:5). However, one member, Shanti, states that ‘In all the time that I have been with the gang, we only beat people, we have never murdered anyone’ and examples of violence are often exaggerated. (Sen, 2014)

Whilst some in the ‘West’ may judge such activities and use them in a discourse that depicts the ‘other’, both foreigners and women in this case, as monstrous it is important to remember that our own movements to end sexual violence are far from perfect. RTN marches held in the 1970s often went through black areas whilst demanding that streets be made safe for women, often with an accompanying slogan for ‘better’ policing. Despite the arguments of black women then, and since, RTN marches sometimes still carry slogans for ‘better’ policing. Not only is it racist to march through black areas with demands for safer streets for women (which women?) but also, to understate it, there are not many black women who see police protection as any way of doing this. Racism operates in a way which places different women in different relationships to structures of power and authority in society. (Mackey, 2014:47)

The Gulabi Gang address many of these inequalities, providing social services for poor women, particularly widows, who need support when domestic problems arise. The oppression of women in India is shaped by their caste, class, ethnicity and religion; as well as by the state, men outside their caste and men within their caste who abuse their authority. (Kalpagam, 2004; Rao, 2003; Rege, 2004) Legislation to protect members of the lower-castes against discrimination, the 1989 Prevention of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Atrocities Act, exists on paper. However, socio-economic and political pressures ensure that it remains ineffective. (Gangoli, 2007) Chanda Devi, a gang affiliate, said, “Not only is it a curse to be a Dalit, but it is just as difficult being a woman.” The problem lies not with the law as much as the context in which it exists, both in terms of social security and protection from sexual violence.

Campaigners from RTN are increasingly engaging with these problems, international actors and the importance of intersectionality. The movement encourages participation of women from a broad range of areas; including schools, lesbian groups, women’s health centres, community centres, child-care centres and so on. One of the tactics RTN uses to invite women to participate, is to talk about issues relating to violence against women and children. Some argue that although it is empowering to hear women who have survived violence, sometimes it can be disempowering to hear so many terrible experiences. They argue that the focus should be on the government, the media and the judiciary system, rather than blaming individual men. Skye Fraser, who worked with survivors of sexual violence, stated that ‘working with sexual violence involves mobilizing the force of survivors, to assist them to direct the anger to the perpetuators’, and the social forces that allows the perpetuators to exist. (Hercus, 1999)

The Gulabi Gang also attempt to engage with perpetrators, partly by attacking villagers and government officers in the region, although the gang insist they only use violence as a last resort. They do sometimes run ‘shaming rituals’ in which gang women demonstrate outside the homes of offenders but their primary endeavour is to initiate peace talks.  According to Sampat, ‘We don’t like using violence, but sometimes that’s the only way people listen’; although more recently she has commented that, ‘We don’t use violence much anymore. Now just our name and [the fact] that [they know] we are coming are enough.’ (Sen, 2012) Focusing media and scholarly attention entirely on the sensational activities of the gang diminishes the innumerable accounts of everyday resistance against gender discrimination that have been devised by women in rural societies across India. For example, as early as October 2010 a record number of twenty-one Gulabi Gang members won panchayat (municipality) elections. Uma Kalpagam argues that by privileging the ‘local’ context, such as these elections, women reconstruct international human rights violations in ways that strengthen broader liberation movements against state repression. (Kalpagam, 2004)

These movements make a difference at a political and legislative level, which I hope will also lead to a change in Scotland. One of the main areas of RTN campaigning has been in South Australia, and in 1975 it was one of the first jurisdictions in Australia to overhaul its rape laws in the light of feminist demands for change. (Chan, 2004) Whilst legislative reform is needed and should be aimed for, these campaigns also have a positive impact on the people involved regardless. Hercus noted in her interview with women who participated in feminist events, at least 60% of her interviewees gained an actively positive experienced out of the event because they can share their emotions with like-minded women. (Hercus,1999) Even when legislative change is not achieved, these campaigns can help circumvent the negative impact sexual violence may have by offering, at their best, an inclusive community striving for change.


Activists around the world are working to combat inadequate legislation around sexual assault. There is an increasing recognition that simplifications and labels are harmful to people’s identities. Feminist, LGBTQ+ and other movements, although far from perfect, are making strides to create a more inclusive discourse and to protect vulnerable people from sexual violence. National legislation is changing slowly but there is more to be done. IR as a discipline could do more to engage with the problem of sexual violence and the central role it plays in people’s human rights and protection at both a national and international level.

sexual orientation

I will explore people’s sexual identities within the context of sexual violence. People’s sexual identities are often interconnected with their gender identities. For example, arguing that gender is performative and entirely a construct that does not objectively exist, may undermine transgender people’s right to claim that they experience life as a particular gender. A lack of recognition of these identities undermines the safety of particular groups. Such groups are particularly at risk because, Wilchins argues, ‘cultural heterosexism fosters ‘anti-gay’ attitudes by providing a ready-made system of values and stereotypical beliefs that justify such prejudice as ‘natural.’’ Whereas, what we construct as ‘natural’ actually takes a lot of effort to maintain but ‘through this ‘“micro-politics” of power… we learn to be and experience ourselves as very particular kinds of masculine and feminine subjects.’ (Wilchin,1997:8) Similarly, Herek claims that ‘By imbuing homosexuality with a variety of symbolic meanings, cultural heterosexism enables expressions of individual prejudice to serve various psychological functions. Further, by discouraging lesbians and gay men from coming out to others, heterosexism perpetuates itself.’ (Herek,1990:316) Such stigma manifests itself in several ways, including in targeted sexual violence.

Tragically, LGBTQ+ communities are particularly at risk from sexual violence and there needs to be more research about why this is and how to prevent it.  Some surveys show that as many as 92% of lesbians and gay men report that they have been the targets of antigay verbal abuse or threats, and as many as 24% report physical attacks because of their sexual orientation. (Herek,1989:948) As regards sexual violence, approximately one in eight lesbian women and nearly half of bisexual women experience rape in their lifetime. Nearly half of bisexual men and four in ten gay men have experienced sexual violence other than rape in their lifetime and, though statistics regarding rape vary, it is likely that the rate is higher than for heterosexual men. (NISVS, 2010) Transgender individuals are most likely to be affected in the LGBTQ+ community; 64% of transgender people have experienced sexual assault in their lifetime. (Grant; Mottet; Tanis, 2011:3) Sexual assaults are often an attack on identities, whether it be gender, sexuality or otherwise, so we need to make a particular effort to protect vulnerable groups. One of the main problems seems to be fear of not maintaining the status quo, ‘Threaded through all this anxiety and effort is a discourse of realness…those who don’t fit- genderqueers and drag queens and trans people- are seen as unreal. Because boxes are Real, people are not.’ (Wilchins, 1997:10)

Sadly, even within progressive movements particular people’s rights and identities are often ignored. Even within the LGBTQ+ community the rights of gender fluid or asexual people are often not discussed. For example, ‘The term “asexual” has been defined in many different ways and asexuality has received very little research attention.’ (Graham, 2007:341) The fact we do not acknowledge people who are asexual, or may simply not want to have sex, in relation to our discourse around consent is highly problematic; particularly when it comes to men, as there is a false understanding that men are always willing to have sex. It is necessary to review how we theorise sexual relations and how we reflect these understandings in law to create a more inclusive discourse.

In order to address these topics, I have been forced to turn to the disciplines of Social Anthropology and Psychology as IR does not seem to engage with these identities. However, it has been noted by Margaret Schneider that, ‘Even though LGBT people and communities have been actively engaged in community organizing and social action efforts since the early twentieth century, research on LGBT issues has been, for the most part, conspicuously absent within the very field of psychology that is explicitly focused on, community research and action–Community Psychology.’ (Harper, Schneider, 2003:243) The lack of research is noticeable but it is interesting which disciplines have at least addressed the problem, as it reflects in itself the gendered nature of society. Each discipline faces different forms of gender inequality, one impact in the humanities is the ‘exclusionary effect of masculine information and support systems [that] affects women candidates in all phases of the appointment process.’ (Benschop, 2011:87) IR specifically aims to present itself as a stereotypically masculinised discipline with its focus on war, states and rationality, whereas Social Anthropology and Psychology are often typecast as ‘sentimental’ subjects taken by women.

It has been argued that ‘gender change in academia is so awfully slow… especially in traditional masculine academic environments with ‘thick’, ponderous traditions and values.’ (Benschop, 2011:89) Perhaps then it is not surprising that sexual assault and issues of identity are not focused on within IR but it does point to an underlying problem with how we value knowledge. However, ‘Since the beginning of the twentieth century gay and lesbian communities… [have been] the heart of activism that has resulted in many gains in the area of human rights for LGBT people.’ (Howe, 2001; Rosenthal, 1996; Woolwine, 2000) Policy, legislation and human rights change is often led from the bottom up because it requires an overhaul in our understandings of what knowledge is valuable.


Gender and sexual identities are important on an international level because they are experienced internationally and by collectively ignoring groups rights, we are continuing to base rights off identities. At a legislative level there is an assumption of cis- gendered heteronormative sexual relations and so only these are protected by laws, albeit current legislation often fails to adequately protect people anyway. Protection from sexual violence is a human rights issue that falls within the remit of the UN, as are the protection of gender and sexual identities. Merry argues that intermediaries such as NGO and social movement activists ‘play a critical role in interpreting the cultural world of transnational modernity for local claimants. They appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourse into the vernacular. At the same time, they take local stories and frame them in national and international human rights language. Activists often participate in two cultural spheres at the same time, translating between them with a kind of double consciousness.’ (Merry, 2006:3) International legislation is vital for change but it is often led by groundwork activism.


A short, simplistic poem I wrote in about five minutes at fifteen. It captures my panic at what could have been my fate not so very long ago, and still is the fate of many women the world over: 


I have no money and no mind,

My husband owns both now,

A life was written and I signed,

To this day I don’t know how,


My future’s his to take and break,

I’m alone and frightened and small,

My life is consigned to tea and cake,

But it’s hard to accept that can be all,


Can you imagine this of you,

Can you imagine the panic at your fate,

Well fight for me friend and be true,

The day is dark but it’s not too late,


Please; do not ignore my call!

gender identities

I will examine how gender identities are harmed by current legislation and how it excludes people from protection. Legislation still maintains the use of a gender binary; the idea of gender fluidity or a more complex understanding of gender is not acknowledged within law or disciplines such as IR. Gender fluidity is rarely discussed and yet it is a lived reality for many people; Riki Wilchins wrote that, ‘Today gender is the new gay. We are the new queers… It is as if our theorists, having decoded the systems of power and discourse, which create us as specific kinds of subjects, are then unwilling to look at us as thinking and feeling subjects.’ (Wilchins, 1997:7) Until we look at individual’s identities and how we are theorising them, legal systems will continue to be exclusive to predisposed norms of gender and sexuality.

Coney’s study shows that his participants conceptualize gender as feelings associated with the body, influenced by their ontological understanding of gender. He argues that gender fluidity is the fluctuation of those feelings, that it should be understood as a constant but inconsistent change regarding how one feels about their body, rather than a constant change between personae. One of the participants says, ‘it is my decision, but at the same time it feels hormonal. It feels chemical. It feels like something more in my body than in my mind.’ Another comments that, ‘I think the hardest thing for people to understand is that gender is not necessarily your personality. It’s not who you are, it’s just a part of who you are. I feel that’s what people have a tough time understanding with gender fluidity.’ (Coney, 2015:4) Gender fluidity often entails gender dysphoria, as the feelings one has about their body are constantly changing. Language was noted as critically important to the participant’s gender identity, enabling them to understand how they ought to interact with the world around them. (Coney, 2015:5)

Language is incredibly powerful and by writing multiple understandings of gender out of our legislation we are undermining people’s identities and leaving them vulnerable to harm as their human rights are not protected. For example, within Scottish legislation there are totally different ‘rules’ for men and women, which means that anyone who does not identify within this binary cannot relate or apply the law to themselves. Within IR papers there seems to be no recognition of the need for gender neutral pronouns. There is still a fight just for female pronouns to be included alongside male, which highlights that there is a time lag within the discipline between current debates and academia.

By working within this gender binary we also maintain gender stereotypes and, even whilst addressing sexual violence, actually maintain the discourse that has legitimated it. For example, in one study the results from regression analysis of interview data from 598 randomly selected adults indicates that the higher the sex role stereotyping, adversarial sexual beliefs and acceptance of interpersonal violence, the greater an individual’s acceptance of rape myths. Younger and better educated individuals revealed fewer stereotypic, adversarial, and pro-violence attitudes and less rape myth acceptance. (Burt, 1980:217) Rape myths include beliefs such as women being to blame for their choice of presentation and men being unable to control themselves when they want sex. This was clearly linked with the ‘sex role stereotyping’ and shows that the presentation of a gender binary often depicts both men and women in a negative light. For example, women are objectified through blame about their presentation and men as incapable of control over their actions; neither benefit from this binary.

Partly due to this stereotypical gender binary, women are particularly at risk from sexual violence, something IR has been better at drawing attention to.  Whilst research around women’s survival of assault is still something I do not think is taken seriously enough in an international context, I will not focus on it extensively here because it is much better developed than some of the other areas I wish to draw attention to. For example, there is a continuing ignorance about sexual violence towards men and it is estimated that research, help, and support for male survivors is still more than 20 years behind that for women. (Rogers, 1998) The lack of research in this area was first noted by Sarrell and Masters in 1982 who stated that ‘failure of the health care professionals to recognise the possibility that a man can be sexually assaulted has influenced research on the subject; there has been none.’ (Sarrell, Masters, 1982:117) This goes some way to explaining the lack of research in IR but also the continuing assumption in Scottish law and others that men cannot be raped. Since then data from case studies of men assaulted have found that survivors may exhibit a number of symptoms, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sexual problems, including confusion about sexual orientation. (Coxwell,2007:3) This highlights a need for further research in IR as people’s human rights are not being adequately protected in their health, mental or physical, or safety.

Surveys of sexual assault towards men reveal that it occurs more frequently than is often depicted, with figures varying from 14% to over 26% amongst adults, depending on the type of assault. (Hickson et al., 1994) In the study by Walker et al. (2005) only five out of the 40 male rape victims had contacted the police after their rape. Only one out of these five cases resulted in a criminal conviction. Attitudes towards survivors have a direct influence on whether or not the victim reports the assault to the police, whether it will be seen as ‘weak’ of men to admit or women will be ignored as having ‘asked for it’. (Pollard, 1992) These societal stereotypes contribute to people not reporting rape, meaning most perpetrators of assault go unpunished and many victims do not seek the help that they need to recover from the assault. (Davies, 2002)

is legislation adequate?

Legislation surrounding rape and sexual assault can be found wanting at both a national and international level. In this section I will critique some problems with the above definitions and then move on to examine broader problems that arise from the narrative around them.

Firstly, the lack of definition by the UN allows countries to define rape on their own terms, maintaining sovereignty but creating problems when trying to write international policy on war time rape for example. Although it is briefly alluded to as ‘sexual intercourse without valid consent’ (UNODC) this has never been substantiated or ratified. Neither ‘sexual intercourse’ nor ‘consent’ are defined, which leaves the terms open to interpretation and makes it impossible to have policies that coherently address the issue. Without a clear definition I think the reach of resolutions such as 1820 and 1325 will be limited as rape may not be recognised as having taken place, so I think a clear definition from the UN would be beneficial.

Whilst it is good these resolutions tackle the serious issue of war time rape and the particular threat to women, they ignore a multitude of other problems and maintain war as the central issue of International Relations. (IR) Rape during war is a serious issue but most countries are not at war most of the time and it is harmful to ignore rape as an issue in civilian life, for example domestic abuse. This is not to suggest that domestic violence should be universalised or affects all women in the same way; Richie argues that ‘poor women of colour are most likely to be in both dangerous intimate relationships and dangerous social positions.’ (Richie, 2000:1136) To highlight the issue from my own position, one in five women in the UK, aged 16- 59 have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. (RC, 2015) This figure varies slightly with different studies but it highlights the significance of sexual violence as a threat to people’s human rights. Therefore, I think UN resolutions would benefit from broadening the scope of what they address to more ‘everyday’ cases of sexual violence.

Part of the problem has been a lack of evidence internationally to substantiate the scope of the problem. One response to this has been the Gender Based Violence Information Management System (GBVIM) which was launched in 2006 by UNOCHA, UNHCR, and the IRC. The aim is to collate data to gain recognition for the severity of the problem and combine an inter- state strategy to deal with it. Inevitably this project will take time to be effective and much of this legislation has arisen within the last twenty years, not allowing much time for development or international recognition. At the same time as GBVIM was being launched, the UNODC collected statistics about rape at the national level, specifically the number of cases reported to the police. The figures shown are shockingly low; out of every 100,000 people the highest figure recorded was 39.9 reports to the police in Zimbabwe and the lowest was and 0.1 in Egypt. (UNODC, 2006) This study only includes rape and not sexual violence but even if we hypothesis only one in a hundred people were raped, a figure far too low to be realistic, that would still leave an estimated 1000 people, leaving a huge gap with the figures shown to be going to the police. Even if current legislation recognises rape as a crime, it is massively under reported and, when reported, prosecution is by no means guaranteed which means current legislation is not affective.

This is certainly true in Scotland and, in my own experience as well as many others, going to the police is not made easy. Catherine MacKinnon’s wrote that, ‘Women who charge rape say they were raped twice, the second time in court.’ (MacKinnon, 1983) Legislation cannot be affective if going to the police and the police process is made so difficult for survivors. However, even before that point I have several major concerns with the definition of rape in Scotland. Firstly, only a man can be a perpetrator of rape in Scotland as it is necessary within the definition for there to be the penetration of a penis without consent. Women can sexually assault men but they cannot rape them. A lesbian couple could never be accused of rape but a gay couple could be, simply because of the genitalia of the parties. This undermines the progression of the LGBTQ+ movement, as it reflects the laws inability to think beyond a heteronormative, cis- gendered perspective.

Secondly, within Scottish law it is the responsibility of the man to check consent but not the woman. It should be the responsibility of both parties to check consent and disadvantages both genders. It disadvantages men as all responsibility is placed on them for ensuring that sex is consensual. It disadvantages women as it plays into stereotypes of women as passive and removes their agency to control their sexual lives. This is a ridiculous attribution of power to one gender but is also hugely problematic in pre- assuming the cis- gendered nature of people’s identities and relationships.

Interestingly, Scottish legislation does recognise surgically constructed genitalia as being equivalent to biological. A trans man who has transitioned would be expected to both gain consent and could be condemned of rape. So trans people who have completed sex reassignment surgery are recognised within law as their chosen gender in this case. However, those who have not done so would not have their gender identities respected. A trans man with a vulva could not be guilty of rape nor would they be held accountable for not obtaining consent. Therefore, Scottish law maintains many problematic elements as regards defining people’s gender and sexual identities and recognising these in a context of sexual violence.