Crossing the line

At what point does a drunken encounter become something more sinister? asks where consensual boundaries lie

“He stood up and walked across the room. I looked down at my chest and couldn’t figure out what the sticky stuff was all over me. When I finally realized, I knew something was seriously wrong. I still don’t understand how I could not have known. I think I was just grateful that he’d stopped.”

Sarah, a second year student at the University of York, had an experience that, according to the National Victim Centre, will affect one in four university aged women. She wasn’t attacked down a dark alley in the middle of the night, but seduced by one of her friends who convinced her to allow him into his bedroom on her gap year. “With Jason, I’d met him. We went out. We were with his friends. He was older, from California and really good looking. He said he was impressed with the way I did shots of vodka which was ridiculous because I hated the taste and gagged it down. I was sitting on his lap and we were making out. Apparently that meant I was up for it,” she says with a slightly hardened smile.

“I’d never lived with guys before. He was 23. I wasn’t aware of how aware you have to be that you are a girl and they are a guy. Because of that I had a lot of problems. It wasn’t that I wanted them to want me or I wanted sex or attention, it was the only way I knew to interact with boys – by flirting, and then I got myself into a bad situation.”
This is a problem that many girls living away from home for the first time face. Students are presented with no supervision and a plethora of beds. When alcohol is added to the mix, the hazy boundary between consensual and non-consensual sex is blurred.

According to, 55% of all date rapes involve people who were drinking or were drunk when raped. 80% of rapists had been drinking before they committed the act. “He asked me if I wanted to watch a movie and I said yes because I genuinely thought he wanted to watch a movie. I really didn’t want to have sex with him because I was scared of not being good. He was so much older and more experienced. He tried to get me to give him a hand job but I didn’t want to. He kept on saying it wasn’t a big deal, that I’d been acting like I would. He said he didn’t realise I was just a stupid 18 year old. I’m pretty sure I said no but I still did it. The next thing I remember, I was lying on my back, naked, and he was jacking off into my chest and had his fingers inside me. I remember lying there and not moving and thinking that this will be over soon.”

“I don’t remember when he left. I took the hottest shower I’ve ever had and scrubbed myself. You can still feel his hands on you, in you, you still have his smell. I walked outside and called my best friend. It was 4am and I was standing in the middle of the street saying that I was a whore. It wasn’t an emotional thing; I was just convinced that girls who let this happen were whores – I was mortified and humiliated that I had become that girl.”

The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress say that Sarah’s story and her reaction to her experience is not unusual. “Victims often display a variety of symptoms such as self-humiliation, guilt, depression, shame, anger, nightmares, and a fear for their personal safety – women need to understand that being pressured by someone into having sexual activity with him, even if it is someone she knows, is still rape, a very serious crime. Also a woman who is intoxicated, either by alcohol and/or drugs, is not considered to have given their legal consent.”

Sarah says that she was aware of that but would never have consideredprosecution. For her, the idea of reporting what happened was worse than the event itself. “The next day I completely ignored it. I was nice and polite to him but he told everyone we were living with that he “had” me last night. What was I supposed to say? He was 23 and I was so fucking in over my head.”

“Do you know how it feels to have someone else literally mark his territory on your chest and then brag about it? I wanted to kill him but no one would have believed me.”

“He decided that every Friday he was going to try and get me back into bed. I was walking up the stairs one day and he followed me. I told him I wanted to be alone but he blocked me into the corner of the stairs with his arms over me so I couldn’t move and tried to kiss me. He groped me. I keptturning my head but it was only when I pushed him away and said ‘get the fuck away from me’ that he left with a look as though I had let him down.”

Olivia, a first year student also at the university, had a similar experience although, unlike Sarah, she was barely conscious when her friend at the time decided he wanted sex. “I don’t think he was trying to punish me for my behaviour [they had had a fight earlier that day], I think that he was very much in the frame of mind that I want this, I’m drunk and she’s not in the position to stop me.”

Olivia explains: “It was a pretty weird relationship. He was my bestfriend’s ex-boyfriend but they broke up a while ago. He was still part of our circle, though. We’d hung out a bit as friends, you know how you kind of get dragged into things. You do it because it’s easier to say yes than no. We hadn’t had sex before or done anything else. He tried to sleep with me before and I actually said no. That I didn’t want to, that I wasn’t ready to.”

“Everything was a bit crazy and fast, everyone was a bit too drunk. I was entirely aware of the fact that I had had too much to drink. He’d been really aggressive with me all evening. I can’t actually remember how I got home. I remember being in his room and someone knocked on the door. I tried to answer it but he wouldn’t let me and told them that we were busy. I wasdrunk and the fear didn’t really register but I remember thinking: this is not normal.”

“I was aware something wasn’t right but I trusted him. We were friends. We were going out. Then, I was lying there and I felt him enter me but I can’t actually remember how we got there. I know I thought ‘woah, I did not say yes to that.’”

“It was horrible. I was so disappointed in myself. I blamed myself entirely and it took me a long time to realise it wasn’t my fault. I blame myself for drinking too much but I don’t for what actually happened because I think that if I had answered the door then it wouldn’t have happened.”

Date rape cases are the most common form of rape. According to a polldone by the American magazine Ms, 1 out of 12 men have admitted to forcing a girl to perform some sort of sexual act or attempting to force her to. Very few of them saw themselves as rapists or potential rapists, though. Olivia believes that “a lot of people aren’t prepared to use the word rape. They think they just did a stupid thing last night but that’s not always the case. It’s happened to loads of friends of mine.”

“In my case, it’s a real grey area. I would say that I was raped purely for the lasting damage it had on me and for the element of force. He wouldn’t let me talk to my friend and he knew I’d said no earlier but other people see a girl who behaved badly and was therefore treated badly.”

Sarah sees things less clearly. “I don’t know. I would never stand up and say I was raped. I don’t know if that’s my guilt or cowardice or notwanting to be labelled.” Neither of the girls see themselves as victims. They are both successful, happy young women who have had subsequent healthy relationships. They work hard, go out, attend university and appear perfectly normal. This alone makes one question: exactly how much of this exists in universities across the country? “I think if I hadn’t been aware of how strong I was, my time in that house would have been impossible. I mean, we all have scars.”

Date rape is worryingly unreported. The Roofie Foundation estimates that only 10-15% of those attacked report the offence to the police. Half of those who did report their attack felt their treatment was poor. Indeed, girls are often tragically under-educated about their legal rights. “I think legal rape is defined in terms of force. I think even if you don’t say yes, if you don’t try and stop him, then you have given your consent. Then you have accepted your fate,” says Olivia.

However, the Sexual Offence Act of 2003 spells out the definition of consent as “If s/he agrees by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.” Person A is guilty if they act intentionally, if person B does not consent or if person A does not have reasonable belief that person B consents. Reasonable belief must take into account all circumstances including whether person A has taken reasonable steps to ascertain whether person B consents. The Act also abolishes the Morgan Defence which involved the genuine though unreasonable belief that person B had consented. This means that person A has a genuine responsibility to ensure that person B has consented. If the case was reported to the police, person A would be expected to explain what steps they took to ensure consent.

In reality, the question of consent is much more complex. Indeed, victims themselves are often unclear as to where the fault lies and it doesn’t help that female friends frequently respond casually. Olivia told her best friend what happened I don’t think she quite realised the extent of it. She just said, ‘oh that must have been really hard for you’. It’s only when I told one of my guy friends and he said ‘that’s not ok, that’s rape’, that I felt like I had the right to be upset about it.”

Sarah had a similar experience. “I told one of my friends who is a very strong Christian. She doesn’t believe in sex or any sexual contact before marriage. She’s always been very judgmental of my lifestyle but she genuinely took the view that that was one of the possible repercussions of being a ‘loose’ woman. As though I deserved it for my sins.”

Olivia responds “At university, it’s so easy to find yourself in those situations. Your room is your only space so if you come back and you’ve had a few drinks it’s easy to find yourself sitting on your bed. Next thing you know, you’re in bed – I think as girls, we have the attitude that sex is for boys. A lot of girls have had really bad sex with their boyfriends but they keep on doing it. Maybe it’s a control mechanism for us, like when do we give it up? Maybe we’re embarrassed by our own sexual desire?”

“When I had sex again, I didn’t realise the lasting affect it would have on me. I was really scared. It was fine – I didn’t get any flashbacks – but I thought I would. I think there’s something about losing control over your body that stays with you forever.”

Sarah adds, “With me, it was less about my feelings about sex and more my feelings about myself afterwards. I hated my boobs. I wouldn’t look at them when I was naked. I didn’t really look at myself naked for a long time. And now, as a rational person, I can’t believe that I internalized that hatred-in a way, it’s kind of pathetic.”

Sarah and Olivia’s stories are not rare. Many girls have found themselves in a situation where everything is fun and romantic until they realise they are too drunk. Unfortunately, depending on the state or personality of their partner, this can be dangerous. One of the most concerning things is the lack of consensus about what constitutes rape and where the fault lies. We are all told that a girl always has the right to stop at any point during sexual activity but, when faced with the situation, the weight of supposed obligation is sometimes too much.

“I remember thinking that I don’t want this but I don’t know how to stop it. I think the biggest feeling was duty. I felt like he deserved me. Like he deserved my body – I had pretended that I was this cocky little experienced girl and he was this amazing 23 year old and that I could do anything he wanted to,” Sarah admits. “I know it sounds stupid.”

“When I rang my best friend, I made a joke about it. I remember thinking that it’s not funny but I knew if I took it too seriously then it would be something that affected me for a long time. The protective mechanisms we put in place are amazing – even throughout the whole thing I kept on thinking maybe if I lie really still, it won’t matter. I’ll just disappear and be safe,” said Olivia.

While the exact pressures that make girls feel they are incapable of stopping unwanted sexual advances by someone they know once it has begun are still unclear among psychologists, it is obvious that a campus and nation wide debate is essential for clarifying exactly where the line lies. Sarah believes “maybe if I’d known it was normal to feel like you had to, that other girls felt that sense of duty even when they were being pressured, I’d have done more to stop him.”

“I spent so much time being scared for something that wasn’t my fault but that I didn’t fight against. Does that make it my fault? Do I even have a right to be upset?” asks Sarah, searching my face for answers or even judgement. She’s not so much looking for reassurance as looking for comprehension about the morality of what happened to her – she’s still unable to decipher it herself. “I understand my feelings. I understand what happened but that’s about it. Maybe it’s for the best.”

“His hands were the biggest thing. I could feel his hands between my legs for ages afterwards. How could I have thought that if I kiss him, he’ll stop? That if I went down on him, he’ll stop? I don’t think I was drugged. Maybe I was just drunk on him being older and cooler and really good looking. Perhaps it’s just naïvety. I genuinely thought he wanted to watch a film, that he wanted to spend time with me. I think, in a weird way, I wanted his approval so badly that I was blinded to what was really going on.”

Sarah and Olivia do their best to rationalise what happened to them; they were drunk, they were naïve, they were scared. All of these attributes, however, relate to them and the mistakes they made. Although the girls were somewhat hazy about their legal protection, they had been told that they had the right to say no at any point. It is time that a discussion was generated about exactly why they, as women, felt such an obligation to give in to a man who was pressuring them even though their instincts told them that something was seriously wrong.

“I hate girls who think that you were flirting so you asked for it. That you invited him back to your room so you asked for it. I mean, we all know that a girl can say no at any point but it often doesn’t feel like that when he’s on top of you.”

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article the following organisations may be useful: National Centre for Victims of Crime is a leading resource for victims at, and provides advice for rape victims and victims of sexual assault. For advice and help on campus contact welfare or college welfare representatives.

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