3 September 2018
The TV presenter Jameela Jamil thinks that it’s time we rethought consent. She tells Lucy Holden why
Jameela Jamil is campaigning for “enthusiastic consent”, and she’s amazed that it took her so long. “In a way technical consent is quite modern and people really congratulate themselves on attaining it from other people,” she tells me. “But really, if someone isn’t having a whale of a time, you should stop. You’re not doing a good job,” the 32-year-old explains, half-laughing.
The reason we’re talking is more than half-serious. The television presenter and model is presenting a two-part Radio 4 programme called The New Age of Consent, which addresses the issue in the digital age and suggests it often isn’t “earned”, but assumed.
” ‘Mmm, OK,’ or saying nothing isn’t enough,” she says. “Giving in, or begrudgingly agreeing should not be what you are looking for in a lover. That’s a clear amber to red light that you need to stop what you’re doing. You should want to be the person who knows how to please, pleasure and seduce to the point where you have a green light, while remembering that it could become a red light at any time,” she adds.
Not having a “red light” recognised, or being listened to, is something Jamil has experienced first hand, and is part of the reason she wanted to make the programme. She was date-raped when she was 22, she explains in part one, Crossing the Line, which is broadcast tonight, ten years after her experience. “I had the freeze reaction. Weirdly some people are still stupid enough to take that as consent,” she says on air.
“I don’t want to be the focus of the programme,” she says. “That would be grotesque.” She starts relating what happened that night, the one that won’t ever be forgotten, but has formed so much since, then stops, asking me to “scratch that”. When she continues she’s talking with a presenter’s precision, something learnt during her Channel 4 days, perhaps, stopping to sort the words out in her mind before she delivers the lines.
“I’ve had direct experience of sexual assault that took place on a date when I was 22,” she says, restarting. “I believe that was due to going home with someone I didn’t know well enough. I couldn’t predict what their behaviour was going to be like behind closed doors and I didn’t have the words, or feel I had the right, to stop what was happening.
“That shed a lot of light on the subject of consent and the dangers of going home with people when you don’t know about their past, their mental health history, or their triggers.”
She hopes the programme will encourage young people to be “very careful, learn to follow their instincts and not drink or take drugs to the point where they can’t hear those instincts any more.
“After I was attacked I took some comfort in knowing that I would never again do that, knowing that I had made some errors of judgment it didn’t make me feel that I was victim-shaming myself. I felt empowered to know that there were things I could do to make that much less likely to happen again. I’ve been more careful since, I’ve really got to know the people I put myself behind closed doors with, and that’s meant I’ve felt very safe and had lots of very nice experiences.”
That, in short, is why consent should be talked about, she says, and the programme explores why we don’t discuss it enough, why we’re fine “doing it, but not talking about it” — “it” being the British word for sex, of course.
She wrote a blog on her website on the subject of consent in January, after the story broke of the American actor Aziz Ansari allegedly forcing himself on a much younger photographer after a date.
“I could see it was the most divisive story of the Me Too movement thus far, and perhaps since,” Jamil says. “I felt like there was a dialogue happening between women and women, men and women, and older women and younger women that was quite combative. I wanted to have the conversation in a calm, honest, frank and slightly humorous way just to see if it could encourage more teamwork. Empathy and understanding is the only way forward.”
Jamil knows that understanding works both ways, and when I talk to male friends about the subject it’s instantly clear why. It’s automatically assumed that talking about consent — or the lack of — is an attack on men, and it needn’t be, she says. Yet sometimes men complain that they aren’t mind-readers, and really they shouldn’t have to be.
“I do believe there are some truly bad people, but I also think some of the people that do bad things, or damage other people, just don’t know any better,” she explains. “We’re so ill-informed, partly by media and pornography, which is served up to us as reality, that people don’t know where the boundaries are; we’re fumbling around in the dark.”
The programme tries to analyse how we can better learn how to voice that “twinge” of concern we get when we know something isn’t right in a sexual encounter to stop it getting to the Me Too level. It addresses the fact that it should never seem “easier” just to go along with it at the time.
“I’ve had a year of literal ‘me too’s’,” she explains. “But the most surprising thing for me in this when talking to friends was how many had only just started to realise why they have certain fears and traumas, and their realisation that they trace them back to a time when they didn’t know that something bad had happened to them. They knew they had been made to feel uncomfortable, but they didn’t know they had the right to feel uncomfortable, and felt a sense of shame about it. That’s what I want to start a rebellion against: shame.”
She’s adamant that the conversation needs to start young. A documentary she made with the BBC in 2014 called Porn: What’s the Harm? showed her that, she adds.
“We couldn’t air this because we had to protect the child’s privacy,” she tells me, “but we visited a school for the documentary and a 12-year-old boy put his hand up in a sex education class to ask, ‘If I rape a girl will she start enjoying it like they do on the internet?’ We were stunned — but that’s what children innocently see when they find pornography online.
“A lot of pornography is directed at a lack of consent, which is incredibly dangerous. Kids watch Spider-Man movies, but they know it’s an actor in a costume and they know cartoons aren’t real, but pornography is made to look like reality more than fantasy; they don’t know the women are actresses. What children see are glorified, glamorised videos of men forcing women to do something sexual and so often the woman in the video ends up enjoying it. It’s saying to boys: ‘Be the animal and they’ll give in, then orgasm with little to no effort on your part. What a great day!’ “The internet, I believe, is responsible for lowering the age of sexual activity among teenagers, and that makes children not understanding consent at a young age even more dangerous because sex and bad experiences can change your life.”
Despite the recent surge of twentysomething male undergraduates being accused by peers of rape and sexual assault, Jamil doesn’t think our twenties are a dangerous age. But the younger you are, the more likely you are to bow to the pressure of doing things you’d rather not, she says, while being more likely to lack the language to get yourself out of situations.
“Frigid is such an ugly word,” she says. “When we’re young we have a fear of being called that, or seeming uptight or a killjoy, and that fear almost overrides our sense of self-preservation. At 32, I really couldn’t give a flying f*** what anyone else thinks about me, but when I was younger I remember feeling very keen to seem like I was adventurous. There are also things you don’t know whether you like when you’re younger and you want to try them. Hollywood movies made me want to try sex in the shower and it was a disaster — I’m surprised I didn’t break my neck. Please quote me on this: I highly advise against it.”
Parents and teachers who aren’t afraid of talking about sex and reality are the answer, she thinks; sex education being the only thing that can combat hypersexualised media until record labels and musicians are made to take responsibility for videos in which “scantily clad women are trying constantly to please men who are wearing winter layers and not even breathing in”, she says. “They’re just damaging their own children.”
Consent is very simple. “Consent to me is the certainty that all parties are constantly, throughout the entire experience, happy with what is happening and feel safe.”
The New Age of Consent is on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 8pm