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In this exclusive extract from Behind Closed Doors, Natalie Fiennes talks sexual violence, the sexual offences act and the importance of CONSENT!

You can buy Natalie’s book Behind Closed Doors here.

Between 1975 and 1980, Peter Sutcliffe murdered 13 women and attempted to kill seven others. Dubbed the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Sutcliffe claimed that the voice of God had instructed him to eradicate all sex workers. Much like his Victorian counterpart, the murdering spree sent ripples of fear up and down the country. The press pumped out daily stories about the killer, hurling accusations at men in the public eye and providing gory details about the Ripper’s victims.

With the Ripper still at large, the local police force made an official statement, suggesting that all women should remain inside after dark. Little did they realise, but their cautionary advice would lead to the greatest mass mobilisation of British women in decades. In 1977, the first Reclaim the Night march was held in Leeds. Women took to the streets, pouring out of their homes in their thousands shouting, ‘No curfew on women – curfew on men’. It was a clear mandate: the fault of sexual violence does not lie on the shoulders of survivors. In the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, they said that the problem lay with a disturbed paranoid schizophrenic and a society that objectifies women. Women should not have to stay indoors. Their indignation came after a lifetime of being told that if you wear short skirts, if you drink too much or flirt with your boss then it is your responsibility – you opened the door to rape. Instead, the protesters shifted the focus away from victims, towards the perpetrator, by making this an issue of consent: ‘Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no!’

The 1977 Reclaim the Night movement was adamant that dominant attitudes towards sexual violence had to be addressed. Forty years later, how much has changed?

behind closed doors outspoken books sexual consent sex education natalie fiennes no means no reclaim the night

The 1977 Reclaim the Night protest.

The law

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 for England and Wales says that a person consents to something if they ‘agree by choice and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice’. In relation to sex, this means they are capable of saying yes to penetration, touching or any other sexual activity. The words ‘freely’ and ‘actively’ are key here. The law says that if someone is:

  • Asleep
  • Under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Under the age of consent, 16 in the UK
  • Coerced
  • Manipulated
  • Intentionally misled

Then it is non-consensual sex, in other words rape or assault.

The maximum sentence for sexual violence might be life imprisonment, but in practice it rarely plays out like that. The vast majority of sexual violence cases never even see the courts. 15 per cent of survivors in the UK report their rape to the authorities. Of that 15 per cent, only 5.7 per cent lead to a conviction.1 These figures are even more startling when you consider that in the UK, the total number of rapes has almost doubled since 2013–14. As the #MeToo movement highlighted, sexual violence is endemic, but the legal system has catastrophically failed to protect people.

There are differences of opinion about why the law falls short and what can be improved. For instance, with 90 per cent of sexual violence cases happening between people that know each other, some have shown that the justice system fails to accommodate the difficulty of bringing the law into relationships.3 Others have pointed to public sector cuts, and the fact that there are simply not enough domestic violence services. But there is also a fundamental reason that gets to the heart of the inequalities within a justice system that treats some people as more worthy of listening to than others.