When we think about rape – if we ever do – how many of us think of a woman walking home alone after dark, attacked at knifepoint by a stranger?

And how many of you reading this piece right now think you don’t know anyone who’s ever been raped?

Of course, some women are raped by strangers at knifepoint. And it’s a traumatic experience that can and often does have lifelong impacts for those who survive it.

But no less traumatic – though maybe in different ways – is the experience of being raped by someone we know, who we trusted.

For 90% of people who are raped or sexually assaulted, the perpetrator is someone they already know.

It’s an issue currently being explored in ITV soap Coronation Street. In a storyline set to play out over the following weeks, Monday’s viewers were left shocked after crooked property developer Ray Crosby (Mark Frost) invited his 18-year-old employee Faye Windass (Ellie Leach) up to his hotel room under the guise of work and pressured her into having sex with him. 

Sat on the edge of the bed in his dressing gown the message was simple – if she didn’t have sex with him her career would suffer.

While some might feel that it’s just another sensational storyline to hook the audience in, the truth is that sexual violence and abuse are much more common than many people realise.

According to the Crime Survey, one in every five adult women living in England and Wales – and 1 in every 25 men – has been raped, sexually abused or sexually assaulted since they turned 16 years old.

And one in every 13 adults in England and Wales – 2.4 million women and 709,000 men – were subjected to some form of sexual violence or abuse before they turned 16, when they were children.

When you take a moment to think about that in relation to your own life, chances are you’ve met a lot of sexual violence and abuse survivors.

So why don’t more of us know about this? The viewer reaction to Faye’s rape gives us a clue.

While many were outraged, some social media responses to the scenes were predictably less understanding, with people insisting it couldn’t be rape as it was the teenager’s ‘choice’ to sleep with her boss. She could have said no but she didn’t, they declared.

Victim blaming like this is damaging and distressing. But we can at least use it as a springboard for reflecting on the central question of consent.

Our law is very clear that someone consents to sex, or any kind of sexual activity, when they ‘agree by choice, and have the freedom and capacity to make that choice.’

That means rape doesn’t have to involve weapons, extra physical violence or struggle.

It means ‘no’ means ‘no’, certainly, but it also means ‘yes’ doesn’t necessarily always mean ‘yes’.

Because a ‘yes’ can be forced, coerced, blackmailed, threatened or pressured out of someone.

As a young person, if your boss had asked to borrow money from you, asked persistently even when it was clear you didn’t want to lend it, and ultimately strongly implied they would sack you if you didn’t, what would you have done?

Perhaps it’s hard for you to imagine being put in such a difficult position, perhaps you believe you would have refused, but it’s likely a portion of us would feel we had no choice and lend that money.

And in that situation, would we, or anyone else for that matter, feel we’d freely consented to lending our boss money? No, we would not.

Because when someone with power and control over us makes us afraid and pushes us into something, we lose our freedom and capacity to choose. And no freedom or capacity when it comes to sex, equals no consent. And sex without consent equals rape.

But power and control can have a silencing effect, as can shame and self-blame. And the more we are silent as a society about the realities of consent, and the contexts in which sexual violence and abuse happen, the more victims and survivors are shamed into silence.

It’s time we talked more about consent so that all the real life Fayes can get the support, justice and empathy they need and deserve.

If something like this has happened to you, know this: it was not your fault, you are not alone, and specialist Rape Crisis services are here to listen, believe and support you. Find out more at rapecrisis.org.uk/get-help/

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