From stolen nudes to ‘rape chat’: the horrific drama tackling the sexual assault epidemic in UK schools

Sexual violence is so normalised that 59% of young women have been harasssed. The creators and stars of bold new show Consent explain this awful culture – and why it’s worse in private schools

Natalie has just joined an independent sixth form as a scholarship student. She fancies her friend Alice’s brother, Archie – a star pupil destined for Oxbridge. Archie really likes her, too. But his friends use a WhatsApp group to constantly pressure him into having sex (“We’re basically paying her fees; she can pay on her knees”) and share links to porn. After a party one night, Archie sends the group a video to prove he has slept with Natalie. A few days later, however, he is confused when an upset Natalie says she doesn’t remember anything. “Why are you being like this?” he asks. “Did you use a condom?” she cries.

This is the premise for Channel 4’s blood-boiling new one-off drama, Consent, which explores how insidious sexual assault has become in the UK education system.

It is inspired in part by testimonies on Everyone’s Invited – an online platform where survivors of rape and sexual assault can anonymously share their stories, which prompted an Ofsted review in schools. It reported that 59% of girls and young women between 13 and 21 say they have experienced sexual harassment at school or college, but victims “don’t often see the point of challenging or reporting this harmful behaviour because it’s seen as a normal experience”. The website lists all the institutions that have been named, with many independent schools frequently mentioned.

The show’s Bafta-winning executive producer, Aysha Rafaele, has a teenage son, and pitched the drama after hearing about such incidents anecdotally through friends with children at both public and private schools. On deciding where to set the story, she and writer Emma Dennis-Edwards (“We’re both state school girls!”) chose a private institution because, they say, rape culture is dealt with differently there.

“The state sector is much more rigorous around Ofsted; if what happens in the film was reported in a state school it would get escalated – maybe even taken to the police,” says Rafaele. “In the private sector, because money, reputation and branding are involved, it’s much more likely that they’re not going to want to deal with it – that’s what the testimonies we read suggest. I know someone who was an English teacher in a private school who said that people knew about a pupil’s relationship with a teacher but no one did anything about it … it’s not in anyone’s interest to deal with it. Money is the difference.”

“The students are the clients,” says Dennis-Edwards, explaining that she chose for Natalie to be a black, working-class scholarship student because it’s more relatable to the viewer entering a world only few can afford. “She’s worked really hard, then this incident happens and no one has her side, including the head of the school, so she’s forced to leave,” says Lashay Anderson, 21, who plays Natalie. This, she adds, shows how institutions “appear to be opening and accepting until something happens and it shows they clearly are not.”

‘We want both parents and kids to watch it – but not together’ … Consent. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Channel 4

While this isn’t just a polemic on how much those who attend private schools get away with, the foundations of entitlement they provide for boys to grow up thinking their actions will not have consequences is at the core of the story.

It’s curious, then, that 20-year-old Ty Tennant – son of Emmy-winning actor David Tennant – was cast as Archie’s skin-crawling friend Raffy (“That fucking bitch killed my vibe,” he says of a teenage girl who calls him out over circulating nude photos of her), especially at a time when online scrutiny of nepotism in the entertainment industry is rife.

“I went to public school for a couple of years, then I went to private school,” says Tennant, immediately shooing the elephant out of the room as he sits down with his co-stars to talk. “If you had a problem with someone in public school you would just tell them and get into a big scrap. But then [at private school] it’s more like people talking behind people’s backs.”

This experience has helped Tennant to take on despicable characters that don’t like to get their hands dirty – he also starred as the stomach-churning young Aegon Targaryen in House of the Dragon. “There’s certainly elements of having known people at school like that,” he says. “To make a character like that believable on screen is satisfying: someone who can be master of puppets with no repercussions.”

But the villain isn’t always so obvious. “Archie is the embodiment of private school but not of lad culture,” says 23-year-old Tom Victor, who plays him. “He’s not very good at rugby or talking to girls, and his family is wealthy but broken. You almost feel for him. He really likes Natalie but when the persuasion of his mates comes in, plus drugs and alcohol, the lines become blurred. His idea of consent is uninformed because it comes from things that have been shared on the boys’ group chat, rather than actual experiences with girls.”

Ah yes, the boys’ “#slutsandstuff” WhatsApp group. The “banter” shared between Archie’s friends (“Stick your dick in her gob. Shut her up”) is shocking but it is based on a rise in real cases. In 2019, Warwick University apologised to female students targeted by a male “rape chat”. In the same year, the number of students at top universities who had been investigated for offensive comments made on group chats had nearly tripled in two years.

This, says Victor, is partly the result of schools failing teenagers on sex education: “There’s no teaching of what consent is.” His co-stars, who are only a few years older than their characters, agree. “I was aware of it – making comments about people and sharing videos. I just thought that was normal,” says Anderson. “Every girl I know has experienced sexual harassment to some degree,” adds Rhea Norwood, 21, who plays Alice. “That is a fact.”

Near the end of the film, once Natalie has left and Archie’s headteacher tells him to “chalk this up as experience”, we finally see the video that shows Archie raping Natalie. Does the decision to include this suggest that – when only one in 10 rapes recorded by police result in a charge (not a conviction) in the same year, and five in six women who are raped don’t report it – viewers need to see the video to be completely sure of Natalie’s claim of rape?

“We thought about whether to include it all the time. We had so many versions of that moment,” says Dennis-Edwards. “I know a boy who was accused by the girl he’d been going out with of coercive sexual behaviour,” says Rafaele. “When you’ve known that kid over a long time, it’s so hard to compute that he’s done that. That’s what we wanted to show with Archie – asking, ‘Could he really do that?’ To really believe he did it, you have to see that he did. It was a difficult decision to include it, but I think it was the right one.”

Some argue that the Everyone’s Invited movement is causing severe anxiety among young men – and Rafaele partly agrees that, yes, it is a tricky time for boys to grow up in. But, as Victor points out, “You only need to look at Andrew Tate: his followers are like uniformed schoolboys who attach themselves to what he is saying.” A powerful, nuanced show about sex such as this feels essential for people of all ages. Having it played in schools as part of sex education would be the ultimate goal for its creators: “You do want both parents and kids to watch it,” says Dennis-Edwards. “But I guess not together.”

The film ends with Natalie calling the police to report a rape – now that she has evidence that probably puts her on the better side of those infuriating statistics. But, as Norwood says, “There is no way of her ever winning.”

Consent is on Channel 4 on 7 February at 10pm.

  • This article was amended on 8 February 2023. An earlier version said that Ofsted found that 59% of girls and young women had experienced sexual assault at school or college. However, this statistic was for the number of girls and young women who had experienced sexual harassment at school or college.


Hollie Richardson

The GuardianTramp

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