David Carrick, the police officer who admitted to 49 charges of sexual abuse including rape, at first claimed the alleged events didn’t happen or were consensual. But the “sex game gone wrong” excuse won’t work in his case. Some of his victims had been in a relationship with him, but it is very clear from their testimonies that they hadn’t consented to being coerced, attacked, imprisoned, humiliated, and raped, even if some had agreed to have sex with him.
One thing doesn’t inevitably lead to another. The fact that Carrick was a serving police officer making it particularly difficult for his victims to come forward with their stories compounds all this, but his actions were terrible enough already.
The American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has shared her own experience of being a victim of violent sex after initially consenting to intercourse. In her 20s she had a crush on a television actor and willingly had sex with him, but, as she put it:
“What I did not consent to was the gruesome, violent, and painful assault that he substituted for intercourse. I remember screaming for help, to no avail, and I remember him saying, ‘It’s all part of sex’.”
Non-consensual violence isn’t part of sex, and no amount of gaslighting can change that. Nussbaum didn’t go to the police because she was embarrassed and because she had consented to intercourse, and she believed, probably with some justification, that the police wouldn’t have taken her seriously because of that. But consent, even when implied rather than vocalised, is specific, can be withdrawn in flagrante, and is not consent to everything with no possibility of changing your mind. These women found themselves in situations where darker and more dangerous aspects of their partners’ psyches were unleashed and they were unable to stop what was being done to them. This is very different from consensual acts of BDSM. No brake was provided by a safe word, no opportunity to say “this far and no further”.
These were acts of abuse, cruelty, coercion, and violent assault that massively overstepped the limits of any explicit or implicit consent, limits that were easily apparent to the perpetrators who knew very well they were going beyond them.
It’s relatively straightforward to understand what consent is and where it stops in cases like these. But not all cases involving consent to sex are as easy to judge.
Recently, law reformers have been arguing for changes to the UK criminal law to allow a specific crime of sexual activity by deception. This can’t possibly include cases where a seducer has told a minor untruth to impress a would-be lover, exaggerated their salary, taken a couple of years off their age, or even, perhaps – and more controversially – lied about whether they already have a partner. If this law is to be brought in, clarity about where to draw the line between tolerable exaggeration and fundamental deception will be needed. Dissimulation comes in many forms, some of it socially acceptable, some of it tantamount to impersonation.
The suggestion for law reform was triggered by the abuse that some undercover UK police officers perpetrated in the past when they infiltrated environmental protest groups and had sex with female members of these groups. These women would not have consented to sex if they’d known their partners’ true identities. The police officers deliberately deceived the women about who they fundamentally were, what they believed, and why they had joined the groups.
A key question here is whether the women were able to give consent at all when they didn’t know who they were consenting to have sex with even though they thought they did. They consented to have sex with fellow protesters, not with undercover cops pretending to be environmentalists. Whether or not the law should be changed, from a moral point of view this deception was despicable. This is very different from discovering only after sex that your lover wears a toupée, earns half the salary they claimed, or is older than you thought.
Few of us are absolutists about truth-telling. Immanuel Kant insisted that lying in any context was wrong; Ludwig Wittgenstein held a similar view. But most of us believe there can be white lies and strategic omissions. Pretending to be someone completely different from who you are in order to trick another person into having sex with you, however, is morally abhorrent, though it may not lead to rape. If a workable law against this deceit can be formulated, that will be progress.