University of Warwick: New podcast series explores consent in legal history and in courtrooms today

A new podcast series commissioned by legal historian Dr Laura Lammasniemi of Warwick Law School and produced by Narrative Matters, explores the history of sexual consent and asks whether understanding that history can help tackle present-day problems in securing convictions for sexual offences.

The Age of Consent features thirteen expert voices, from academics to rape crisis workers and journalists, invited by Dr Lammasniemi to bring their own perspectives to the conversation.

The series aims to understand more about how sexual consent was understood in practice before the legal definition of the term, how it has evolved legally and socially, the gap between the letter of the law and the way it has been applied during trials, and how these issues play out today in the courtroom and the media.

The first episode, Consent Through The Ages, featuring Dr Lammasniemi and Professor Vanessa Munro, also of Warwick Law School, was previewed during the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science in November.

In this episode Dr Lammasniemi discusses the Victorian scandal of “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” a series of articles in Pall Mall magazine exposing child trafficking in the late 19th century. Although it ended with the magazine’s editor, W T Stead, in prison, the reports came to be regarded as instrumental in persuading Parliament to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16 for girls.

Dr Lammasniemi also features in Episode 3, Consent on Trial, discussing how historical records show consistent discrepancies between the intent of the written law, and how that law was applied in practice.

Dr Lammasniemi says “For me, one of the most shocking things to emerge from the podcast conversations is how little some things have changed. The prejudices and myths women were faced in courtrooms and in their communities 100 years ago, are still rife today despite great changes in the legal system and society more broadly.”

All episodes are now available on Spotify and other podcast providers.

Dr Lammasniemi is an expert on history of criminal law, and her work more broadly focuses on how women who were often the most marginalized navigated legal and court structures.

She said: “Contributing to public understanding of the history of women and the law is really important to me.

“The series is a fantastic collaborative effort, which allowed us to look beyond my own work into sexual offences in the Victorian period to explore broader issues like ethical sex, and whether thinking beyond consent could challenge the current situation with conviction rates for sexual offences at an all-time low.

“I hope that these conversations will spark interest in women’s legal history and allow listeners to reflect and question their own thoughts and assumptions about sexual consent.”

The five podcast episodes are part of Dr Lammasniemi’s Leverhulme Trust-funded project, Narratives of sexual consent in English criminal courts, 1870-1950. The project is based on archival research on courtroom narratives on consent in areas of rape, prostitution and trafficking, and sexual activity with girls under the age of consent.

The project questions how consent was spoken about by victims, defendants, judges, and medical experts during this period, before the legal definition of consent, and examines how that understanding evolved as the criminal justice system was modernised and women’s rights and role in society rapidly changed.

The podcast series was produced by Narrative Matters, who specialise in helping researchers tell the stories behind their work, in a way that makes sense to a non-expert audience, via podcasts and other means.

9 December 2021

EPISODE NOTES

The Age of Consent

In your own words, how would you define consent? It turns out that’s quite a difficult question.

In this five-part series we will explore our ideas about consent, where they’ve come from and how we tend to use them, particularly in our laws, and how these ideas have evolved both legally and socially.

Episode 1: Consent through the ages. Consent is the cornerstone of our current laws on rape and sexual offences – but that wasn’t always the case. In this episode, we explore the history of the legal evolution of consent

Episode 2: Understanding consent. Consent is not just a legal matter – it’s cultural one. What are our social frameworks for thinking about consent? In this episode, we look at how we talk and think about consent.

Episode 3: Consent on trial. There is a divide between legal theory and legal practice. What impact does this have on access to justice in the context of rape? In this episode, we think about credibility and court processes in practice.

Episode 4: Fixing consent. The way we legislate and think about consensual sex is flawed. How can we improve it? In this episode, we look at ways in which history, journalism and philosophy can help us think differently about ethical sex.

Episode 5: Beyond consent. Are we imagining a world without rape, or are we imagining a world where every rapist is locked up? In this episode we look at how the boundaries of consent could be changed to help enable ethical sex, and also question whether consent is the best conceptual framework to do this in the first place.

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