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About the project

Narratives of sexual consent in criminal courts, 1870-1950 is Dr Laura Lammasniemi’s Leverhulme Funded project that explores how sexual consent was understood in every-day criminal trials before the legal definition of consent. If modern history, leading up to and including the #MeToo movement has shown us anything, it is that different people have different understandings of what constitutes consent. While it is important to discuss these understandings and to have open conversations about what constitutes consensual sex, the highly politicised nature of the topic makes it hard to have open discussions about the issue. The project aims to make an intervention both to academic and public debates on sexual consent, by bringing insights and different perspectives from history.

Legal history can help us to better understand this complicated concept, particularly important at this time when conviction rates for rape and related offences are at all-time low.

The project is based on archival research on three broad areas of sexual offences where consent was, and is, of essence: rape, prostitution and trafficking, and sexual activity with girls under the age of consent. I am looking at consent through these broad areas to examine how things like economic deprivation, age, and marital status impacted on how consent to sexual activities – and those activities and offences themselves - were understood.

The period of the study, 1870s to 1950s, is a period of great transformation and modernisation in the criminal justice system, leading to the enactment of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, the first dedicated statute on sexual offences. The main aim of the project is to explore how sexual consent was understood and spoken of in this period that formed the basis of contemporary understanding of sexual offences.

Ultimately, the project asks - is the concept of sexual consent linked to their historical, geographical, and temporal context?

The project is generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The initial stage of the project was funded by Warwick Research Development Fund.