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Teaching Consent

After it was revealed that the University of Oxford and the University of Bristol were holding compulsory sexual consent workshops at the beginning of this academic year, a debate has re-emerged around the effectiveness of these provisions. Can workshops raise awareness of the issue and reclarify the importance of consent during a time where many people will be having new sexual experiences or are they ‘patronising’, and unlikely to be attended by those who most need the message?

As part of their ‘I Heart Consent’ campaign, the NUS commissioned a pilot series of consent workshops

Consent workshops are classes which aim to educate people on the nature of consensual sex and cover the ‘grey areas’ of rape such as when one or both parties involved are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or when one individual changes their mind during the night. These are important issues to consider and by attending consent workshops, students are able to have a clearer understanding of what consent is and isn’t, which can be seen as a step in the right direction to making university campuses sexual harassment free.

As part of their ‘I Heart Consent’ campaign, the NUS commissioned a pilot series of consent workshops in 2014 to examine the effectiveness of this approach. Of 333 participants who had attended these workshops at their student union, 91% agreed or strongly agreed that they had taken away a better understanding of sexual consent from the workshop with 94% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the workshop provided a safe and comfortable environment to discuss sexual consent. The aim of these consent classes was to ‘create a positive consent culture’ and to ‘combat rape culture and victim blaming by tackling myths’ as well as ‘rectifying problematic perspectives of consent’. With a third of people believing that women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped, the ‘grey area’ around consent can, perhaps, be addressed through education.

The issue clearly divides opinion on campus

An investigation by The Tab found that consent workshops are compulsory in just two of the thirty universities asked. According to the survey, seven universities provide optional consent classes and eight have no consent workshop provisions at all. Here at Warwick, whilst consent classes are not compulsory, an optional online consent course is available alongside upcoming consent workshops, which have been promoted through the NUS ‘I Heart Consent’ campaign, and demand mandatory attendance from at least two members of each society or sports committee.

Warwick’s employment of consent workshops has not been without criticism. In 2015, undergraduate George Lawlor sparked controversy in an article written for The Tab, wherein he posted a photograph of himself online with a sign that read: “This is not what a rapist looks like.” Lawlor argued: “I don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist. That much comes naturally to me, as I am sure it does to the overwhelming majority of people you and I know. Brand me a bigot, a misogynist, a rape apologist, I don’t care.” Clearly annoyed, the student felt that an invitation to attend consent classes was a personal attack on his character. He went on to claim the only people attending will be those that already have a solid understanding of consent, rather than those who really need to go.

It can be argued that making consent workshops compulsory would fix this issue as everyone, including the students and staff, will be made aware of the nature of consent and could lead to the reduction and perhaps the eventual removal of sexual harassment from university campuses.

Consent workshops are clearly a contentious issue

However, some students claim that they would still refuse to attend the workshops. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, argued that it was merely a way for “the university to feel like they are doing something good”, suggesting such an initiative is insufficient. They also argued that people should come to university already understanding the concept of consent, with optional workshops at university for those who wish to learn more. The issue clearly divides opinion on campus, as another student commended the move towards making consent workshops mandatory, claiming that this was the only way to target those who would be likely to offend.

It would make sense to begin teaching consent from a much younger age, as the age of consent around the world varies from 12 in Mexico to 13 in some parts of the USA. This suggests that there is no definitive age at which we are ready to consent, and should be taught from as early as possible. Most students in the UK receive sex education from primary school, and placing a bigger emphasis on consent will enable the necessary questions around the issue to be addressed in such discussions. This would hopefully ensure people enter university with a clear understanding of what consent is. Another benefit to this is that it does not exclude those who choose not to attend university from the conversation.

Teaching consent from a younger age would allow teenagers to grow up with a clear understanding of what safe, consensual sex is

Consent workshops are clearly a contentious issue. Many acknowledge that making them optional could result in non-attendance by those who need it most. Yet making them compulsory would not necessarily solve the issue, as several students feel they already have a good understanding of consent when entering university, and would refuse to attend or be offended by an invitation.

Teaching consent from a younger age would allow teenagers to grow up with a clear understanding of what safe, consensual sex is. Ultimately, consent workshops at university are a step in the right direction, as any conversation on a topic that has only recently come to the foreground of discussions on sex and sexuality is vital. However, they are not enough. If we want to create a true ‘culture of consent’, we must incorporate the issue in sex education from as early as possible.

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