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Don’t teach me how to avoid assault, teach men not to assault me

Police are providing self-defence training to university students in Colchester with the aim of reducing sexual offences. This will not solve the problem. It may only exacerbate it.

As girls we are raised to constantly be afraid. Afraid of walking alone at night. Afraid of drinking too much. Afraid of wearing too little. Afraid of doing anything and everything that might prompt an attack. But we have been sold a false fear all our lives. Women are less at risk than men of violent attacks by strangers. And what we wear or drink will not stop an assault, and nor will the times at which we go out.

The main perpetrators of assaults on women are by people we know, people we trust- not by strangers. This is an altogether more terrifying fact because assault is more likely to take place in our own homes or in places we previously believed to be safe. No precautions we take, even if these precautions would actually stop attacks by strangers, will have an impact on the rates of sexual assault. What women should fear, and rightly so, is that if we choose not to take these ‘precautions’, this will be the justification for placing the blame on us should an assault take place.

In failing to discuss and educate what consent is, not only do we fail to prosecute these crimes but we allow their continuation

Police lack a fundamental understanding of sexual assault, of when it occurs, in what situations, and by who. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that a violent attack by a stranger is an assault as there is no possibility for consent (although many police, judges and politicians have still disputed this), but this is not how the majority of sexual assaults occur. Often either the victim or the perpetrator are unaware that an assault has occurred because we have such little understanding of what constitutes consent. Police, universities, and schools do a terrible job of educating young people on what active and enthusiastic consent actually is, and so they often carry this ignorance throughout their lives. ‘Yes’ is not always enough. Silence is definitely not enough.

If we are programmed to constantly be on the lookout for violent attacks by strangers and only that, we miss the girl who was too drunk to consent. We miss the boy who was too afraid of his partner to say no. We miss the girl who feels too guilty to decline because her date bought her dinner. We miss the boy who had already begun but changed his mind. In failing to discuss and educate what consent is, not only do we fail to prosecute these crimes, but we allow their continuation. If people do not know what consent is, then they do not know when they are breaking it, and they do not know when it has been broken. Assaults can be committed without the knowledge that it was assault as many people have never been told by their parents, schools, or law enforcement that they are, in fact, not owed sex.

I must not have protected myself well enough, and thus I am to blame

Whilst this may be anecdotal evidence, I think it demonstrates a jarring truth. When we were in school, my friend received a lesson on different sexual encounters and was asked which ones were consented to and the class believed that most of them were. In fact, it was only one or two. The students in her class had no idea what consent was. I’m sure they learnt something about it that day, but I never had a class like that in my school, so everyone in my class has continued through life thinking those all scenarios constitute consent. Consent classes must be mandatory in school, and until this is implemented in schools, they should absolutely be compulsory in universities. Compulsory because those who commit sexual assaults often think they already know what consent is. They must be forced to confront the fact they don’t because they are unlikely to willingly walk towards this revelation lest they find some unpleasant truths in their own actions.

Even in the best-case scenario where none of the above were true, an approach that lays the responsibility on the victim will never be acceptable. I as an individual take every opportunity to reduce the risks I face; I have my keys in hand when walking home and I check the backseat of my car every time I get in. But this responsibility should not be placed on me by others. Because what automatically follows is that if I am assaulted, then I must not have taken the necessary ‘precautions’. I must not have protected myself well enough, and thus I am to blame. I will welcome self-defence classes when, and only when, they are all that can be done to reduce the risks, not of me being assaulted, but of someone making the decision to assault me. Until then police, universities, and society must focus their energies on consent education, not defences against assault.

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