I went to my first sexual consent classes when I started university in 2014. Along with talks on fire safety and how you can’t live solely off crisps were sessions on the complexity of sexual consent. I laughed them off at the time – but now, I’m running them.
The classes didn’t get the warmest reception. One boy mockingly printed off “official sexual consent permission forms”, which he handed round to everyone. When we talked in the sessions about what we’d do if someone tried to stop during sex, responses included “I’d call her a bitch,” and “I physically can’t stop having sex once I’ve started”.
Those classes taught me more than I’d expected. That sex isn’t necessarily the smooth, wordless encounter we are constantly fed in films. That consent is retractable – proving that someone has consented at some point doesn’t prove they weren’t raped. Even discussing what I already knew wasn’t pointless; having an honest conversation about sex the first time I met my university friends made me feel safer and more at ease. Plus it was a pretty cool way to break the ice.
The 45-minute sessions are not patronising “Orwellian” lectures, as Spectator journalist Brendan O’Neill has described them, but informal discussion groups run by student volunteers. Attendees are given a list of scenarios to talk through which describe situations in which consent is a grey area. One might involve a sexual encounter where someone is continually pushing you away; another where someone is extremely drunk. Eventually, the students come to a definition of consent as active and ongoing.
And already, the sessions have left a positive mark on student life. The workshops introduce incoming freshers to people they can go to when they need help or advice.
Some of the culture you’re exposed to at university can be difficult to speak out against – particularly for people who are disempowered due to gender, ethnicity, disability or sexuality. At my institution, there are drinking society events where the girls go round lifting up their tops while the boys cheer louder if they have “nicer tits”. I’m sure they are some people’s idea of a great night out. But in the intimidating climate of the first couple of terms at university, it’s nice to know there’s another option.
The classes also support victims, helping them to recognise what has happened rather than having to deal with the shame, guilt and feelings of emptiness alone. One girl approached me after we ran a session on rape and said that she had had an experience the previous summer which she had blamed herself for. Only now did she identify it as a crime – and she’d resolved to contact the police.
A 2013 survey released by the ONS estimates that one in five women aged 16 to 59 experience sexual violence after the age of 16, with 90% of assailants being someone the victim knows. And yet, only 6% of reported rape cases end in conviction.
Talking about consent as part of the freshers’ induction curriculum allows us to locate the debate in our culture – as a topic we all have the duty and power to tackle – instead of treating every case as a tragic exception.
To an extent, the sceptics are right about the limitations of the initiative. They are right that most people become sexually active before arriving at university – education about sexual consent should begin much earlier.
They are also right that classes alone can’t solve the deeply rooted causes of sexual coercion in our society. But maybe, in talking about it openly, we can help to elevate it to a status which it is still being denied: that of being recognised as a problem.