Many universities and colleges have started running consent workshops in their freshers’ weeks, which are sometimes compulsory, sometimes not. These are student-led workshops which usually involve the discussion of scenarios about consent, organised by the university’s student union or women’s officers. The aim of the workshops is ‘to give all students a good working knowledge of healthy sexual consent practices and the confidence to discuss them’.
However, they have not been without controversy; a few weeks ago, one student from York stood outside some of the workshops handing out flyers encouraging students to boycott the sessions. He said: ‘Consent talks are patronising. If students really need lessons in how to say yes or no then they should not be at university… consent talks encourage women to interpret sexual experiences that have not been preceded by a lengthy, formal and sober contractual discussion as rape.’ A journalist, who accused these workshops of ‘kill[ing] off seduction’, called them ‘squirm-inducing sex-ed classes [which the students probably thought] were a thing of their childish pasts’.
Neither this journalist nor the student think that non-consensual sex is acceptable; on the contrary, their point is that we all already know non-consensual sex is wrong and do not need to be reminded of the fact. If you ask a room full of students to put up their hand if they think rape is wrong, I would be surprised if anyone kept their hand down. Yet the reality is that a rape will be recorded every day in a UK school and, according to NUS figures, one in five students will experience some form of sexual harassment during their first week of term. Though some might claim otherwise, this does not look like a situation in which university freshers have consent sorted: there is a gap between what we students say we believe and our behaviour.
There are many reasons why people might not engage with consent workshops, for example:
– You’re a massive geek/nerd and you can’t imagine ever getting in a romantic relationship at uni. Anyway, much to some of your school friend’s surprise, you actually like studying, and dating would take up far too much time.
– You’re not ready for a relationship right now, or are taking a break having previously been in a relationship.
– You’re studying maths and nothing is nearly as beautiful.
– You’re abstaining from sex for personal or religious reasons.
Christian students may especially identify with the latter and, when presented with a story of groping, catcalling or sexual assault, think that this doesn’t apply to them because they do not do any of those things.
However, as as Shreena Thakore says in her wonderful TED talk ‘It Matters Why You Think Rape is Wrong’: ‘If you think rape is wrong for the wrong reasons, you are part of the problem.’ For example, you may not be guilty of any sexual harassment yourself, but if you have an underlying belief that rape is caused by the victims dressing too revealingly, your solution to the problem will be to try to regulate women’s dress – a response which in fact perpetuates the exact power structures of which rape is a manifestation. There are many misconceptions about rape. Don’t assume you know enough, but be willing to challenge the prejudices you may not know you had and be part of a real solution.
Secondly, consent at university takes a community. If your friends are drunk or being aggressive, it might take you to help them rethink their actions and to stop them from hurting someone. To have the confidence to challenge them, you need to have a proper understanding of consent and where the lines need to be drawn. It’s very easy to be passive about sexual harassment – to think that if you’re not actively engaging in it, you’ve done your bit. But imagine how different the situation on our campuses would be if we each considered openly challenging sexism and standing up for victims of harassment a personal responsibility!
Finally, consent isn’t just an issue for casual sexual relationships – it’s relevant for all relationships. Our churches and Christian student communities may talk a lot about marriage, but the topic of consent within marriage is rarely broached. As an area which is often seen as ‘blurrier’ – although it should not be – it is well worth thinking through this issue as a student, whilst you have the workshops, resources and the opportunity for conversations which they provoke.
The bottom line is that the topic of consent will never be irrelevant to a Christian student. Whether you need to challenge your own ideas and possible prejudices about sex to make sure you can be an effective part of the solution, or you want to inform yourself so you can better support your friends, or you want to think about the dynamic of a relationship you are in, understanding consent is relevant and important for us all.