Should good sexual education extend beyond the biological? In the few schools it is present, it tends to involve a great deal of condoms and cucumbers (rather more daunting than a banana, but serving a similar function) which, although practical, ignores many of the nuances of the debate. In an attempt to explore these nuances, I interviewed a number of students from different universities who have attended consent classes or personally run them. These classes cover the basics of sexual consent and are often held during fresher’s week to try and create a safer environment for students.
The classes themselves are interesting, as they involve a lot more discussion and a lot less lecturing than expected. The students are given a series of scenarios (normally three) of escalating complexity. These range from the simple – a girl is dancing with a man in a club, he starts to grope her without asking, does he have consent? – to more complex examples, where consent is given and then taken away or those involved cannot give consent due to intoxication.
This interesting approach requires students to consider their own actions more closely, as these are real examples that feel believable. The discussion allows students to explore their own opinions and their own attitudes in some depth; an approach that helps bring clarity. One student I spoke to admitted that she’d never considered the reliability of consent given when drunk (none, for those unaware). More interestingly, the discussion quickly spreads beyond the class and many I spoke to had taken what they’d learnt and passed it on. Given this appetite for the information, it seems odd for it not to be more available.
These classes also offer a significant step forward in how we address sexual assault, given the long history of addressing the problem of rape from the wrong direction. For too long the conversation has focused on telling the survivors “how not to be raped”, in regards to their clothing, their attitudes, and where they go. Consent classes offer a fresh teaching perspective of rape and sexual assault, by teaching people not to do it! This involves tearing down the notion of attackers as vicious monsters who hide in the shadows and enforcing the reality, that 80% of survivors know their rapist.
Naturally there is already a reaction against these classes. According to the Telegraph “consent classes are feminist propaganda” and many feel that they’re meant to tell men that they are disgusting, awful, and all secretly rapists. This view was endorsed recently by the Tab’s George Lawlor, who declared the classes to be “a massive, bitchy slap in the face.” The issue for those fighting back is that there is an increasingly obvious problem.
In studies conducted in US colleges, the students were extremely confused over consent; when asked whether someone getting naked, getting a condom is, or nodding constitute consent, the responses were an almost equal split of yes and no. Regardless of your perspective, this dichotomy is deeply troubling and shows these classes are essential.
In my opinion consent classes are a good idea. They help clear up the confusing and improve attitudes towards survivors. All of these should contribute to fewer incidences of sexual assault. My only complaint is that university should not be the first time students encounter these ideas, they should be included in sexual education at school, preferably as soon as possible.
words by Tom Roberts