As the academic year gets underway, increasing numbers of students are being corralled into sexual consent classes. At Lancaster University lessons in the correct way to get someone into bed with you are compulsory, begin on day one and are reinforced throughout the year. York, Oxford, Bristol, and King’s College are just some of many universities running similar campaigns. Elsewhere, students are expected to attend ‘Good Lad’ workshops or NUS-organised ‘I Heart Consent’ programmes.
In America, national ‘Title IX’ legislation is the driving force behind the growth in mandatory sexual consent workshops. At Indiana University, Bloomington, students have to complete online modules to learn about sexual misconduct before setting foot on campus while at Columbia University, students are expected to take part in the Sexual Respect Initiative.
Everywhere there are poster campaigns. One shows a young man leaning nonchalantly against a wall: ‘I know it’s a no when she’s asleep. Do you?’ reads the caption. As the overwhelming majority of male students receive their degree certificates without an accompanying rape conviction, it turns out they do know ‘when it’s a no’. If a student doesn’t know that raping someone is wrong then they shouldn’t be at university.
Sexual consent 'workshops', God help us. As if rapists aren't bastards, just badly educated. https://t.co/DHsU3nDjHq
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) September 18, 2016
Sadly, this poster illustrates one of the take-home messages of sexual consent classes. Men, all men, are potential rapists while women are passive victims-in-waiting. Women need to be constantly vigilant to guard against the threat of predatory males. What’s more, the rapist is likely to be your boyfriend or someone you know.
Consent classes and campaigns are a response to alarmist surveys that suggest sexual harassment of women is rife or that as many as ‘one in three’ female students has been ‘sexually assaulted or abused’ on campus. These dodgy statistics reinforce the idea that we live in a ‘rape culture’ and create a climate of fear for women students. But they are arrived at by conflating all kinds of behaviours from rape to unwanted touching to cat-calling. What’s more, some ask students to report not on their own experiences but on things they have observed. Only the people concerned can ever know whether sexual advances are wanted or not and inflating assault statistics in this way does nobody any favours.
there's a consent workshop that goes on for 45 minutes who needs to be talked at for nearly an hour about not raping someone
— charlie (@lgbtgreene) September 5, 2016
The people who run consent classes are quick to argue that workshops are simply an opportunity for participants to swap stories and discuss their experiences. But, unlike in their literature or philosophy classes, students soon discover there are right and wrong answers. In one class students break into small groups to discuss various scenarios before reconvening and ‘coming to a definition of consent as active, mutual, and ongoing’.
Consent classes teach that sex should be preceded and accompanied throughout by explicit, enthusiastic and sober discussions of what each party does and does not agree to. Clearly, whoever thinks up such schemes has never been young or in lust. Engaging in pre-coital contractual negotiations is far removed from the reality of how most normal people have sex. Research from the US suggests there is a world of difference between what goes on in the privacy of the bedroom and what gets rehearsed in a consent class.The idea of asking for consent is easy to mock. ‘May I touch your left breast with my right hand?’ asked no one, ever. But logic of consent lessons has serious repercussions. When students are taught that sex without a formal ‘yes’ at every stage of the proceedings is rape, they come to interpret their own experiences through this lens.
@millymelon They're *forcing* people to go to a consent workshop? Seems inappropriate.
— Gav (@bestgav) September 20, 2016
It no longer matters if a woman didn’t say ‘no’ or indeed betray any sign at all of not wanting to have sex. Unless she was explicitly and constantly asked, while totally sober, and responded with an enthusiastic ‘yes’ each time, then she was raped. The onus is on men to prove they had consent and women are, once more, portrayed as delicate flowers who don’t know their own minds, especially after a glass of wine, and may do one thing but mean another.
At best, the disjuncture between the script rehearsed in the consent class and the messy reality of student sex creates anxiety. For many young people sex has become overly-complicated and confused with rape to such an extent that they have become scared of it. The latest British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle found that 33.8 per cent of men and 44.4 per cent of sexually active young women report not enjoying sex because they experience pain and anxiety. Almost 10 per cent of women said they experienced no excitement or arousal during sex.
Worse still, consent classes encourage women to reevaluate their past sexual experiences – perhaps long notched up to experience – as rape. One class organiser reports proudly that it was only ‘after being educated properly’ that a participant identified what happened to her as a crime and went to the police.
i have taught workshops on consent during which i watched students REALIZE they raped someone. usually their response was anger & denial.
— olivia gatwood (@oliviagatwood) September 9, 2016
For this reason consent classes are bound to fail. Nobody intent on rape is likely to stop after suddenly remembering a discussion point from a workshop they attended. Instead, consent classes are likely to increase the prevalence of reported rape on campus as drunken sex, regretted sex, and caught-up-in-the-heat-of-the-moment sex are all reclassified as rape.
Students need to be left to work out their sex lives for themselves. Even if they make a few mistakes along the way they might just have fun learning.