A poster hung on a wall in Olympia, Washington (Photo via)
How do we successfully lower rates of sexual violence? Currently, suggestions seem to be based around a series of gimmicky, not-actually-all-that-practical products. Worried your drink has been spiked? Use nail varnish that can detect date rape drugs in drinks. Concerned about consent? Use an app that asks how drunk you are and figures out whether you’re “Good2Go”.
Both inventions are, in their own ways, problematic. The first involves dunking your hand into all your drinks, the second just doesn't seem like it would work very well, and both imply that it’s the victim’s responsibility to ensure they don’t get attacked. So surely it makes more sense to tackle the sole cause of sexual violence: the people actually committing acts of sexual violence? It seems blindingly simple, but victim-blaming is so ingrained in our culture that the impetus is often put on them rather than the potential perpetrator.
The University I attend, Oxford, has problems with sexual violence. Recently, a student – using the pseudonym Maria Marcello – wrote about being attacked at a party while unconscious. In the piece, she alleges that the university largely ignored her requests for help and that police pressured her into dropping the case.
The situation is sadly just one example of a failure of protocol. As Oxford academic Linda Scott of the Said Business School has blogged, “Like other UK schools, Oxford has no tailored procedure or programme to deal with sexual harassment and violence, despite the known seriousness of the problem for female students.”
In light of this, Oxford University and its student union are working on ways to address the issue – one of which being consent classes offered during fresher's week at 24 Oxford colleges. This year, for the first time, attendance was compulsory at 20 of those colleges. Beyond Oxford, the NUS have implemented similar classes at more than a dozen universities around the UK under the moniker “I heart consent”.
Anna Bradshaw, who works for the Oxford University student union, and who organised the Oxford workshops, told me, “The workshops aim to provide a safe space in which to evaluate and develop our understanding of sexual consent, and to stimulate community-wide conversations about sexual consent. This helps to create a culture of enthusiastic and informed consent, and may reduce harmful attitudes towards sexual violence – e.g. victim blaming and myths about rape.”
Sadly, the inevitable media backlash against this constructive move has seen the workshops ridiculed and wilfully misrepresented. As The Spectator observed, “It’s hard not to feel sorry for these youths, who probably fantasise about campus life being a free-wheelin’ saucy time, yet who find themselves plonked in a mortifying seminar at which a woman waving condoms will tell them what a minefield sex can be.”
I don’t know why the writer assumes the workshops consist only of women educating men, when they're compulsory for everyone. Or how they fail to consider that, if people aren’t taking the workshops seriously, then that only serves to demonstrate their purpose. Or that they don't seem to take into account that some students might actually want to go.
I’m not a fresher, but I decided to attend one of the classes. The workshop I went to was made up of around 10 students and three facilitators. We were told at the beginning that we could leave whenever we wanted. It was not a lecture. No one was waving condoms. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.
Several students I spoke to were worried the workshops would be “patronising” or “cringey”. Yet, from the moment we arrived, it became clear that, as a society, we do not know enough about consent, and that we need to listen to each other and learn more.
Christ Church college, Oxford (Photo via)
Firstly, we were given 10 statements about sexual violence and asked to match them to statistics. I learned that 80,000 women are raped each year in the UK. I learned that 68 percent of female university students have experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment in their institution (that one was particularly interesting because several of the women in the group were shocked – we thought the proportion would be closer to 100 percent).
Already myths were being dispelled: the majority of serious sexual assaults take place in the home; only 10 percent of survivors of serious sexual assault were given alcohol or drugs against their will. The problem is undeniable. It is huge. And we, a group of well-educated people, were way out on a lot of our guesses. The real statistics made it impossible to deny that we need to discuss these problems and educate ourselves.
Next, we moved on to discussing consent. This did not take the format of a lecture, and no one told anyone else how to have sex. Instead, we were presented with three different, realistic scenarios of sexual encounters. The gender of at least one partner in each scenario was not stated, so there wasn’t a heteronormative bias. The scenarios dealt with the kinds of situations that happen every day across campuses in the UK (and the world).
For example, one of the scenarios described someone who was in a long-term relationship but felt pressured into sex. The narrator states, “I kissed his forehead, squirmed away and began getting ready for bed.” In small groups we chatted about at what points in the narrative consent was positive and when it was withdrawn. We also discussed consent in the context of a relationship and the different ways that people communicate consent in a relationship than they might do in a more fleeting encounter. We discussed the difference between verbal and non-verbal cues.
There wasn’t a “right” answer – though as a group we did often find ourselves in agreement – as the emphasis was placed more on the discussion and questioning of assumptions. For example, if someone has gone out on a date, gets drunk and “allows” his or her date to put his or her arm around him or her, before the date escalates quickly beyond the other person’s wishes, at what point was consent withdrawn? How do we take alcohol into account? What about the social context of a date? What about cultural differences?
"THE WORKSHOPS ARE NOT AN INSTANT PANACEA, NOR ARE THEY INTENDED TO BE"
At no point did anyone suggest some kind of pre-sexual contract of consent that involves vocally asking the partner every 10 seconds if they wanted to go ahead with the next step. Because that would be ridiculous.
We ended the session by calling out some of the myths around sexual violence. One that surprised me was the fact that the proportion of false accusations of rape is the same as any other crime, between 1 to 3 percent. Another study says that 40 percent of women do not tell anyone about their assault.
So, I learned things. And I could see other people around me widen their eyes in surprise at a statistic, or stop to re-evaluate certain notions they held about consent.
Of course, the workshops are not an instant panacea, nor are they intended to be – but they're definitely a very positive step towards shaking a society out of its complacency. Some of the derisive portrayals of the workshops in the press show a worrying denial about the prevalence of sexual violence in society, as well as a fear of discussing sex openly, which has to be one of the only ways in which we can stop people offending in the first place.
But have the workshops been a success? Will they make a concrete difference? Anna told me, “The primary aim of the workshops is to start a community-wide conversation, making consent a normal topic of conversation. All of the feedback that I've had so far, and all of the coverage that the workshops have been getting, suggest that this aim is being achieved.”
Sounds like a good place to start.
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