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Would Signing a 'Consent Form' Really Protect UK Students from Sexual Assault?

There has been some sniggering at the idea of "sexual consent kits", but the more important questions are about whether or not they would actually work.

by Frankie Miren
17 July 2015, 10:49am

A poster on a wall in Olympia, Washington (Photo, via)

Last week, it was reported (with something of a snigger) that student unions in the US are handing out sexual consent kits – complete with a sex contract, a pen for signing, a condom and mint – to help ensure both parties were definitely up for it. Commentators lamented that it was the end of times. The end of spontaneous fun.

For most people, the thought of signing a piece of paper to say you're ready and willing to shag is decidedly un-hot. It sounds like a mood killer up there with the struggling-to-put-the-condom-on-properly moment. The British students I spoke to didn't seem too keen. "I wouldn't want to stop half way through a blowie to pop a Murray mint and sign that I'm happy to have anal," said Central St Martins student, Chris Cowan, 27.

Then there are the technical problems with this fix. "What about withdrawing consent part way through?" said Bristol University's Georgie Joy, 19. "What do you do with the form, do you have a folder? Are there provisions for multi-person sex? Are there different ones for kinky sex?"

In fairness to the sex contract people, the paper forms were never meant to be anything more than a talking point – a way to start a conversation around consent. Their appearance coincides with a new piece of legislation passed in New York State that requires college students to obtain consent at every stage of a sexual encounter. Nobody realistically expects anyone to stop whatever it is they're doing so they can scrabble around for a biro with their pants round their ankles.

The law isn't a criminal one, but violating it could result in criminal charges. It will be universities themselves which carry out investigations and students will face disciplinary action, even if the case goes no further. As with cases in the criminal courts, proving affirmative consent is tricky and there have been complaints of mishandling from both accusers and accused. However, something needed to be done to help prevent a growing number of sexual assaults on campuses.

Sexual offenses on college campuses are rife in the US. In 2012, 5,000 allegations were reported to the Department of Education and cases like that of Emma Sulkowicz, who carried her mattress around in protest at Columbia University's handling of her alleged rapist, have kept the issue in the spotlight.

But we've got a problem in the UK too. A 2013 report by the Ministry of Justice suggested that female students are at higher risk of sexual violence than the general female population. A study by the National Union of Students (NUS) claimed that one in seven female students had experienced some form of serious physical or sexual assault.

Universities UK told me that unis aren't being complacent and that a range of policies and procedures are in place. In terms of talking about consent specifically, student unions are leading way. The University of Exeter Students' Guild launched a sexual harassment campaign this year, now shared nationally as a model of best practice. Every student starting at Bristol will, as of this year, be asked to attend a compulsory consent workshop. Likewise, Oxford recently launched a consent workshop for students, offering the chance to discuss consent for various sexual scenarios.

"The National Union of Students has been supporting student unions to introduce consent workshops through our 'I Heart Consent campaign', creating educational spaces for students to discuss consent and boundaries," NUS Women's Officer, Susuana Amoah told me.

These conversations are needed. Consent is a slippery concept; more complicated than cartoons about cups of tea would suggest. Feminists have been talking about it for 50 years. We've moved from "no means no", to "yes means yes" and beyond, to examine the power relations involved in sex, the reasons someone might feel coerced into a reluctant "yes" and the viewing of sex as a two-way negotiation.

Most students I spoke to had concerns over California-style consent legislation. Some were worried about lack of spontaneity. "Very little of what I've done in my life which has been truly fun or exciting was planned," said one.

Others suggested the focus on affirmative consent could put too much onus on the person who's possibly being coerced. "It could mean a larger responsibility on people to 'speak the fuck up'," said Naomi Weston, 19, of a university in south England.

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But is the new legislation in the US really so radically different from what we have in the UK? Not entirely, says Dr Tanya Palmer, Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex.

"English criminal law already has an affirmative consent standard, and has done for quite some time," Palmer tells me.

"People often assume it means explicit, verbal consent to every sexual act. But affirmative consent need not mandate verbal consent. All affirmative consent requires is a positive choice to engage in sexual activity and some expression of that choice."

Most of us aren't up to date with every clause of the Sexual Offences Act, however. Things need to change at the level of lived experience. In terms of normalising the idea of enthusiastic consent – "Yes, I'm up for anal!", "Yes, you can come on my tits!" – US-style legislation in universities is a possible way forward.

What's different about the new US legislation is that it creates a framework for dealing with allegations of broken consent. Palmer says she would love to see similar adopted in Britain.

"In the same way a teacher who hits a kid might be charged with assault and prosecuted in a criminal court, they'd also face some disciplinary action at school," she says. "There might not be enough evidence for a criminal conviction, but there is enough evidence for them to be suspended or fired from their job."

Not everyone is so sure this would be a good thing.

"It opens another potential minefield for interpretation," said Mike Massen of Cohen Cramer Solicitors. "A correct and appropriate interpretation of the current laws relating to consent, with a full understanding by the jury, should be sufficient for the guilty to be convicted and the innocent acquitted."

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Students I spoke to had mixed reactions at the suggestion of these quasi-judicial investigations being carried out by their university.

"Universities and student societies are not well-equipped to investigate serious criminal allegations," said Nick Cowen, 30, a student at King's College London. "They should restrict their role to providing sexual health and relationship advice and advising victims of assault on how to engage with qualified authorities, such as the police."

What everyone agrees on is that attitudes need to change. Eden Tanner, co-chair of the Oxford University Student Union's It Happens Here Campaign, says that no "consent kit" will ever keep women safe.

"The only way to do that is to believe and respect survivors, create a culture where sexual violence isn't normalised, and hold perpetrators to account," she says.

Sex isn't in some special sphere of life that means we should expect it to be free from mishap. We all make mistakes and do things we regret. There will never be a law that enshrines every possible complexity of a fuck. With or without US-style consent legislation for universities, what will change things is the growing understanding that you should be sure, absolutely sure, the person you're getting it on with really wants to be there. That shouldn't be an unattainable goal.

@frankiemullin

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