Last week George Lawlor, a student at Warwick University, wrote a piece for his school's online student paper that seemed obviously doomed for viral infamy. In the essay, which was titled "Why I don't need consent lessons," Lawlor objected to receiving a Facebook invitation to a consent workshop on campus, calling the invite a "a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face." He claimed that "any decent, empathetic human being" understands consent and "those more nuanced situations where consent isn't immediately obvious."
Easily his biggest mistake, however, was the photo accompanying the piece. George Lawlor is pictured holding up an easily-Photoshoppable white notepad, with the words "THIS IS NOT WHAT A RAPIST LOOKS LIKE" scrawled on it. Underneath, the caption reads, "Do I really look like a rapist?"
Of course, Lawlor doesn't look more or less like a rapist than anyone else—rapists actually come in all sorts of looks, including posh white boys in jumpers. It was partly this obvious flaw and partly the super-shareable nature of that photo that made Lawlor go viral; in the week since the piece was published, he's become known primarily for this part of his already pretty shaky argument.
Rapists actually come in all sorts of looks, including posh white boys in jumpers.
But the piece itself isn't about how Lawlor doesn't "look like" a rapist, and it's not exactly arguing that posh white boys should have their innocence assumed. George even told the BBC that the picture was "probably a faux pas," and explained that he "meant 'This is not what a rapist looks like' in terms of me as an individual." For many critics, that might seem a bit unconvincing or even revisionist—what else could that caption possibly mean?—but after I sat down with Lawlor at Warwick campus on Tuesday, it seemed his views were a bit more complicated than that one clumsy sentence.
When I asked Lawlor if he felt his point had been misinterpreted, and in what way, he admitted that it was "fair enough" for people to criticize the sign "if [his meaning] wasn't clear," but maintained that what he meant was he, as an "individual," was not a rapist. In fact, he said, the focus on the picture was itself a symptom of a problem. "People like to put people in boxes," he said, "even people who claim to be fighting racism."
This reverence to the individual is important to Lawlor: he described himself as a libertarian and says the "root" of his political stance is "individualism." He believes strongly in free speech, and has written in the past about his love for Katie Hopkins, a vile Sun columnist who compared migrants to cockroaches, because of her ability to "insult the maximum number of people possible." He told me he opposes affirmative action, saying discrimination that prevents women or minorities from getting jobs can't be "tackled through government action," only through "societal change."
His belief in "societal change" also underpins his attitudes towards rape prevention. When I asked him what he suggests instead of the consent classes, he says that for him it's about "upbringing." He says education should be long-term, starting before university, but shouldn't be "specifically about consent." Instead he calls for a "recurring theme about respect" in education and in culture, saying "if you have [respect], you're not going to abuse people." He repeatedly said he felt that "decent" and "empathetic" people would know if they had consent or not.
When I said maybe a lot of rapists also think they're nice people, he did concede that they probably do, but argued that consent classes wouldn't fix that.
When I said maybe a lot of rapists also think they're nice people, he did concede that they probably do.
Lawlor's views are nowhere near as extreme as those of Jack Hadfield, who wrote a piece for Breitbart in support of Lawlor's take (and is only in his second week at Warwick). Where Lawlor was adamant in our conversation that he doesn't "feel oppressed at all" or see himself as a "victim," Hadfield laments that the consent classes demonize men and "normal, healthy, male sexuality." He says the "obsession with affirmative, ongoing consent" makes him "terrified of being falsely accused of rape" -- to the point where it's "too risky" for him to meet girls, "improve my conversation skills and maybe even find somebody who might want to be more than friends with me."
Lawlor was not overly impressed with Hadfield's argument. He described the piece as "the journalistic version of slipping over on a banana skin," saying he was initially pleased to have support but, when he actually read the piece, felt Hadfield had "completely distorted the debate" by turning it into "an anti-feminist thing."
To find out more about what actually goes on in these consent classes, I talked to Tessa Schiller, who helps run the classes and is head of media for the I Heart Consent campaign. She emphasized that the classes are "not trying to stop people from having sex," and they aren't "attacking anyone in any way." Indeed, she says they want to "combat those assumptions" that men will "act in a certain way because they're men," saying they can also feel "prude-shamed" for not wanting sex and should be "allowed to feel uncomfortable" with sexual situations too.
Schiller gave me a copy of the class facilitator guide, used to train new people to run the consent classes. The attendees write their ideas of what consent is on post-it notes and share with others; they draw "problem trees" and "solution trees." The class facilitators are taught good ways and bad ways to challenge other people's opinions; there are trigger warnings for homophobia and victim-blaming when discussing rape myths. I couldn't see any assumption that men are rapists in there, or really anything at all offensive, disregarding my introverted British fear of any exercise involving flip-charts and drawing in public.
Schiller also told me that interest in the consent classes has boomed since the piece—and that Lawlor has now agreed to go to a consent class.
George Lawlor is a classic college libertarian, with absolute and abstract beliefs that might not really reflect how life actually works.
Reading Lawlor's piece, and seeing that infamous photo, it's hard not to assume he's a total dick. Not only is his argument pretty infuriating to anyone who knows a sexual assault victim (statistically, that's a lot of people), he comes across as very aggressive on the page: using the word "bitchy," calling the class "bullshit" and telling the class organizers to "get off your fucking high horse." But I didn't see that side of him at all when we met. He's soft-spoken and reasonable, and seems a little humbled by his experience. Rather, I got the impression that he really does genuinely, and naively, believe in the power of being a Good Chap to stop rape. He's a classic college libertarian, with absolute and abstract beliefs that might not really reflect how life actually works.
But just because he's not a Rush Limbaugh, or a Jack Hadfield, doesn't mean his views aren't dangerous. For one thing, Lawlor's belief that what constitutes consent is "blindingly obvious" implies that conversation about it isn't needed. As Schiller noted, an "open and honest discussion" between partners is key to ensuring both parties are comfortable with what's happening, instead of trying to play mind-reading games.
More importantly, though, it dismisses the role of women and their concerns about sex and rape. By simply asserting that you "already know what is and what isn't consent," it ignores the experiences of women who would tell you might actually have no idea at all. Whether it's non-consensual sex or just bad sex—"sex where we fear ... that if we did say no, or if we don't like the pressure on our necks or the way they touch us, it wouldn't matter"— we're rightfully sick of men's opinions mattering more. Too many women have been assaulted or taken advantage of or had their needs ignored to fully trust a man's assessment of his own understanding of the situation. If women are telling you that consent is complicated, that your ideas might be wrong, listen to them, even if you think you're right. We know men, we live with them, and we're telling you: you all need to go back to school.