James Heale, once a self-professed consent class sceptic, explains how attending first year workshops changed his perspective.
TW: Discussions of rape and sexual assault
Consent classes. Two words that would have once sent a shiver of dread darting down my spine. Every hackle would be raised; righteous indignation would pulsate through my being. How dare I be forced to attend such a condescending, patronising and downright offensive talk. Does my university have such little faith in male sexual ethics that it considers it necessary to have us educated about basic human decency? Are we thought too stupid, too chauvinistic, too depraved to appreciate that ‘no means no’? Am I viewed as a mere ‘rapist in waiting’?
Thus it was in a spirit of quietly fulminating outrage that I attended a freshers week consent class at my halls of residence. For an hour I sat at the back, arms crossed, anticipating a stream of invective, prejudice, overblown rhetoric and barely concealed misandry. But do you know what? It was actually an extremely worthwhile experience.
Far from being abusive or belittling, the three senior residents delivered the talk with extreme sensitivity and tact. It was clearly stressed from the start that sexual assault can be committed by anyone, towards anyone, regardless of gender. Whilst the accompanying handout did note the percentage of male on female assaults, as a man sitting at an all-male table, I did not feel in the slightest like we were being depicted as evil or guilty by association. One of the group exercises concerned a male on male rape, and whilst it elicited a few titters from the usual suspects, the point was hammered home: no one is immune to the threat of sexual violence.
These exercises concerned scenarios in which ‘questionable’ sexual activity had occurred and it was up to us to decide whether assault had been committed and feedback our thoughts to the wider room. Whilst there was broad agreement about when rape had occurred, it nonetheless did allow for freshers uncertain about one or two of the less clear cut scenarios to ask questions about when the line had been crossed. The current state of the law was clearly stated; concerns were addressed and the discussion went off amicably. The shift from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ whereby affirmative consent must be articulated and not manipulated was emphasised, as was communication between two partners in the act.
Looking around the class, it was fascinating to see students sit up and take note. For far too long, rape has been depicted as something only masked men on dimly lit street corners do, modern day Rippers attacking and abusing victims by random selection. Yet only 1 in 10 rapes are committed by strangers- the vast majority are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. The fact that so many rapes happen in relationships or when a casual fling goes horribly wrong, was something that gave many of us in that room great pause for thought.
Certain elements of the class could certainly have been improved. It was probably a mistake to allow single sex groups, given some of the cruder comments emanating from certain tables. A 30 to 1 ratio of students to speakers meant that not all questions could be answered or all voices heard. Yet overall the class was a great success. It was informative, thought provoking and prompted many to consider their own sexual behaviour. And if it saves just one person from the trauma of rape, isn’t that worth an hour of anyone’s time?
Illustration by Jess Baxter