Why consent classes are still important

Lucy Russell responds to the accusations levelled at university consent classes.

It is widely known and criticised that university consent classes are not always the most effective. For one thing, it’s hard to strike a balance between making sure most people attend, and not forcing the attendance of those who would find participation in these classes triggering or otherwise distressing. More generally, it is hard to find ways in which to engage students in something that most of them think they already know enough about.

But an article published by Epigram last week went one step further than questioning the efficacy of consent classes – one step too far, in fact, by suggesting that consent classes for university students shouldn’t exist at all.

It’s hard to know how exactly the author of this article plans to tackle sexual assault on campus – a growing problem across the UK – if not through education. Research has shown that as many as 1 in 3 women at UK universities have experienced a form of sexual assault or abuse at university. These statistics are staggering and don’t even begin to acknowledge incidences of sexual assault against people of other genders, or those that go unreported. Clearly, doing nothing about an issue which is so pervasive and so harmful to such a wide range of people is not an option – and the idea that because one method is not entirely effective, we should simply do nothing at all, is a ridiculous one.

The main argument put forward by Izzy Posen, the author of the Epigram article, is that consent classes ‘over-complicate the idea of consent’, and in doing so, ‘stigmatise’ sex. We are informed that consent is simple, and is just about ‘not being a dick’.

At best this is unhelpful – and, at worst, so reductive that it’s actually harmful. Firstly, this suggests that incidences of sexual assault only occur when someone is deliberately ‘being a dick’ and is a ‘bad person’. Consent is complex, and becomes even more complex when people move to university and enter an environment in which experimentation with alcohol and drugs is rife. There is also the very obvious problem that ‘being a dick’ does not have a universally accepted definition, largely due to the normalisation of behaviour like groping in clubs or making other unwanted advances. The idea that consent is ‘usually implied but not given’ exemplifies why consent is so complex and worth educating students about: every scenario is different.

Posen then goes on to describe the ‘somber faces’ of the author’s fellow male students, who were forced to think about ‘the wrongs of bad sex’. Quite simply put, you should look somber when you’re talking about sexual assault, because while sex itself might be ‘pleasurable and fun’, it’s only ‘pleasurable and fun’ when consent is involved.

Confusingly, the author also wants to focus on how ‘sex is therapeutic, healthy and exciting’, yet sets himself at odds with iFemsoc. A central aim of the feminist movement as a whole is to promote better sex education in regards to pleasure and understanding, and embracing your own sexuality. Posen’s proposition that consent classes remove the ‘fun’ from sex is actually quite worrying; surely losing some of the spontaneity in your experience is a small price to pay to ensure you don’t potentially really, really hurt another person.

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Besides all this, the attitudes of the author are clearest when he writes with disdain of at the idea of including marginalised groups in the dialogue surrounding consent. He even includes a joke for us: ‘I do identify as a man on most mornings’. By making this witty and hilarious comment about gender pronouns, the author reveals that he is not only transphobic, but also the kind of person who completely disregards anything that he feels does not directly affect him.

When it comes down to it, spending an hour of your time participating in something that has been proven to improve bystander intervention in cases of sexual assault seems a reasonable trade off. Including marginalised groups in dialogue about consent is incredibly important: representing all victims makes people more likely to come forward, share their own narratives, and seek help for themselves.

Everyone deserves to feel safe at university and in their day-to-day life, and it is therefore completely unacceptable to talk about sexual consent in such a flippant way. We need to protect and represent all students. Yes, sex should be fun and pleasurable – but consent comes first, and we need to continue to teach all students that, since some of them don’t seem to have realised yet.

Illustration by Maegan Farrow.

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