Men are finally being forced to learn about sexual consent at university — it's about time

Many will call it patronising, but how else can we teach men not to rape?

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The Independent Online

Along with many others, I welcome the news that Oxford and Cambridge will be introducing compulsory sexual consent workshops for their students.

Plans for this have been underway since 2011, but a post of mine — which detailed my experience of being raped and not taken seriously while studying at Oxford — seems to have encouraged action. The head of my college’s student union was convinced the college was a “nice environment”, where “that sort of thing doesn’t happen”. He was shocked on discovering the article was mine, and started taking the workshops more seriously.

Starting next month, freshers at 90 per cent of Oxford’s colleges will attend hour-long workshops on sexual consent. Over two-thirds of these will be compulsory. The aim is to start conversations among the student community, and to support and validate the stories of those who have survived sexual violence. 

This includes dispelling the myths around rape, such as it only occurring in dark alleyways. They will also highlight issues of coercion, date rape and assault within relationships, as 90 per cent of rape victims know their attackers.

Consent workshops have already been taking place in some colleges, but they have always been optional. Their new compulsory status is thanks to the Oxford University Student Union’s Vice-President for Women, Anna Bradshaw. To take full effect, these sessions must be compulsory, otherwise many will see them as pointless.

Many will claim that they already understand consent and find them patronising - yet many who say this have been shown to admit to rape if the word “rape” isn’t used. Likewise, some will say that they don’t need to learn about boundaries, as they don’t have an active sex life. But consent workshops need to be attended by everyone, regardless of how much or how little sex they are having.

Those attending may have been taught rape is wrong but not, for instance, that it includes having sex with someone too drunk to consent or that consent can be withdrawn. Others view consent in the context of relationship as automatic. Workshops will change these views, emphasising both participants must be informed and enthusiastic - evidence from similar programmes in Canada shows a significant drop in campus sexual violence.

Most campus rapes occur in the autumn term when new students start; this makes it crucial to hold workshops as soon as they arrive. Websites like The Lad Bible, alongside freshers’ initiation rituals, have helped foster a culture on campuses that thrives on targeting women in abhorrent ways. One event called "Freshers' Violation" in a Leeds nightclub was forced to close last year after video promoting the night featured a male student being asked how he was going to "violate a fresher". He replied that the girl he was with was "gonna get raped". Workshops that drive home the seriousness of sexual assault, and the need for consent, will make participants in university events like these think twice.

Consent workshops are as important for women as men. Just as men don’t realise they’ve raped, women often don’t realise they’ve been raped. They’ll say they felt uncomfortable, got taken advantage of, or were pressured into sex. Rarely will they ever use the word, thinking that it describes something else. But it doesn't. I was initially the same - I didn't realise I had been raped until a friend told me that that was exactly what I was describing.

Most importantly, consent workshops will shift responsibility from the victim to the perpetrator. They will teach men not to rape, rather than tell women not to wear short skirts or drink. Avoiding, rejecting and stigmatising victim-blaming is crucial for change.

Currently these workshops are largely aimed at freshers, although some colleges are having non-compulsory drop-in sessions for other years as well. There are also sessions for LGBTQ or women-only groups. It's a great start, but personally I’d like to see them expanded, so each student had to attend one every year.

School timetables should incorporate similar discussions. Oxford's Student Union already runs workshops aimed at secondary school age children, but they should be expanded. People should understand consent before reaching the age where sex is on the radar. Because too many men arrive at university without knowing the meaning of consent. They may say they feel patronised, but I'd rather have some men feeling patronised than others remaining ignorant and raping women.