This is the hidden truth about university sexual consent classes

When asked what they would do if someone tried to stop having sex with them after initially saying yes, someone responded, 'I'd call her a b***h.' Someone else replied, 'I physically can't stop having sex once I've started'

Georgia Turner
Tuesday 06 September 2016 14:16
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A drunken student enjoys a break from university in Texas
A drunken student enjoys a break from university in Texas

Along with the talks on fire safety and not trusting everyone else when they say they’ve done no work, my university ran sessions in which we talked about the complexity of sexual consent. I first experienced sexual consent classes when I started university in 2014 – and now I run them.

To say the classes get bad press would be an understatement. One boy, in my first year, printed off official “sexual consent permission forms” to mock the idea, which he handed round to everyone. And in the sessions, when asked what they would do if someone tried to stop having sex with them after initially saying yes, someone responded, “I'd call her a b***h.” Someone else replied, “I physically can't stop having sex once I've started.”

The classes are, in fact, less like the patronising lectures they are relentlessly strawmanned as, and more like forums for discussion. They are semi-compulsory in that everyone is expected to attend, although there’s no penalty if people don't turn up. Each class is run by volunteers from older years. After personal introductions, people are split into groups of around five to discuss “scenarios”: situations where sexual consent is a grey area, with characters’ genders varying between situations. In one a protagonist is sleeping with someone who pushes them away; in another, they are kissing someone really drunk. The groups then re-convene, and discuss together what they would have done in each scenario – eventually coming to a definition of consent as active, mutual, and ongoing.

I remember in my first year that the classes taught me more than I’d expected. That sex isn't necessarily the smooth, wordless encounter we are constantly fed in films (one of Twilight’s few long-term legacies). That consent is retractable – proving that someone has consented at some point doesn't preclude the possibility that they were raped. Even discussing what I already knew wasn't pointless – having an honest conversation about sex the first time I met my university friends made me feel safer and more at ease. And I know a lot of people who joked with subsequent sexual partners about the consent classes, as a way of asking if everything was OK.

One girl approached me after we ran a session on rape in our college Feminist Society and said that she had had an experience the previous summer which she had blamed herself for. Only now, after being educated properly, did she identify it as a crime and was going to contact the police.

And importantly, the workshops introduce incoming freshers to the channels of support to go to when they need help. One of my university’s drinking societies plays a game called ‘Good Tits Bad Tits’: girls have to lift their tops up one at a time and the boys cheer more loudly the “better” their “tits” are. If a girl doesn’t want to, she is jeered at as boring for a bit before the collective attention moves on. So no pressure. But in the overwhelming climate of the first couple of terms at university, it’s nice to know there’s another option.

Campus rape is, devastatingly, more prevalent than most pre-university students would imagine. A 2013 survey released by the ONS estimates that 1 in 5 women aged between 16 and 59 experience sexual violence after the age of 16, 90 per cent of assailants being someone the victim knows. And yet, only 6 per cent of reported rape cases end in conviction, a number much lower than other crimes because juries won’t convict a rapist who looks like their friend.

Talking about the issues as part of the freshers’ curriculum allows us to locate them, rightly, in our culture, rather than treating every case as a tragic exception. It’s true that education about consent should begin earlier – the average age of losing virginity in the UK is 16 – and that the classes alone won’t magically liquidate the deeply-rooted problem. But, even if all they do is start a conversation, it’s one well worth having.

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