Thursday 23 November 2017

Are sexual consent classes a step too far?

Students at Trinity College Dublin have backed plans for mandatory workshops on consent. Our reporter asks if we should be offended, or embrace the idea as a positive move

Support: Maria Marcos, Siona Cahill and Aoife Ni Shuilleabhain, from USI, launch the Dublin Rape Crisis' 'Ask Consent' Awareness Raising Campaign last September. Photo: Damien Eagers
Support: Maria Marcos, Siona Cahill and Aoife Ni Shuilleabhain, from USI, launch the Dublin Rape Crisis' 'Ask Consent' Awareness Raising Campaign last September. Photo: Damien Eagers

Tanya Sweeney

Looking back through the mists of time, I recall my first student welfare talk at university. Chief among the guidelines we women were taught: not to walk alone in deserted or dark spots, to carry an alarm and, should one befall a sexual predator, to scream 'fire' instead of 'rape'. "Fire?" we replied, confused. Because, apparently, a nearby stranger might be more inclined to react or offer help in the event of a fire than in the event of a rape.

But that was then, and this is now.

We're more enlightened, certainly about rape and sexual assault, in relation to campus culture, and unfortunately the resulting figures are damning. Recent USI (Union Of Students in Ireland) research has shown that 16pc of Irish students experienced an unwanted sexual experience. There were a large proportion of victims who did not report these incidents because they were ashamed or embarrassed (29pc); because they thought that they would be blamed for what happened (22pc); or because they did not want their parents or family to find out (21pc).

Talking a lead from Oxford and Cambridge Universities' student unions, Trinity College's own student union has this week passed a motion whereby mandatory workshops on sexual consent will be taught to undergraduates, both male and female. The initiative, devised alongside statutory bodies like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, could be introduced as early as September.

Many have hailed the student-driven initiative, not least in light of findings unearthed by TCD's Student's Union that show that some 25pc of women, and almost 5pc of men, have had a non-consensual sexual experience.

Far from drilling into students' heads the idea that women should dress/drink/behave a certain way and men should… well, simply not rape, the consent classes would aim to enlighten youngsters about what 'consent' actually means. It's not about scaremongering, victim blaming or even pre-emptive strikes; it's about making those problematic blurred lines around sex and consent a lot less blurry.

The workshops, and their teaching materials, are also designed to be gender-neutral and aimed at both men and women.

"We'll be challenging the myths around rape and sexual assault, and introducing the reality of statistics and evidence that show the prevalence of sexual assault," explains Conor Clancy, welfare officer at Trinity College.

"I think the idea that this is a pre-emptive, 'don't rape' class is a bit of a misunderstanding. It will be about discussing positive relationships and where the line between consent and non-consent is."

While the classes would be mandatory, Clancy has previously stated that "we won't hold anyone in a workshop and we won't force people into a building or anything."

So what can Trinity's sexual consent class attendees expect? Firstly, those devising Trinity's workshops are working off the Oxbridge model. The classes will be run by "professionals", according to Clancy.

Writing in Vice magazine, Oxford student Nathalie Wright described her experience: "No one was waving condoms. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Several students I spoke to were worried the workshops would be 'patronising' or 'cringey'. Yet, from the moment we arrived, it became clear that, as a society, we do not know enough about consent, and that we need to listen to each other and learn more."

Still, the idea of mandatory consent classes isn't without its detractors. In the UK, George Lawlor, a politics and sociology student at Warwick University, wrote of his anger at being invited to consent training lessons.

"I love consent," he wrote in a blog post. "Like any self-respecting individual would, I found this to be a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face. To be invited to such a waste of time was the biggest insult I've received in a good few years. It implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent and that's incredibly hurtful."

"We accompanied 303 victims of recent rape and sexual assault to the Rotunda Hospital in 2015, a 37pc rise in comparison to the 2014 numbers," explains Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. "Research tells us that only one in 10 report the crime."

The fact remains; university campuses and student culture, with its intoxicating freedom and endless drinks promotions, is an environment ripe for sexual confusion and those aforesaid blurred lines.

Chelsea Tyler, 20, a student at DIT, is hopeful that consent classes could well be rolled out into other campuses across the country.

"I know a lot of people are saying (the idea) is ridiculous and that they know the difference between 'yes' and 'no', but when I got to college sex seemed like such a casual thing," she recalls.

"There is plenty of peer pressure and alcohol. A girl might go out, get drunk, have sex and shrug it off, but she may have regrets down the line. Men don't know that it's such a big deal. If they buy a drink for a girl, they see that as consent. A boy mightn't think in his head, 'I've just raped someone, she's locked and she came home with me'. I think these classes would teach them more than they realise."

Kevin O'Donoghue, president of the USI, says: "I don't care if you're offended. You don't have a right not to be offended. Maybe they don't have something to learn, but I'd sooner take the risk of them attending a consent class and having a mature conversation about it [than not]. We need to accept that this is a significant problem, not just on campuses but across society. "

Certainly, the idea that mandatory consent classes demonise young men and patronise young people is one that isn't going away. Still, the alarming statistics speak for themselves. A consent class may well be patronising. But lessons in knowing what a non-consensual sexual advance constitutes is are for life, not just for fresher's week.

Irish Independent

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