Why We Think Every University Should Have Sexual Consent Classes
Lucy Robinson and Mia Chaudhuri-Julyan were recently elected to serve as Women’s Officers at the University of York’s Students’ Union.
After the successful campaign they ran together, their key manifesto policy was to introduce sexual consent classes in Freshers’ Week – something that is currently done at very few institutions in the UK. The University agreed and the new talks will go ahead in September, but Lucy and Mia have received a great deal of backlash from those who oppose the policy. Here, they discuss consent education and why they feel it must become an essential part of every university Freshers’ Week.
Lucy and Mia: Sexual consent education is not about rules, blame or shame; it’s a safety issue. When we stood in the election to be Women’s Officers, the main focus of our manifesto was introducing consent talks as an essential part of the University’s Freshers’ Week. We are delighted to have been voted in and to have the University’s support in achieving this; they have allowed us to deliver the talks alongside the fire safety talk and other vital information for new students starting in September.
The vast majority of students we have spoken to are relieved that the University is making this progressive change. Current statistics on campus sexual assault are alarming, with one in three women and one in eight men experiencing it – and numbers rise significantly higher for LGBTQ students. We couldn’t count how many friends have confided awful stories in us if we tried. From those who have been catcalled on campus, to those who have experienced harassment, assault, rape and those who felt unable to even label what had happened to them. One of our housemates once casually commented that she “hasn’t been to campus a single time” without being catcalled or touched without her consent. This was more than enough proof for us that these talks are needed, but many students, and members of the wider public, have required more convincing.
We received an extensive open letter, which described our plans as patronising and an attack on men.
We’ve been told that consent education is “boring”, “patronising”, “a buzzkill”, and a small minority made comments we didn’t dignify with a response – including the suggestion that a zero-tolerance attitude at universities towards sexual harassment is an infringement on freedom of speech. This didn’t exactly surprise us, as we knew how previous Women’s Officers across the UK have been harassed and misinterpreted during their time in office when they tried to implement their manifesto policies.
We received one particularly memorable and extensive open letter, written to us publicly on social media. The writer of the letter described our plans as patronising and an attack on men. He also criticised our emphasis on the talks being gender-neutral and beneficial to all students, concluding his letter by saying that any man who asks for help with their mental health is weak. At the other end of the spectrum however, we also received a letter accusing us of pandering to the male vote and not representing women. We have received lots of contradictory accusations from several directions, which has shown us just how strongly people feel about the talks.
In June, the national media picked up on the news that the University of York would be introducing consent talks as a permanent fixture in the Freshers’ Week timetable.
Initially, we were pleased that consent education was receiving such a spotlight – but this attention came with drawbacks. Most of the articles written about consent education seemed to barely scratch the surface when detailing the purpose of the talks. There was no mention of support for victims of pre-university assault or abuse and no discussion of how the talks would benefit international students who may not be aware of UK laws or cultures, for example.
To the people who argue against consent talks, we say they need to see the bigger picture.
Much of the media coverage also claimed that it is “too late” to teach students about consent once they reach university age, many argued that sex education in schools is enough. This is an incredibly short-sighted view considering the near-invisibility of consent from the sex education curriculum. When articles about the Brock Turner rape case listed his swimming times at the bottom, as though that is somehow relevant to the gravity – or excusability, even – of his offences, it is not too late to educate people about consent. Until there is no one left who claims a rape victim should have consumed less alcohol, worn more, or in some way altered their behaviour – consent education will remain essential.
To the people who argue against consent talks, we say they need to see the bigger picture. In the same 20 minutes it will take to hear our talk, students worldwide will be facing these real life issues.
We believe every university Freshers’ Week should include consent classes.
Oxford University, Edge Hill University and University College London already have consent education and we are proud of the work we have done at York – but this handful of universities isn’t enough. Our talks specifically will be gender-neutral, and for every single fresher, with the focus largely on making students aware of where they can access victim support and how they can report incidences both inside and outside of uni. We are also aiming to help students unpick trickier issues like navigating drunk sex and to equip students with detailed information on the law and their rights.
The content of our talk was carefully created with guidance from the NUS and Survive (a North Yorkshire sexual assault referral centre); it was then edited in response to feedback from students, SU officers and University staff. The information will be solidified in a permanent website which students can return to if necessary. We hope this puts to rest some of the negative commentary surrounding consent education. It is not just for male students, it is not parroting information everyone already knows, and it does not consist of lectures on “how not to be a rapist”.
Universities need to show they stand with victims and refuse to let students suffer in silence.
Consent education is there so that a victim of a childhood sexual assault knows how to access counselling. It’s there so that every fresher knows exactly where they stand with university regulations, as well as the law. The hope is that students will carry this message of respect with them even after graduation. In delivering the talks we will explain, not dictate, and always leave time for questions.
We feel every university should implement Freshers’ Week consent education in some form, and in doing so, show that our universities stand with victims and refuse to let students suffer in silence. If even one less student is assaulted because of our consent talks, we will consider that a success, and a significant step in the right direction.
Do you agree with Lucy and Mia?
Should all universities have consent classes?