After #TimesUp, it’s time to talk about consent in our universities

Content Warning: sexual assault, victim blaming

The #MeToo movement has highlighted three scary truths. The first is that almost all women have been subject to some form of sexual harassment. The second, that not everyone is on the same page regarding the importance and nature of consent. And the third, that these offences are being carried out by a staggering number of men. The ever-growing list of male celebrities accused of sexual misconduct is proof of how widespread this problem is.

One of the most recent additions to this list is Aziz Ansari, the famous American comedian and actor. Ansari is a Refinery29 ‘certified woke bae’. He presents himself as a feminist and a proud supporter of the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns.

So, imagine the shock when Ansari himself was accused of such misconduct. Surely not! Herein lies the crux of the problem – even men who seem like they might be ‘woke’ and who say, and genuinely mean that they are feminists can become products of a society that tolerates and even encourages sexual violence towards women.

For those who don’t know, the website babe.net published an article in which a woman, whom they call ‘Grace’, tells the story of a date she went on with Ansari. The details make for unpleasant and upsetting reading. After the date Grace went back to Ansari’s apartment where he continually made sexual advances towards her despite her ‘pulling away and mumbling’ in repeated attempts to show her discomfort. Ansari ignored all of this and only stopped once she explicitly asked him to. He then called her an Uber home and she left, feeling awful. She told Babe, ‘it really hit me that I was violated’.

In response to this article many have claimed that this was just an unpleasant experience, not assault. It was a misunderstanding. A bad date. Yes, Ansari should have paid closer attention to her physical cues, but when she eventually asked him to stop he did. Many have asked why she didn’t think to do this earlier, why she even agreed to go back to his apartment if she didn’t want to have sex with him. Bari Weiss of the New York Times claims that this type of account transforms the #MeToo campaign from ‘what ought to be a movement for women’s empowerment into an emblem for female helplessness’. Many people feel that what happened to Grace simply ‘isn’t that bad’.

This response is not unexpected. And yes, Ansari’s offence isn’t as flagrant as those of Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK. But Grace did not give her consent, and therefore this was sexual assault. Trying to downplay Grace’s reactions only legitimates the sexual aggression of certain men. What people mean when they say this story ‘isn’t that bad’ is that this story is really normal. Grace’s experience of being pushed too far is similar to the experiences of so many others. And that is what makes it really bad. That’s what makes it awful.

The #MeToo movement is meant not only to highlight the prevalence of sexual harassment in our lives, but to bring about change. When a problem is so deeply ingrained in our social tissue, it’s difficult to see how to move forwards. By thinking and talking about consent meaningfully we can at least attempt to stop experiences like Grace’s happening again.

Edinburgh University’s ‘No One Asks For It’ campaign can be seen as one such attempt. Aimed at educating students about the nature of sexual harassment and the damaging effects of university ‘lad’ culture, the Student Association’s campaign attempts to stamp out sexual harassment on campus.

However, we could always do more, as a university and as individuals. Consent can be a confusing subject. What is consent? What steps can we take to insure we have consent? Does consent mean the same thing to everyone? If there’s anything that Grace’s experience can teach us it’s that not everyone has the same answers to these questions. But the time has come for us to be on the same page. This means that all of us, including Aziz Ansari and men like him, need to really join the conversation about sexual harassment. This means teaching men that only yes – that being an enthusiastic yes – means yes. This means acknowledgement that writing off sexual harassment as a ‘misunderstanding’ is no longer acceptable. Not in Hollywood, not in the workplace, and most definitely not at our university.

Image: Marc Nozell via Flikr

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