Blog post inflames debate on sexual consent workshops

A university student who refused to attend a consent class has re-ignited a national debate over the effectiveness of sex education and preventative measures against sexual assault across UK universities.

In a recent article in The Tab, a 19-year-old male University of Warwick student described being invited to a consent class as a waste of time, writing: “I don’t have to be taught not to be a rapist”.

The student, George Lawlor, argued that teaching male students to differentiate areas of consent “is to point out the blindingly obvious”, asserting that it would “just be an echo chamber of people pointing out the obvious and others nodding along”.  The post included a picture of Lawlor holding a placard reading “this is not what a rapist looks like”.

The article went viral, generating heated opinions from both men and women on whether consent classes should be made compulsory for university students. 

Some internet commentators praised the article for standing up to perceived “gender-based assumptions”, saying the focus on male behaviour in consent workshops was “a big psychological burden” that called for “some compassion”. Others went further in criticising what they saw as an anti-male focus on campuses, calling it “insulting”.

But feminist and sex-positive organisations have accused the post of oversimplifying sexual assault scenarios and perpetuating dangerous assumptions.  One such organisation is Sexpression, a national charity aiming to introduce non-judgemental sex education on UK campuses through workshops.

Speaking to The Student, Sexpression Edinburgh Co-Schools Co-ordinator Varshini Vijayakumar criticised The Tab article and argued for the importance of consent classes.

She said: “We think consent classes are extremely important, particularly in the light of recent articles denouncing them.

“Consent is a multi-faceted topic which goes further than ‘no means no’ and ‘yes means yes’ – it must be enthusiastic, given freely without coercion or manipulation, not under the influence of alcohol or drugs and considering power structures (such as those between teachers and pupils).”

Vijayakumar expressed alarm at the recent criticism towards consent lessons, claiming they created misconstructions towards the subject of rape, sexual harassment and consent.

Speaking on The Tab article, she said: “The writer of [the] article posted a picture with the caption ‘this is not what a rapist looks like’ – so what does a rapist look like?

“Rapists are not red-eyed monsters who lurk in alleyways – they’re people too.”

She continued: “The same writer also denounced facilitators as being ‘smug’ people ‘accusing [men] of being vile rapists-in-waiting’, which is simply untrue and discourages people from attending consent lessons.”

The Edinburgh branch of Sexpression is currently working with EUSA to hold a consent campaign every week at the Big Cheese.

Members hope to raise awareness by talking to students about issues surrounding consent and to prevent victim blaming, alongside handing out free badges, condoms and temporary tattoos with anti-harassment slogans.

The article comes as research shows a strong link between university living and reported sexual assault cases.  A  National Union of Students (NUS) survey released this month found that 59 per cent of sexual assault cases happened at social events or nightclubs whilst 33 per cent had happened in university halls of residence. It also concluded two-thirds of students were unaware of how to report abuse.

Of the total number of respondents to the poll, 46 per cent were male and 52 per cent were female. Almost three-quarters of the respondents were between 18 and 20 years old.

Within the conversation on consent workshops, a smaller debate has taken hold on whether they should be gender  specific.

Asked whether or not consent classes should be made available for both male and female students, one male University of Edinburgh student, who requested anonymity, said they should. Having attended a consent class with his sports team, he told The Student he thought it was a subject matter that benefitted from the participation of both genders. 

He told The Student: “I personally believe that we both [male and females] have a duty to prevent harassment any way, shape or form, and that involves both genders taking a degree of ownership in the education process.”

Sexpression Edinburgh has espoused this approach as well.  The organisation runs consent workshops with the Edinburgh University Men’s Hockey Team and are hoping to expand this to include the women’s team by the end of this semester.

But other parties, such as the Feminist Society of the University of Edinburgh, have been strong advocates for consent classes mainly targeting men and male students, citing the prominent ‘lad culture’ that perpetuates across UK universities.

“It’s mainly men that think they have a right to women’s bodies that they think they can grab our arses in night clubs or catcall us across the street. It’s mainly men that shout abuse at you when you reject them and that don’t understand the boundaries”, Kirsty Haigh, current President of the Feminist Society told The Student

The Feminist Society has commended the campaign work of EUSA in attempting to alleviate sexual harassment on campus, especially its collaboration with Sexpression so far. However, they acknowledge that more still has to be done, beginning with emphasizing the vital role consent classes play. 

Haigh added: “I don’t think any form of sex ed should happen without consent classes. To teach people the ins and outs of sex but not about the appropriate conduct around it and that non-consensual sex is rape is ludicrous. We need to make society realise that ‘no’ does not mean ‘convince me’ and drunk people are not an easy target.

“If we educate people around all these issues young then that’s much easier than trying to correct people’s behaviour and would hopefully make it easier for people to speak out if they are harassed or assaulted.

“Sexual harassment isn’t just a major problem across universities but the whole of society and Edinburgh is no different.”

On a national level, the university umbrella group Universities UK is taking a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment cases on university campuses. The group aims to support the work of nine students’ unions to improve the support available to better inform students of how to report sexual harassment.

Correction: The print version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the national sex-positive group quoted in the piece.  The group is called Sexpression, not Sexpressionist.  The Student apologises for the error. 

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