Students at Oxford University have been required to take courses on sexual consent since 2016, with universities such as Durham and Loughborough offering similar courses that students can take on a voluntary basis. With 62 per cent of students and graduates having experienced sexual violence, according to a 2018 survey of 4,500 students by the Student Room and Revolt Sexual Assault, it is clear that sexual violence is a pressing issue which urgently needs to be tackled by universities.
While Edinburgh University Students’ Association has demonstrated its sex-positive stance by teaming up with the volunteer group Sexpression, and the university itself has specified that it does not tolerate sexual assault or harassment of any kind, implementing courses on consent is a step that has yet to be taken. But is sexual assault on campus an issue that the university should be addressing, or should students themselves be held responsible? And how effective would required courses on consent be in promoting safe and consensual sex at university?
The university should definitely be making an effort to create an open and supportive environment where students feel empowered to extend the dialogue around safe and consensual sex. Courses on consent would clarify what safe and consensual sex is to students who are confused or have any questions, and would emphasise its importance. Students would be hyperaware of ensuring any sexual activity they partake in is consensual. Although the university does have procedures to tackle cases of sexual assault, giving students information about these procedures and introducing them to a support network upfront will make students feel safer. That being said, while students should be able to turn to the university for sexual education and support, the university itself is not individually responsible for any incidents which occur.
Those who sexually assault are unlikely to refrain from doing so even if the university provides mandatory classes on consent and specifies that it does not tolerate sexual violence. The culture of harassing, assaulting, and abusive behavior, sexual or otherwise, is deeply rooted in entitlement and insensitivity. Even though education on consensual sex at university would be a commendable step towards demolishing these attitudes, because they have so much to do with psychology, family, and gender based socialisation, there is only so much university administration could do to change attitudes. Generational shifts in attitude are doing a lot to promote consensual sex and condemn perpetrators of sexual assault, as can be seen by the #MeToo movement, but because the factors prompting sexual assault are so individual, the best thing the university could do is take all cases of sexual assault seriously and condemn the perpetrators, putting frameworks in place for students who feel uncomfortable or frightened to come forward and receive help.
The university plays a significant role in setting the tone for the conversations students have about consensual and safe sex, and introducing compulsory classes on consent would be a step in the right direction.
Image: Sara Konradi