The need to promote a healthy discourse on consent

Last week The Tab posted a national survey on sexual assault for students across the United Kingdom to take. Once having entered their gender, age, year, and place of study, participants were then confronted with the following question: “Is someone ever ‘asking for it’ because of what they’re wearing?”. Immediately after, the survey asks: “Should consent classes be compulsory?”

Some may argue that such a survey has been set up to determine whether or not many students do tend to fundamentally misunderstand what is defined as sexual assault and harassment. However, the loaded language employed in this questionnaire indicates that there is still much more constructive debate to be had around students in the UK surrounding issues of sexual assault. Consent classes are being encouraged amongst higher education institutions precisely because the first question is still met with an affirmative response.

An article written by Warwick University student George Lawlor just over a week ago, published in The Tab Warwick entitled ‘Why I don’t need consent lessons’, testified to a dangerous subversion of the argument concerning victimhood in cases of sexual assault. Lawlor does not contend that ‘consent’ is not a necessary prerequisite before people commit to having sex – he does in fact emphasise that “yes means yes, no means no. It’s really that simple”. However, his understanding of consent is not the overarching flaw to his argument.

What Lawlor argues is that the ‘vast majority’ of students do not require an education on what constitutes rape, and that it is insulting to demand that students attend consent lessons, and that those who ignore consent and rape someone will not attend the classes. Hence, by using the phrase ‘vast majority’, he undermines the need to encourage a more expansive dialogue about sexual assault. Just because Lawlor is not a rapist – as he felt the need to emphasise through the use of a sign – his argument is that his own character traits can effectively be extrapolated onto others in the student body.

Moreover, Lawlor interprets calls for consent as somewhat of a character assassination upon morally-just men like himself, rather than seeing such calls as deriving from many students’ inability to understand them, or appreciate how many obstacles there are to reporting cases of sexual assault. Instead of placing an imperative on the need to learn about the experiences of victims, the argument is reframed so that the emphasis is on the male students who become ‘victims’ when they are taught what constitutes consent. Additionally, Lawlor seemingly ignores the fact that, alongside educating the student body about consent, these consent classes also aim to tackle the ‘lad culture’ that has come to define university life across Britain. ‘Lad culture’, and sexual assault and harassment are inextricably linked.

This is symptomatic of a bizarre and ultimately dangerous subversion of the notion of victimhood. Does it not seem healthy to most to speak openly about what consent means? NUS conducted a study on women students’ experiences of sexual assault, harassment and violence, called Hidden Marks, which stated that: “The majority of perpetrators of stalking, sexual assault and physical violence were already known to the victims.”

Stories of sexual assault on campuses have certainly gained more traction in both student media and the national press over recent years. It should also be acknowledged that The Tab published a counter argument to Lawlor written by Josie Throup, entitled ‘Why consent workshops are a necessity’. However, the way the discourse has been framed in The Tab is not constructive to furthering students’ understanding of sexual assault.

There is certainly a more specific debate to be had over whether attendance of consent classes should be made compulsory or voluntary.  However, it is worrying that the type of language employed by Lawlor was later defended by The Tab’s National Assistant Editor, Oli Dugmore. Dugmore did concede that “perhaps it was insensitive for George to say it was an ‘insult’ to receive an invite to a consent workshop”. Yes, it was, quite remarkably so. Yet bewilderingly, Dugmore further argues that “anyone who dares challenge the status quo of consent is set upon by the pack.”

The capacity of students to talk about consent is clouded by framing the debate around sexual assault through immensely rigid parameters, one that attempts to categorise students either into leftist groups at universities, or into groups other less politically active students within their union. It is not about introducing the unconstructive binary opposites of ‘politically correct’ and ‘non-politically correct’ students into the discussion. Consent classes are encouraged so as to open up a dialogue, and sadly, arguments like this published in The Tab serve only to miss the point.

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