It was reported recently that some students at the University of York allegedly staged a walk out in protest against voluntary consent workshops during their Welcome Week. This is not true; what happened was that there were technical difficulties between talks, which led to some students simply getting impatient and leaving. The feedback following the consent workshops was positive, and the sessions were well-attended. Save for one third year student who flyered outside the workshops and encouraged people to boycott them if they agreed with his dangerous and misguided view that consent workshops are patronising, there was no organised opposition. So it is worrying and quite dangerous then that this story was twisted out of proportion by mainstream news outlets like The Independent and The Daily Mail. In the face of what is a useful and necessary initiative in combating the high rates of sexual assault and violence at university and in wider society, the counter-narrative being created to fuel opposition to consent workshops is deeply concerning and seems to be creating a smokescreen for institutional issues.
The hard facts are that domestic violence has increased by 10 per cent in the past year; that one in seven women will experience serious sexual assault during their time at university; that one in seven men and over half of women will experience some form of sexual harassment during university. Consent workshops are one of many small but effective initiatives to tackle the problem at its roots: that many students are at risk of sexual violence, and that a lot of this stems from a lack of understanding and education earlier in life about consent. Add to this the fact that consent workshops are hugely popular and regularly requested by various university groups, and you have to wonder why people still orchestrate fictional backlash like the kind attached to York.
If I were to be cynical about this, I would answer simply that newspapers have slow news days, and that they need to increase their website hits to get advertising revenue. However, I do not believe this to be true. It seems that as we become more aware of the issues around consent and sexual violence, there are those who would rather not accept that we have a deeply-entrenched problem with taking endemic sexual violence seriously. This is reflected in the regular victim-blaming and refusal to believe survivors in parts of our media and justice systems. It is reflected in Theresa May’s recent lambasting of safe spaces in Westminster, and in the fact that funding for survivor support organisations is permanently at risk.
Because if you take it completely seriously that we have a problem with sexual violence, you would have to address it everywhere else – in immigration detention centres, in war zones among British and UN troops, against sex workers by police. You would have to address the fact that sexual violence is often a tool of state violence against marginalised groups. You would have to address ideological austerity. And you would then have to address austerity, state violence and who supports them, which our government is, of course, unwilling to do.
It is easier to cover up these issues and to fabricate the idea that students are in fact opposed to measures which would help end sexual violence. Better to suggest that a majority of students oppose consent workshops and the fight against sexual violence because it is patronising, because then you do not have to address anything else. Newspapers do not then have to fulfil their role in holding the government accountable for state-sanctioned sexual violence, because this would also call their own practices into question.