A statement by Ione Wells in light of recent discussions surrounding consent workshops at universities, following the publication of an article in The Tab.
I remember my sex education at school. It told me how to avoid getting pregnant, and that gonorrhoea looks very unpleasant and so we should probably use condoms. That was about it. It did not teach us about consent, the key to healthy sex that should come before any of these other issues could even become relevant.
This is a grave, gaping gap in our education system because most people have never learnt about, or had discussions about, the nuances of consent. Many people think that consent is as simple as “no means no”, but it simply is not. Consent requires an enthusiastic “yes”. Consent can be given or withdrawn through body language, as well as words. Consent can be retracted. Consent must be mutual. Somebody who does not have the capacity to consent, someone who is asleep, or someone who is unconscious can’t give consent. Consent cannot be assumed because someone is in a relationship with you, or your spouse. Consent to one sexual act, doesn’t give consent for every sexual act. Consent, or the lack of consent, can be verbal or physical. Consent cannot be assumed by someone’s sexual history, the way somebody dresses, or the fact they choose to drink alcohol. Consent is a complex issue.
I helped to run some compulsory consent workshops to groups of Oxford University freshers last week, and when I asked if any of them had learnt about consent before they gave me a unanimous “no”. They asked important questions, one that every individual should learn the answers to: “would it be rape if somebody had sex with someone who passed out halfway through?”, “how can you check that someone has consented without stopping what you’re doing?”, “how do you know if someone is too drunk to consent?” All these questions expressed great enthusiasm to learn about consent, but also demonstrated how crucial it is that we have these discussions. The fact that not everyone knows the answer to these questions shows that, in some contexts, issues regarding consent may not always necessarily be ‘obvious’ to everyone, and thus we need to talk about these scenarios.
So when a writer for The Tab this week described an invitation to a consent workshop as “a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face” and “the biggest insult” and called those dedicating time and commitment to filling this gap in our education system “smug, righteous, self-congratulatory” – you know what? I was insulted. I was insulted because do you know what is more “painful” than a consent workshop? The fact that thousands of men and women every year have to be afflicted with the devastating consequences of sexual assault and rape on campuses. The fact that so many people do not know how to recognise when others give or do not give consent. The fact that so many people end up blaming themselves for another person’s inability to check for mutual consent. If the thought of attending a consent workshop makes somebody “overcome by anger” let me tell you that the statistics for assault at universities are far, far more angering than the groups of students across the country trying to reduce them.
The writer claimed that the workshops “imply I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent” but then goes on to say “Yes means yes, no means no. It’s really that simple” illustrating, ironically, an “insufficient understanding” of consent – my reasoning being previously stated above in my description of the complexities of consent. The writer also included a picture of himself holding a sign that read “this is not what a rapist looks like”. But when around 90% of perpetrators of sexual violence are known to the survivor, we cannot claim that there are any defining characteristics of a rapist. The myth that rape can only be committed by strangers in dark alleyways is one of the exact myths that we hope to combat in the workshops. He then went on to state that “You’d think Russell Group university students would get that much, but apparently the consent teachers don’t have as high a regard for their peers as I do.” I’m not sure why “Russell Group university students” are somehow exempt from needing consent lessons. Is the writer trying to say that people who don’t go to a Russell Group university are more likely to assault people? Or that a Russell Group education entitles you to somehow not need consent education? Both these assumptions are false. I go to a Russell Group university, one that has hit the headlines repeatedly in the last decade due to rape and assault cases on campus, because many students still do not know where the lines are between consensual and non-consensual sex, and consent education is a relatively new phenomenon. Regularly churning out essays in a library that is hundreds of years old does not make you automatically clued up on consent, or somehow socially superior – to think otherwise is both elitist and dangerous.
My fellow students, colleagues and I do not raise discussions about consent in schools and universities to “selfishly make [ourselves] feel better”. We do it because we want to live in a university environment that takes sexual assault very seriously. We want a student environment that establishes a zero-tolerance policy to non-consensual sexual behaviour from day one. We want a culture where there are no “blurred lines” to any situation involving consent, and one where everyone treats each other with the respect that they deserve. The writer asks for “a little respect for the intelligence and decency of your peers” but my greatest respect is for those who are willing to have discussions about consent. Those who are willing to ask questions, to help each other combat myths, to stop making dialogue surrounding consent taboo, and to accept that they may have not known about all the nuances of consent before, but are willing to educate each other further. Those who are willing to help to stand up to one of the most prevalent acts of violence that our population faces.
It is not an insult to somebody’s “intelligence” to suggest that we should all be learning more about an important societal issue. When a peer or tutor at university suggests that I read more about a crucial academic topic, asks what my views are on it, or recommends that I go to a lecture about it, I do not feel patronised. I do not feel a threat to my “intelligence” because we all know that nobody knows everything, and that we are all constantly learning. Instead, I feel incredibly lucky that I work in a supportive environment where people are committed to mutually making each other’s working lives better. Why should the infiltration of consent lessons into education be viewed any differently, when it comes to our social lives? Especially when consent has an importance in our lives that stretches far beyond any exam result or dissertation.
Since the article was published, many people have leapt to criticise those who have expressed resentment towards the notions that the writer expressed in the article. People on Twitter have told me that I’m what a “false-rape accuser looks like” and that I am “demonising men” by arguing against this article, in favour of consent lessons. But we’ve never said that consent workshops are just for men, or that only men are perpetrators of sexual assault. Assault is an issue that affects men and women, and is committed by men and women, and we highlight this fact in our workshops. We’ve never ‘falsely accused’ people of rape by raising educational discussions surrounding consent. On the contrary, we hope to make definitions of rape clear, so that ‘what is rape’ and ‘what is not rape’ are definitively known concepts, not blurred by any falsities or myths. Others, more irrationally, responded to me saying that they are going to “drink my feminist tears”, and alike, for speaking out about this. But you know what? There have been tears. Many tears shed by many thousands of women and men around the world due to sexual assault. You can try to “drink” them if you want, pretend that they do not exist, or that we’re “crying over nothing”. But whilst you pointlessly “drink” them up, thinking that will somehow solve the issue, we are going to swim across and get out of this epidemic the other side. Swim, because for too many years the voices of survivors, and the discussions surrounding consent, have been drowned and I, for one, am in solidarity with all those finally raising these issues to the surface of our education system.