Understanding Sexual Consent Isn't Difficult But It Is Complicated

Sexual Consent Classes are being made compulsory at some universities. Denying they're necessary only fuels the problem

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It's Freshers' week at Oxford and Cambridge, which means Dominos promo codes, terrible themed club nights, never-ending library inductions, and now also, sexual consent classes.

Although these classes have been running at Oxford for several years, this is the first time that they will be made compulsory and rolled out university-wide.

The news has unsurprisingly sparked outrage in certain corners of cyberspace, with the tabloids stating the classes were aimed at telling freshers 'how not to rape their fellow undergrads.'

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Just last week, during Freshers' week at York University, it was reported that a group of freshers walked out of the first ever organized sexual consent classes, and that a third year activist had stood outside some of the sessions, persuading students to boycott the 'patronising' class.

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But as Orla White, Vice President for Women at Oxford University says, 'I don't think the sessions are patronizing. I think that's a common misconception about how the workshops actually function.

It's not like a lecture, you don't sit in silence while someone talks at you. Instead, the participants lead the discussion.'

Henry Bruce-Jones, a current English student at Oxford, also thinks the sexual consent classes are essential, 'not only to ensure that a line of communication about sexual equality is made open, but to further emphasize the agency and control we have over our bodies.'

I led this class at Oxford University during Freshers' week last year, and I found that a lot of the questions I was asked by freshers were factual.

It's hard to pick up a decent understanding of [consent] because myths about sexual violence abound.

As Orla says, 'This stuff just isn't taught at secondary school, and it's hard to pick up a decent understanding of it because myths about sexual violence abound.'

Sexual consent as defined in UK law is when someone agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice, which can be affected by factors like drug, alcohol and age.

But although most students came to the classes believing they are knowledgeable on the subject, our discussion revealed that myths such as sexual assault or rape can't happen in relationships, or that there is a 'grey area' in consent, where a lack of resistance can mean yes, still pervade.

As Orla says, 'It's really normal for people to not be sure about the scale of sexual violence, and while consent isn't difficult it is complicated.'

On why they're being made compulsory at Oxford, Orla says 'It's a natural evolution, because every college/common room will set its own pace.

'But I think the fact that so many have chosen to make them compulsory shows that this is an issue that we as a community are taking seriously.'

I think the fact that so many have chosen to make them compulsory shows that this is an issue that we as a community are taking seriously.

The National Union of Students claims that 17 percent of freshers experience some sort of sexual harassment during their first week of term.

A survey conducted by the NUS in 2011 revealed that 1 in 7 university-age women experience serious sexual or physical assault during their time as a student.

When I ran the classes I began with a quick quiz, where I reeled off these stats to break the ice and to highlight the gravity of the issue.

Then we moved on to exploring three different scenarios, and discussing where consent was given and where it was not.

And finally, we ended by discussing easy ways to ask for consent.

Because unfortunately, when was the last time you saw a sex scene in a film where the guy or girl actually paused to ask the other, 'Are you comfortable with this?' or 'Does this feel good?'

At the end, I handed out packs of stickers reading 'If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get my consent', which I was delighted to find had made their way onto laptops and phone cases by the end of the week.

And although anyone was allowed to leave the 90-minute class at any point, nobody did.

Although lad culture, which has created a normalisation of sexual harassment, is endemic in university social life, it has a particularly powerfully felt presence at Oxford, entangled with the privilege and sense of entitlement that is bred through tradition.

Alongside the 'Good Lad workshops' which aim to promote 'positive masculinity', consent classes are beginning to unpack and explore these problems in a safe space, to break taboos and eliminate unhelpful victim-blaming attitudes.

Contraptions like nail varnish that detects whether your drink has been spiked will not lower rates of sexual violence, but starting a conversation about the importance of communication and of establishing boundaries within relationships, can - and there is nothing patronising about that.

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