With the University of Oxford making sexual consent classes compulsory for all new undergraduate students and a number of University of York freshers walking out of theirs, the debate surrounding the usefulness of such workshops on university campuses has become prominent in the last few weeks. The walk outs at York signal that the general perception of sexual consent classes should be changed.
Those who object to sexual consent classes usually question their suitability for university aged adults and how the content is delivered. There seems to be an impression that the discussions are patronising and labelling females as prospective victims and males as rapists, but this only leads to an erroneous simplification of a complex personal safety issue.
The classes provide a safe space to discuss sex and sexual health in gender-neutral terms; they aim to dispel stereotypical conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and evade solely focusing on heterosexual relations to create a welcoming space for members of the LGBTQ+ community. The classes help raise awareness, they are positive in starting a discussion about interpersonal relations, rather than just attacking or victimizing specific groups within the larger student body. They discuss different scenarios that are inclusive not only of different genders and sexual orientations, but also relationship statuses and personal circumstances. They dispel the myth of the rapist as a solitary easily identifiable figure and address the disturbing fact that the perpetrator is usually familiar to the victim, often even a partner.
Emphasising the complexity of sexual relations illustrates that consent is not formulaic. The workshops create a safe environment where sexual relationships are discussed freely with the aim to give practical outlines rather than abstract understandings of mutual respect, personal space and cultural boundaries. These are not simple language classes that teach the meaning of “no”; the workshops tap into a more complex social issue and dismissing the discussion as patronising is of no help to people who experience unwanted sexual advances.
It is accepted that campus tours are provided for new students despite the available help of Google maps, so why is there opposition against educating students about a much more complex issue? As for the concerns about the timing of the classes, to an extent, it is correct to argue that earlier introduction would perhaps be more beneficial, yet consent classes go beyond the information included in sexual health leaflets or high school sex-ed. The focus is extended on encouraging personal safety by providing clarification of the legal definitions of consent, sexual harassment and assault, and the legal rights and support services available to anyone who has suffered a form of sexual harassment. Ultimately the desire is to make campuses a welcoming and safe place for students.
In an ideal world, sexual consent classes would be as commonplace as fire safety talks are now. But until then, promoting behaviour that interferes with fair discussions of sexual relations only creates more pressure and distraction from the actual problem. From the ten minute briefings at York to the 45 minute sessions at Oxbridge, the classes help ease the tension in talking about sex and are a step in the right direction to creating a harassment-free university environment. Glasgow should welcome sexual consent workshops in coming years, so that we as a student community can address our personal safety and engage with campaigns against sexual violence.