The women's march in Topeka after Trump's electionmmrogne

On Thursday 5th October, I offered to write an article about the importance of consent classes and whether they are, to quote, “fit for purpose”. On the same day, an exposé was published in The New York Times accusing big shot film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexually harassing a number of women and, three days later, designer Donna Karan stepped forward to voice the opinion that maybe women are “asking for it” based on the way they present themselves. Clearly, the need for consent classes is a pertinent issue to discuss right now. The the effects of years of perceived sexual standards, where a woman just learnt to grin and bear the ‘odd grope’, are deep-rooted.

Many people argue that these opinions are ones not shared by the Freshers who will be taking these consent classes, and that, more than anything else, it is patronising. Is this true? While 69-year-old Donna Karan’s opinions may very much appear to belong to an older generation, they do not exist in a vacuum. According to an Amnesty International study in 2005, a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped and there is still variance in opinion as to what consent actually means. It is important to constantly expose and educate, even if some people consider that it is obvious when someone is or is not giving consent. In 2015, the BBC brought together 24 teenagers to watch and discuss a drama entitled Rape on Trial. Shockingly, a few of them didn’t think forced oral sex actually counted as rape and others suggested that the perpetrator might have had reason to believe consent had been given since the couple had had consensual relations in the past. This comes in the same year as Safeguarding Teenage Intimate Relationships, a study revealing that one in three teenage girls will have been pressured into a sexual act by a partner. It is a lie to suggest that our society has reached a point where there is a universal understanding as to what consent means.

There is still great disagreement over what implies consent and what some people argue they would do when faced with sexual assault. Both are harmful. The former implicitly suggests that the way a person dresses or the way they carry themselves and what they’ve had to drink signifies that they are ‘up for it’ so to speak. The second does not explicitly condemn, but still contributes to issues of shifting culpability and shaming, survivors. We all like to think we would scream our heads off and reach for the nearest heavy object, but it is well known that even the most assertive person can completely freeze up in such scenarios. Belonging to the third of female students in the UK who have experienced sexual harassment or assault, I can attest to this. As someone who has experienced sexual assault and who understands that I did not give consent, I still feel guilt. Guilt because I felt that I’d put myself in an unsafe situation by being ‘too trusting’. Guilt because, even though I had been asleep when it started, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d really been vocal enough once I realised what was happening. I know that I should not feel this way, yet I do. Years of suggestible media and entertainment content, as well as social influences, have taken their toll.

“Consent is more complex than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’”

It is important for people of all genders to be reminded that consent is more complex than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. People must be assured that where they may be sexually assaulted, there can have been no confusion as to whether there was consent; we must remove the mentality of guilt. It is hard to think that we have to consider ‘cases where they may be sexual assault’ as part of the consent discussion, but the truth is that we really should be doing so. The facts and figures speak for themselves. Dare I say that it is also important for people who may potentially be on the other side of the power dynamic. I know a few people who have expressed genuine worry that they may come to misconstrue a situation and cause someone harm. While I’d be eager to point out that their discomfort is nothing to the discomfort of being assaulted, they too have been brought up in a society rife with contradictions. After all, this time last year an episode of BBC Series Poldark saw the romantic lead forcing himself on a woman in what was ostensibly an act of passion, while ‘Blurred Lines’, a song believed by many to trivialise consent, was the best-selling single of 2013. Consent classes are a tool designed to enlighten those who attend them, and ensure that we are all on the same page.

“A single consent class during Freshers’ Week should only be the beginning”

The real question here isn’t whether we should be having consent classes at all, but whether consent classes are enough. We should be asking if they’re doing enough to make universities a safer place for students of all genders. The existence of consent classes sends a clear signal as to the stance of the University and colleges, but at a time when only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence are willing to report it to the police, students should also be provided with an understanding of university protocol in instances of rape and sexual violence. Currently, this is not strictly the case. Societal constructions and a history of victim blaming are so ingrained into the popular psyche that a single consent class during Freshers’ Week should only be the beginning in addressing and fighting a pernicious sexual dynamic. We should now be discussing further steps that need to be taken