Trigger Warning: Contains talk of rape and sexual assault.
According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of the sexual health charity Brook, there is a ‘significant gap’ when it comes to university students’ discernment of sexual consent and sexual harassment.
This lack of certainty may be a contributing factor to the unreported rapes that occur across universities here in the UK, as the study reveals that only a quarter of rape victims come forward.
So How Significant is the Survey?
This study on sexual harassment among UK university students is believed to be the largest of its kind with a total of 5,649 participants taking part between 10-18th January 2019. Of these, 56% said they had experienced unwanted sexual behaviours, although only 15% claimed they had experienced sexual harassment or violence, indicating confusion over what constitutes sexual harassment.
Additionally, only 52% know that it is not possible to give consent when you are drunk which raises particular concerns over clubbing and various other social engagements that may involve the consumption of alcohol, as this can often lead to impulsive decision-making and impaired judgement. Not only this, but the figure indicates that an alarming 48% of young people are engaging in sexual acts that may compromise their physical and psychological wellbeing because they are unaware of their rights. One danger of this is the potential for arousal to be mistaken for a non-verbal “yes”.
The survey also reveals that women were more likely to experience these unwanted behaviours than men. Wolf whistling (49%) and being touched inappropriately (49%) were amongst the highest of various instances of sexual misconduct suffered by women, while comparable figures for men were 3% in both cases.
Responding to the survey’s findings, the chief executive of Brook, Helen Marshall, said:
We are failing our young people if they don’t know that the law protects them from the unwanted behaviours they are experiencing.
Furthermore, we are failing to equip and empower young people to navigate their sexual lives and relationships.
Why Redefining Sex as a Pleasurable Experience is Important:
Figures indicate that relationships and sex education tend to focus on contraception (77%), STIs (71%), and reproduction (69%). Conversely, the topic of pleasure (10%) remains overlooked, and, yet, it is fundamental to understanding consent and delineating between a harmless flirtation and harassment in some instances.
As Brook points out, agreeing to sex should also mean actively enjoying it: ‘Consent doesn’t have to mean a stiff, awkward, formal conversation. It can be a continuous dialogue about what you want, don’t want, like and don’t like.’
What Does the Law Have to Say?
According to the Sexual Offences Act 2003 for England and Wales, a person consents to something if that person agrees ‘by choice and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice’.
Brook points out that the law doesn’t adequately distinguish between “agreeing” to something and “wanting it”, and this is where education and more clarity is needed to ensure that all students feel safe during their time at university.