Consent Lessons – Yes or No?

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Back in October we all read that article called ‘Why I don’t need consent lessons’  by George Lawlor, a sociology and politics student at Warwick. You might have heard of it or seen it pop up on your Facebook timeline or Twitter newsfeed. 

Consent lessons were introduced by the NUS (National Union of Students) in 2014 to try and tackle rape and sexual harassment in universities.

The article was an interesting but shocking read because, although Lawlor constantly asserts that he knows what is and isn’t consent. It seems that he sees the invitation to a consent class as an attack on his character. Underneath this was a picture of Lawlor holding up a sign saying ‘This is not what a rapist looks like ’. I rolled my eyes and thought ‘what’s a rapist supposed to look like then?

I’m guessing Lawlor thought he didn’t fit the traditional rapist mould because he looks like a ‘nice guy’.  This perpetuates a dangerous myth that rapists are people who look ‘shady’; there is no such thing as a typical rapist. People who commit acts of rape and sexual harassment can look and seem ‘nice’. For instance, 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence. So it is not right to assume that all rapists hide in dark alleys waiting for unknowing victims. One of the aims of the consent lessons is to dispel myths surrounding rape, which makes Lawlor’s argument ironic and highlights the need for consent lessons.

Also, if university students, and ‘Russell Group’ university students in particular, knew all there is to know about consent, then why is sexual violence and harassment still a problem in many UK universities? Rape culture thrives in universities, which also highlights the need for consent lessons. Rape culture can manifest itself in anything from sports chants about rape to rape jokes which are disguised as ‘banter’. Victim blaming also perpetuates rape culture. Women who act or dress in a certain way are seen to be ‘asking for it’; all the blame and responsibility is placed on victims who should have ‘known better’. Rape culture serves to empower perpetrators and belittle victims. Consent lessons may be what universities need to rid themselves of this damaging culture once and for all.

University shouldn’t be the only place where consent is taught and discussed. Consent lessons should start earlier. I agree with Rebecca Reid who wrote in The Independent that ‘If you don’t start consent education in childhood then you end up with young men, like Lawlor, who whether they understand consent or not, believe themselves to be above even having a conversation about it at all.’ At the moment consent isn’t taught as part of sex education. Sex education in the UK has already been criticised for being limited in its scope. Young people need to learn that consent is not as easy as saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but that there can be what Josie Throup  – Women’s officer at Warwick University – describes as a ‘spectrum of misunderstandings in between and that consent can only be an enthusiastic yes’.  Learning about the importance of consent from an early age could lead to more positive sexual relationships.

Consent lessons can also make young people aware of both ‘slut shaming’ and ‘prude shaming’; both of which are used to police women’s sexuality. Slut shaming is linked to victim blaming because, if a woman acts in what is seen as a sexually provocative way, she was ‘asking for it’. If a woman rejects unwanted sexual advances, she’s called a ‘prude’, which can be used as coercion. Terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘prude’ cripple female sexuality. From a young age, girls are taught these terms and are pushed into acting like ladies who must worry about their sexual reputation. Popular culture reaffirms these notions of female sexuality. Consent lessons can be empowering for young girls as they can learn that the way they express their sexuality doesn’t mean that they’re ‘asking it’. Girls should be able to learn that unwanted sexual remarks and advances are not acceptable, and that they are not ‘overreacting’ if they speak up about it.

Although I did not agree with Lawlor’s article, it triggered a debate in which sexual harassment and rape were discussed more openly.  A debate about issues like these leads to more awareness; it’s an issue that should not be ignored or downplayed. Some may find discussing issues like this uncomfortable and even offensive, but it’s the first step in eradicating the problem.

In a recent BBC newsbeat article Lawlor said he would attend consent classes. I look forward to reading another article in which he expresses what he made of them.

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