Thoughts on Consent Part One: Why I wish I didn’t feel compelled to write this post.

A shorter version of this article is published on the Varsity website, here
I really don’t want to be writing this blog post.
No, I mean it, I can think of a dozen other things I’d want to do. I’d rather be writing my thesis, feeding my guinea pigs, reading a queer theory, or playing Skyrim (yes, I still haven’t finished it) then sitting here at midnight, writing what is going to be a very long, very difficult post about such cheerful issues as rape and sexual violence. The reason that I would rather be doing something else is because this was meant to be a much shorter post, but instead is going to be a two parter, because I’m afraid to say I am going to spend the first part explaining why consent is not a bad thing. And frankly, in this day and age, and with an intelligent readership, I am going to spend a good deal of time on that notion. Seriously.
The reason I am compelled to do this is because, as of this morning (20th May 2014) I read what has got to be the stupidest article about consent, sexual ethics, or possibly anything I have ever read. If you go to the Varsity website, you will see an article entitled: “Teaching Consent: A dangerous game.” The article, which you can read here, if you really want makes the rather staggering claim that consent workshops “undermine individual choice and harm debate,” an argument so colossally bizarre that’s there’s little I can really do beyond staring at my computer and tearing my hair our (hair which, incidentally, Varsity felt the need to the review in addition to giving their opinion on my last stand up night). A single batty article, however, is not much to write home about. Sadly, the sentiment is replicated elsewhere in the student press. An article in the Tab about consent workshops contains some frankly depressing comments  which seemed to miss the point of consent workshops by a country mile. “Feminists really showing their true colours in assuming all men are dirty raping pigs who need to be taught to avoid their disgusting sex-wanting ways and male camaraderie.” said one, and in response to another comment praising the move for helping to teach the complexities of consent, someone wrote: “I’m sorry but that is simply not rape. You cannot retract your consent after the fact. What I’m about to say may sound like victim blaming, but it is simply common sense.” Err, no, that sounds like victim blaming to me, anonymous commentator.
I should take a step back here and give a bit of background for those who might not have been following this story as it developed. Earlier this term, Varsity and the CUSU Womens’ campaign ran a joint survey on sexual assault, harassment and rape in Cambridge. The survey came back with over 2000 response and the rather shocking and sobering statistic that 88% of sexual assaults at Cambridge go unreported. A few years ago, the NUS’s Hidden Marks report noted that 1 in 7 students “a serious sexual assault” during their time at University. You can find the Women’s Campaign report here – it’s long but well worth a read. In addition to this, the Cambridge Speaks Its Mind project has shared several anonymous testimonies relating to rape and sexual violence among the student body (you can read a couple here and here – be warned,  they are quite upsetting.) In other words, the issue of consent has been on the cards this year, and for good reason. The story then broke that the University was taking the matter seriously, for once, and that it was considering proposals for compulsory consent workshops for all incoming students. Note the ‘considering’ – nothing’s been decided on yet, but having worked with the University and seen how easily they want to sweep things under the carpet, is actually taking the issue seriously enough to be giving it thought. That, if nothing else, heartens me.
The criticisms of consent workshops seem to come from those who’ve never been to one. They seem to envisage that a consent workshop involves separating the men from the women, and then, presumably, telling the latter that must never have sex ever, and then browbeating into the former that they are all rapists, so don’t have sex either, making the whole scene sound like it’s run by the gym coach from Mean Girls. Sorry to disappoint, anonymous commentators of the Tab, but that’s not what happens. I can’t say I speak for every variety of consent workshop ever, but I can speak for those run by CUSU, seen as I have run consent workshops and assisted in running them when I was a sabb. The reality is very different – consent workshops are open discussion, largely focused around myth busting. In the workshops I used to run, we often began with a series of statements about consent and asked people to work out if they were myths or facts (things like “If a woman is drunk, she is asking for sexual assault,” and “If a man is aroused, he has to have sex,” or “Rape and sexual assault only affect women.” The myth busting may sound a little banal, but I can’t emphasise the importance of it enough; through my work in CUSU, and previous experience as a volunteer at a Rape Crisis centre, I am shocked by the hazy grasp of consent by people of our age. At the Rape Crisis centre where I worked, we carried out an outreach exercise one weekend, where we asked about 200 or so people in Manchester to agree or disagree with a series of statements. Shockingly, over half of the people we spoke to (most of them students at the University) agreed with the statement “If you buy someone a drink, then you consent to have sex with them.” The mind boggles.
The point of a consent workshop is that it empowers people – it helps them to understand that they are in control of their bodies and sex lives. It does not, in any way, set limits on what people can or cannot do. I doubt any consent workshop in the world is going to tell people not to have sex, or engage in particular sex acts. That is entirely up to you as an adult and informed individual. What consent workshops do do is help people to understand that they can, for example, say “no” at any point. It doesn’t mean they have to, but that they can do.  Now what’s so offensive about that?
Also, I find it problematic that there is a gendered divide in perception when it comes to consent workshops – the idea I articulated about men being potential abusers and women being damsels in distress. It’s definitely not like that – men can be sexually abused as well as women, though it is obviously rarer, (according to one study I read, 1 in 10 men experience sexual abuse, as opposed to 1 in 5 women) but we cannot ignore the issue and consent workshops to do not. In any case, consent workshops are, for want of a better phrase, “gender neutral” – it’s not about man and woman, its about abuser and survivor. Also, that whole presumption seems to assume that only cis straight men pose a threat to cis straight women – which ignores the existence of genderqueers and transgender people.
Now we need to address the thorny issue of lad culture. Does lad culture have an explicit link to rape culture? It’s a tricky one; lad culture is often, but not exclusively, based on the sexual objectification of women (and note the distinction). To objectify someone is to remove their agency, and turn them into a passive object, which you can do what you like to or with. In a culture where that is the prevailing attitude, or at least seems to be, then it allows for ignoring consent and thus opens the door to abuse. This does not mean to say if you are a lad you are a rapist. What I’m suggesting is more that there is a divide between sexual harassment and sexual assault, and that lad culture leans towards the former and sometimes individuals spill into the latter. Many female friends recounted to me how that main harassment they recieve is when they run into a bunch of young men who have been drinking.  It just means that there is an aspect of the culture which is dubious. Sadly, we’ve seen this in action recently – only a few weeks ago, it emerged that members of the Wythern’s drinking society were caught on camera chanting about rape in Oxford. Lad culture also tends to have what Stewart Lee calls the “Top Gear” defence built into it – it’s just a joke, why can’t you take a joke and so on, where a situation could, feasibly, arise that someone is made to feel obliged to engage in sex because if they don’t they will be stigmatised for being unable to take a joke. There are a number of fascinating studies which suggest disparagement humour can often prop up discriminatory notions. And no, I’m not saying you can’t make jokes. Of course I wouldn’t. I’m a comedian. Read the damn article before you start penning your tab comments, please.
I think, however, we need to be careful not to use lad culture as a straw man to pin all sexual violence at Cambridge on. According to Rape Crisis UK, around 90% of rapes are committed by “known men.” In the case of male survivors, statistics are sadly fewer and further between (perhaps a sign we need to begin a discussion on male rape) but what I could find suggested that, similarly, the abuser is often a man or women known to the survivor. In other worlds, we need to be careful not to fall into a narrative where we either blame and entire culture, or see rapists and abusers as inhuman monsters. What they do is monstrous, but what they are, often, are the people in our colleges, our friends and, as the campaign report seems to suggest, a worrying number of staff and fellows. Coming to this realization is sobering, but it is necessary if we need to get to the heart of the problem.
In short, consent workshops don’t take away individual choice, they facilitate the making of informed choices; nor is it an over-reaction to bring lad culture into these workshops – it is relevant to the discussion.
In part two I hope to expand on this issue, so watch this space…
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