The Challenge of Running Constructive Consent Classes in University

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The idea that the giving and receiving of consent should be taught is a relatively new concept. Schools in Ireland were, and still are, caught up with exposing children to graphic images of STD riddled genitalia and filling them with fear of unwanted pregnancy. How a healthy and normal sexual relationship might be carried out between young adults was none of their concern. It would require an acknowledgment that young people do in fact have sex, which the very last thing the Irish primary and secondary school education system seem to want to do.

So that leaves us in the position we are now, a flood of young people coming to college, the majority sexually active, never having engaged with sexual consent education or discussions in a deep and meaningful way. For many university is also the first time living away from home, with considerably more freedom. The mix of that freedom, a lack of education around the issue of consent in primary and secondary level, and alcohol can prove a dangerous mix.   

The lack of discourse has had an ugly manifestation, with one in four female students receiving unwanted sexual attention while at university. We are slowly but surely coming round to the idea that a thorough understanding of consent is considered vital for a healthy relationship with sex, as imperative as practicing how to put a condom on a cucumber. Although such an education would most appropriately be given as part of the general sexual education provided at second level, schools have shied away from the issue, leaving third level institutions and Students’ Unions to pick up the slack.

Some may question whether consent classes are appropriate or necessary. This comes from a stream of thinking in which consent is discussed solely in black and white terms. On one level, this is absolutely correct. If consent is absent then that person’s wishes must be respected without exception. Anything that happens thereafter amounts to sexual assault. But defining what amounts to consent and determining whether or not it is present is infinitely more complex, and pretending it is otherwise is a disservice to everyone.

If we were all in the habit of articulating our desire to sleep with someone bluntly and explicitly, leaving no room for misunderstanding, the matter would be much simpler. In reality we tend to operate on a plane of implicit communication, conveying consent through gestures, touching and insinuations and assumptions. Consent can be conveyed without uttering a word. Correctly identifying consent via this form of communication requires a degree of social and emotional intelligence and the ability to comprehend the unarticulated subtext of an interaction. Add alcohol into the mix and the chances of having a breakdown in this tacit acknowledged of consent increase markedly. One issue consent classes or discussions can improve is the practice of making sure affirmative consent is given and sought after. Normalising the practice of saying yes, and asking explicitly for consent can avoid ending up in a situation where one party might find the situation non-consensual. It’s important to instill the perception in both men and women that the absence of a ‘no’ doesn’t equate to an affirmative ‘yes’. Both parties must be aware that consent, however expressed, must be sought out in the first place and continually renewed.

Consent is evidently complex and to talk about it in the blunt language of black and white obscures the issues and shuts down discussion. It deters a person seeking out guidance and understanding – if the issue is so clear cut but you remain confused, then which side of the line will you be presumed to be seem to be standing on? Alcohol and drugs muddy the water even further because their consumption alone does not paralyze consent, however a line must be drawn somewhere. There currently exists a vacuum of information and discussion on the issue. The space for mature, robust, and open discussions and conversations between both male and female students, including straight and gay students, on the topic of consent and healthy sexual relationships has the potential to be incredibly positive and constructive. But many third level colleges haven’t been able to create a space for that dialogue to happen meaningfully on campuses.

None of this should be seen as an excuse to absolve a guilty party. It is not a license to interpret gestures as one pleases, nor does it legitimise sexual assault because it was conducted through ignorance. It merely acknowledges that consent is a nuanced issue and encourages people to talk about consent more explicitly if there is any doubt. It is not uncommon for people to leave a sexual encounter unsure if they have been violated or not due to their confusion surrounding consent.

The premise from which consent classes operate is both hopeful and sympathetic. It assumes that it is a dearth in knowledge, rather than the intention to impose oneself on an unwilling other, that leads to an unwanted sexual encounters. Its success rides upon the belief that if we teach people to be vocal about and receptive to, the giving or withholding of consent, they will respect their partner’s wishes. If the forced submission of your sexual partner was the objective, consent classes would be moot. The reality probably falls somewhere in between, a combination of ignorance and indifference that is troubling in its own way. The branding of consent workshops in the context of a university is crucial to get right, a problem UCD Students’ Union have had in the past. The perception of the workshops as patronising ‘classes’ in which men will be taught ‘how not to rape women’ is a unfortunate and inaccurate stigma consent classes haven’t been able to shake.

Dr Elaine Byrnes designed and runs the consent workshops in NUIG, Byrnes says the classes are more about discussing and teasing out the grey area between the black and white when it comes to consent, so both men and women leave with a better understanding of the difficult and complex topic.

Dr Elaine Byrnes designed and runs the consent workshops in NUIG, Byrnes says the classes are more about discussing and teasing out the grey area between the black and white when it comes to consent.

She described how the Smart Consent workshops they run in Galway were rooted in research she undertook. ‘My own PhD research involved a survey earlier this year of undergraduate students here at NUI, Galway. It was the first survey of its kind to be conducted in Ireland, and data was collected from 1,500 respondents on sexual health and behaviour, with items such as comfort and frequency of behaviours and alcohol related sexual experiences. The survey also included various items to assess perceptions of consent and its communication, and also understanding of non-consenting sexual activity’.

‘Initial data analysis revealed that 25% of females reported having experienced sexual contact or attempted sexual contact in their lifetime by someone using, or threatening to use, physical force. This is consistent with similar research findings internationally, notably in both the US and UK. 8% of males reported these experiences.  11% of females further reported they were either certain or uncertain (but suspected) someone had sexual contact with them in the past 12 months when they were incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, when passed out or asleep’.

The data and research on the issue of gender-based sexual harassment is increasing Byrnes outlined, and she said while classes aren’t about man bashing or teaching men not to rape, the empirical evidence suggests that women are the victims in the vast majority of sexual assault, non-consensual incidents, and cases of sexual harassment.

Byrnes said there is ‘a very real need for a strategy to prompt changes in beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours concerning sexual consent was identified. And so, Smart Consent Workshops were developed at the School of Psychology, NUI, Galway.  We were aware of campaigns both in the UK (e.g.  I Heart Consent), and various offerings in the US, which were evaluated at the planning stage of Smart Consent’. Ultimately she described they were designed and run to generate constructive debate and self-reflection on the topic of consent, to educate men and women and better define and understand the term and concept.

The perennial problem with consent classes or workshops is the issue of attendance. Those that are either ignorant (willingly or due to false presumptions), and those that are indifferent, are unlikely to attend consent classes voluntarily despite belonging to the cohort that require it the most. The UCDSU’s voluntary programme of consent classes which ran for a twelve month trial period starting February of 2016 failed miserably, with only twenty in attendance from a pool of 30,000 students. If future classes were to be mandatory, it would combat the student interia towards any college organised activity accompanied by the term ‘workshops’, as well as alleviate the stigma that voluntary attendance is an admission of ignorance.

The outgoing UCDSU welfare officer Roisin O’Mara said the SU are now taking another look at how to road test the consent workshops, which would perhaps involve a rebranding removing the term ‘consent’. Some would see it as a shame that such a step is even considered necessary, and that our collective egos need to assuaged and coddled to in order to admit that we don’t know everything about sex. But it is undeniable the perception around the idea of consent classes has become toxic, attempts to make workshops mandatory would perhaps only further feed into the toxicity and unwillingness to openly and constructively look to engage in discussions on sex and consent in Ireland.

The outgoing UCDSU welfare officer Roisin O’Mara said the SU are now taking another look at how to road test the consent workshops, which would perhaps involve a rebranding removing the term ‘consent’

The benefits of well-run consent classes that tap into a willingness to understand more and better define the grey area is no doubt vital in tackling non-consensual sexual assault and harassment in Irish culture. Designing, branding and pulling it off is another matter, and one that will no doubt be a challenge for the incoming Students’ Union officer team next year.

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Eleanor Brooks  Features Writer

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