Consent has been in the press this week again, thanks to a couple of young men who were deeply personally insulted and affronted at the nerve, the sheer bloody gall, the CHEEK of their presumptious places of learning, to include them into an invite that went to all students to voluntary consent courses.
I mean, how DARE these institutions think that these fine young men could possibly have any grey areas of understanding of sexual consent? How dare they think that they look like rapists. I mean, all rapists are clearly identifiable right? They wear t-shirts that identify them as rapists. They sing songs that identify them as rapists. They make signs to hang outside their accommodation to show that rapists live there.
Of course, what these universities should be doing is having a careful look at each male student as they register at fresher’s week, make sure they’re not wearing that “YAY RAPE” shirt and don’t look like they’ll sing rapey songs, and won’t make rapey signs, and of course just by looking at their innocent faces they will spot that these guys are clearly not rapists, and therefore totally understand consent, and make sure that when they send out the invitations to the entire student body, they individually remove these specific innocent looking and obviously well informed young men from their invitation list.
You do have to wonder about what’s going on in the mind of someone who takes an invite to a consent class as a personal insult, or who hears “consent class” and translates that as “tell men not to rape class”. For me, advertising that you think that you don’t look like a rapist, that you think consent is as basic as “no means no, yes means yes”, or that we have a society which has a dangerous “obsession with affirmative, ongoing consent” is a big fucking red flag. Actually, you look EXACTLY like a rapist. Because anyone holding a sign in protest against consent classes looks precisely like a rapist. So thanks, bros, for letting every single woman at your colleges know that you are exactly what a rapist might look like, and to avoid the hell out of you. Seriously, it’s not “wacky third-wave feminists” making you come across like a rapist. It’s your behaviour.
Look, universities really aren’t targeting anyone in particular. Indeed, they can’t target anyone in particular. The university administration has no idea who might be a potential sexual predator.
Because rapists look just like everybody else.
90% of rapes in the UK are committed by someone already known to the victim so actually rapists look like people you already know. You can’t pick who will or won’t be a potential rapist out of a crowd. A friend of mine specialises in an area of work that means most of their clients are sex offenders, and has done for years, and they couldn’t tell you what a rapist looks like; but one identifying feature of almost all the (convicted not accused) rapists they’ve worked with is that they all deny being rapists.
There is a huge problem with sexual assault in colleges and universities, and the administrators of those institutions have a duty of care to all students to ensure they understand consent. In a survey of college students it was discovered that a disturbingly high number of students actually admitted to committing rape, when the word “rape” wasn’t actually used in the question. The holding of consent classes at university, and increased focus on consent being embedded into learning at schools, is recognition of our long term failure to deal with this, and that it’s something we urgently need to fix.
The thing about consent classes is that everyone needs them. EVERYONE. If I was invited to a consent course, I wouldn’t fling my mug of tea in people’s face going “I DON’T NEED YOUR CONSENT CLASSES DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” – I would go along, and I would listen, take part in discussion, I would take what I could learn away with me. I went to an open discussion session on consent a few months after my blog post went viral and learned loads. We can never assume we know everything about a subject; there’s always something new to learn. No one can ever know so much about A Thing that there isn’t always more to learn about That Thing. No expert in any field worth their level of expertise thinks they know everything about their given subject. If they think they do to the extent that they refuse to keep their knowledge up to date and relevant by ongoing study, they’re a poor sort of expert and I am not going to trust them.
Consent classes aren’t about blame. They’re not about encouraging women to report a regretted one night stand as rape (and if you think “regretting a consensual sexual experience” and “not consenting to a sexual experience” are same thing then you really do need to go to a consent class, whatever your gender.) They’re absolutely not about making men out to be rapists. One thing these guys who “don’t look like rapists” seems to forget is men are also victims of rape and sexual assault, from both men and women. Indeed, research from the US suggests that men are more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of rape. Going by Buzzfeed’s maths that makes men 82,000 times more likely to be raped than be falsely accused of rape.
When I wrote what I now refer to as my “tea blog”, I never expected many people to read it. I certainly didn’t realise what it would mean to so many women (and a fair amount of men, and people that don’t identify as either) who had been the victim of a sexual assault but never really come to terms with it. I had so many messages from people (mostly women) saying thank you for helping them realise that what had happened to them *wasn’t their fault*. Some women were able to get closure and move on. A small number said that they had reported it to the police, or were considering reporting it, now they could see it wasn’t their fault, because they hadn’t consented.
I also had a few emails from people being heart-breakingly honest about their own sexual past. Who’d realised they hadn’t always sought consent properly. Who realised that their behaviour in the past had actually been Not Ok. My follow up post in particular brought messages from men saying thanks for talking about how an erection isn’t consent and from women saying they’d had to confront their own assumptions about male arousal.
And that’s what consent classes at university can do. They can help people realise what’s happened to them wasn’t their fault, and it helps them be more confident in a situation where someone is pressuring them. Consent classes aren’t about men being taught “not to rape” – they’re about embedding a clear understanding about what is and what isn’t consent. Women also need to know that just because a man is physically aroused doesn’t mean he wants to have sex. Men need to know that it wasn’t their fault because their penis was up when they weren’t up for it, and women need to learn the difference between consent and an erection (because arousal isn’t necessarily the same thing as “yes”.)
Not only is consent everything when it comes to sex, consent classes are for EVERYBODY.