University sexual assault. Even with those few words, certain headlines and statistics come to mind. From unwanted groping to violent rape, it is estimated that one out of three students have been victims of assault, as reported by the Telegraph last year. The statistics are disturbing, but nothing new. In a bid to counteract a deeply entrenched rape culture, many British universities such as Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford, introduced compulsory consent workshops. In October 2015, I found myself leading one of the many workshops which have now become commonplace within the freshers week timetable. Despite having received hours of training by student union representatives and being an elected JCR Welfare Officer, the irony of someone as naive as myself, a 20 year old undergraduate, schooling freshers on the complexities of sexual relationships, was not lost on me.
My own pre-Oxford education alternated between a tight knit catholic primary school and racially diverse grammar schools within the heart of Slough. None of these institutions prepped me with a true understanding of sex, from the basic biology of intercourse, to the issues surrounding consent and sex from an LGBTQ standpoint. Sexually mature girls were deemed whores, those with STIs were labelled as dirty whilst groups of boys, huddled around a singular smartphone, would often giggle at graphic and violent pornography at the back of the classroom. Parents and teachers, fuelled by a religiously motivated curriculum and sheer reluctant embarrassment, played pass the parcel with the elephant in the room, each expecting the other to take on the awkward responsibility of sex education. Having been immersed within schools which placed a large emphasis on obtaining qualifications, rather than practical life skills, I innocently stumbled into university with a warped notion of sex.
Certainly, as I sat in front of a small group of freshers, talking them through case studies of rape and clinging onto my training pack for dear life, I felt like a fraud. However, throughout the year, in my capacity as Welfare Officer, the workshops helped me to recognise vulnerable students and guide them towards counselling services and trained officials. Furthermore, the college introduced 'Bop Angels' a system whereby, sober student volunteers, often trained sexual assault first responders, maintained a presence at college events involving alcohol and provided support in case of emergencies. The workshops combined with 'Bop Angels' and a proactive college community, all signified attempts on a student level, to establish a zero tolerance stance on sexual assault.
Yet I can't help but feel that sexual consent workshops are a small solution to a big problem originating from childhood. Worst still, they can encourage administrators, from primary to tertiary education, to hold an apathetic attitude, believing that sexual assault is a student issue they have no business in taking responsibility for. Discussing consent at university, a time of experimentation, freedom and discovery is necessary. Yet, here lies the problem. Welfare officers, Student Unions and other university staff are burdened with the task of establishing notions of consent, rather than reinforcing well engrained ideas regarding sexual relationships, that have been uniformly applied within schools. Astonishingly, state schools are not mandated by English Law to include sexual health within the curriculum and as a result, inconsistencies remain. In June of this year, the Terrence Higgins Trust, discovered that one in seven pupils aged between 16 and 24 had received no sex education at all. Fortunately, due to the combined efforts of activists there has been an increase in coverage condemning the failure of British sex education, such as this scathing Guardian headline in February 2016: 'All children need to learn about sexual consent - it's their right'. Meanwhile, a change.org petition to make sex education compulsory has now reached over 30,000 pledges, including support from key figures such as Dawn Thomas and Dianne Whitfield, Co-Chairs of Rape Crisis England & Wales.
Yet the influx of headlines reporting the absence of sex education and the influx of headlines reporting university sexual assaults, should not be taken as separate stories. They are part of the same narrative. With technology transforming how schoolchildren sexually interact through snapchat and sexting, easy access to pornography, overtly sexualised media and constant failings on the part of schools and parents, sexually immature students are surrounded by sex, yet unable to fully comprehend its consequences. With no education, young students are left without simple guidelines outlining the practical definition of legal and safe sex.
Evidently, the importance of establishing sensible and open discussions regarding sex has not been realised by schools, as bright young students are entering universities with a fully fledged knowledge of the A Level curriculum but not a clue about the legal rights of rape victims. As long as schools prioritise their own academic reputation and continually dismiss sex education, university students will be left to patch up the systematic failings within two hour consent workshops, whilst young men and women will be left vulnerable, ill-equipped to deal with the joys and challenges of sex within the 21st century.
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