THE BLOG
20/10/2015 13:49 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 06:12 BST

Why I Needed Consent Lessons

This year Bristol Students' Union followed numerous other institutions and ran consent workshops for new students. Some have found these consent lessons to be controversial, and George Lawlor a student at Warwick University boldly claimed that he doesn't need them as he doesn't have to be taught not to be a rapist. Unlike George, I believe that when I started university in 2012, I really did need the lessons. Not because I didn't understand the nuances of consent, but because I desperately wanted to have that conversation. I just didn't know how. I wanted the chance to talk to my new flatmates about sexual consent and rape.

If I had, I believe that I would have been able to talk to them about my experience of rape and sexual assault within weeks rather than waiting over three years before opening up. Starting university can often be an incredibly daunting time for most students, but having to carry around this heavy - and let's face it, awkward - secret was just crushing.

You believe your first few months are going to be filled with new friends, great times and a ballooning confidence. Instead I felt like I was a walking lie. I remember once lying on my bed in the dark, listening to my flatmates get ready for a night out. In that moment I wished more than anything that I could be normal again.

I wanted to talk to someone about it, but I really didn't feel like I could. How could I spill out this horrible life event? How will they take it? Will they treat me differently? It's not exactly an easy topic to wedge into a conversation over a cup of tea. Instead I kept it to myself and it was incredibly difficult.

As manyothers have said about George Lawlor's article, he has really missed the point of what consent lessons are aiming to achieve. Consent lessons have not been put in place to teach students to not be rapists. They are trying to normalise talking about consent and rape. Something that is not already happening due to the lack of comprehensive sex and relationship education.

Despite claiming knowledge of the topic, Lawlor still seems to have bought into the great myth that rapists are people who lack empathy, respect and human decency. Unfortunately, rapists aren't always morally corrupt villains from a Law and Order episode. They are more often than not people that we know and trust. They are people that misunderstand what consent is, and the evidence shows us that. In a study conducted by Sarah Edwards of the University of North Dakota, a third of college men surveyed admitted that they would force a woman to have sexual intercourse, 13.6 percent of which said that they would rape a woman. Worryingly this suggests that many college men don't associate the act of forcing a woman to have sex with them with the crime of committing rape.

I also came to university with generalised anxiety disorder and depression. Both mental health and sexual violence carry stigma that often silences those who experience them. However, I would be far more comfortable speaking openly about my mental health problems than I would my rape. This is because there has been a monumental change in the way that we talk about mental health - particularly at university. Students looking for a way to socialise with others who also experience mental health difficulties have been setting up societies all over the country.

I have never felt such relief as the day that I went for coffee for the first time with the group of students who had formed the Peace of Mind mental health society at the University of Bristol. It was so liberating to be able to speak with others who won't stare back at you wide-eyed when you describe how sometimes you can't even pull yourself out of bed.

This is not yet something that has happened for survivors of sexual violence. Learning to live after being raped still remains a lonely, clinical experience. We whisper about it to counsellors and detectives. I still struggle to use the r-word. Well, I don't want to whisper anymore, I want to yell. I want to speak as freely about my rape as I do my mental health. I don't want people to be uncomfortable when I do. I want to discuss it without their pity or anger. I believe that consent lessons can help make that happen.

When students arrived at the University of Bristol this year they found consent workshops in their induction timetable. I attended the training for the workshop facilitators run by SARSAS, our local Rape Crisis. Believe it or not, we weren't lectured as we sat sombre, grimacing at statistics. It was relaxed and comfortable, there was plenty of interaction and discussion, and we even laughed a little. It felt fantastic to be a part of it.

As unions and universities, we have the perfect opportunity to grab the attention of young people moving into their new home. We can show them that it's okay to speak about consent and it's okay to speak about rape. We can be the ones to help survivors report and ask for help. We can be the ones to help destroy the shame that so often nips at their heels. So, for these reasons, George, I thoroughly believe that consent lessons are worthy of our time and effort. If you care about supporting survivors in your life, then it should be worthy of yours too.