Content warning: the following post contains mentions of rape and sexual assault.
For many young people, university is a major turning point in their lives. The first few weeks and ensuing years can lead to a feeding frenzy on new found freedom, and copious amounts of alcohol, clubbing, and sex may be indulged in. If people are enjoying themselves, there's no issue to be had with this. So what's the problem?
The serious problem is that the haven of liberty that is 'uni' can be a breeding ground for sexual assault. In the face of this, universities simply are not taking enough steps to ensure that students know how to recognise and respect other people's boundaries. There's often a safety and security talk during freshers week; you might be told which areas to avoid, told not to walk home alone, maybe even given a rape alarm. Here's the resounding message: 'Don't get raped!'. Why is there no talk telling people not to rape, and teaching them what constitutes rape? Considering that most victims of sexual assault are assaulted by somebody they know, the 'don't walk home alone' message is proving to be falling short in protecting students. We need something more.
We need a much firmer stance targeting the offenders themselves if the message is to be interpreted as anything other than placing responsibility in the victims hands only. Many people scoff in the face of consent campaigns and workshops, claiming that people don't 'need' them, and perpetuating the myth that the only people who commit sexual violence are the insidious characters lurking in dark alleys at 3AM, who won't be changed by a talk on consent. This simply isn't true. The NUS 2010 study of women students' experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault found that the majority of perpetrators of stalking, physical and sexual violence were already known to the victim, and with the exception of physical violence, the majority of perpetrators were also students. What use is it telling people to avoid dangerous areas and walk home in groups if they're likely to be targeted by a fellow student?
This demonstrates a very real issue that there are a lot of students who are evidently either not aware of the imperative concept of consent or who display a complete disregard of it. The NUS study also found that 1 in 7 survey respondents had experienced a serious physical or sexual assault during their time at university. If 1 in 7 students have experienced this, and the majority of the perpetrators are those known to the victims, and are students themselves, then it seems pretty ridiculous to not consider having mandatory consent workshops at university. The subpar sex education that people receive at school usually doesn't cover more than a condom tutorial and a how to pronounce the names of STIs, so many are still needing better education regarding consent within sex and relationships. I could get into the state of sex education in UK schools, but that's a different story...
What many people don't realise and need to be taught through consent workshops is that consent is not a black and white issue. Before engaging in sexual activity, it's not always the case that an individual will verbally state 'I consent to this' or 'yes'. However, the absence of a no is not a yes. Important sexual consent campaigns like PausePlayStop have been distributing valuable information regarding whether consent is given or not, and educating students on campus about sexual consent. They detail how to know when consent is not given, with instances such as 'consent is assumed', 'your partner is asleep', 'your partner is too drunk or spaced out to give consent'. I've had people ask me what the point is in campaigns like this, telling me that people 'already get this'. The statistics above convey perfectly that people really, really don't.
Universities need to swallow their pride and put the welfare and safety of their students first. Instances such as UCL's closing of an exhibition which displayed accounts of sexual violence experienced by students conveys a message that universities are more interested in their reputation than their own students. The figures of sexual assault at universities are alarming, and institutions need to display a vested interest in tackling this pervasive issue that is present across the board. The NUS study found that reporting levels of assault and stalking were consistently low, and this was often due to the victim feeling that their assault was not serious enough to report. Universities need to respond to this with a zero tolerance policy to any forms of assault, and an encouraging student's to report any instances they experience or witness.
Cambridge University has led the way in terms of establishing consent workshops during fresher's week, and thankfully, other universities are following suit. Students should challenge their institutions if they refuse to get on board with such initiatives, and consent workshops should be compulsory, for all students, to attend. We need to state a clear message of zero tolerance for sexual violence, and a willingness to educate people about the nature of sex and relationships.