TW: discussions of sexual assault and harassment. Slurs and verbal abuse against women.
Anyone affected by the themes of this article can contact Oxford Univerity’s Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence Support Service.
Coronavirus safety regulations are jeopardising not only the glitzy club nights and socials of Freshers’ week but, more importantly, the consent education necessary to protect its vulnerable students from attack. Sexual harassment and assault are rampant in universities, often disguised as jokes, sometimes not disguised at all. Restrictions on the size of student meetings require that workshops stay online. But it is clear these workshops are necessary to address the problem of sexual assault and harassment in our University. They must be standardised across colleges, occur on Zoom or in-person, and, most importantly, must include discussion. Tick-box online courses are not fit for purpose in addressing problematic views or tendencies. It does not allow facilitators to moderate or flag dangerous attitudes and, by extension, puts students at risk.
Consent Matters, an online course by Epigeum, has been touted in a uni-wide email to freshers as a way to “develop your understanding, communication and respect.” It asks, tepidly, that all students participate, ignoring the blatant fact that the students most likely to join are the least likely to need it. Consent education must be mandatory, or it will not catch the niche of students unaware of the complicated sexual scenarios hurtling their way from the fresher’s week bar and post-corona bops.
Perhaps, it may be posed to this article’s cynical writer, that such an online course can tackle topics too awkward and gritty for face-to-face seminars. Perhaps, Consent Matters will be thought-provoking, shake the unaware students from their virginal high school ignorance. “Whore,” this erudite sexual scholar, “is not a very nice thing to call a woman.” Consent Matters believes lessons of this broad, vague, common-sense vein are all that sex-ed is able to teach. It manages to avoid the hard truth that women (including myself and my friends) have been called ‘whores’ even in Oxford, even by other students. Yet, it simultaneously confines its lessons to a sterile overview of the most obvious situations. Students do not need to be told that misogynistic slurs are inappropriate. They do need to be told how to tell whether someone is too drunk to consent. They do need to be told what types of comments on women’s bodies or dress are hurtful or sexist. If Consent Matters wants to teach students not to use misogynistic slurs, then it should do so in unequivocal terms that do not shy away from the common reality of female students who suffer this abuse on the regular.
With other such pithy wisdom awaiting me, I travelled hopefully into three twenty-minute modules proposed by the University to address our problem of sexual assault and harassment. Consent Matters combines a series of endearing stick figures tackling topics completely unrelated to the experience of sexual assault and harassment on modern campuses. In the last module, for instance, a stick figure walks up to a couch, on it a sleeping fellow student. “Sex?” the stick figure asks, to the other stick figure, reposing on the arm of the couch, wine glass slipping out of his anatomically incorrect fingers. In another cartoon, a perplexed friend stands by as his friend vomits on the floor of the bar. When a nefarious stick figure attempts to take the drunken victim home, the friend is perplexed: should he intervene or not?
These anecdotes preach, through beady-eyed cartoons in the style of Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” that one should not have sex with girls who have had a drink. We aim to provide “realistic advice” and it acknowledges uni students may still, against Epigeum’s advice, have their drunken reveries. This advice lacks (pun intended) a human touch. A consent facilitator, on this topic, would immediately discuss body language which would indicate a potential partner is apathetic, too drunk, or (ideally) enthusiastic with their non-verbal consent. Consent Matters is sterile, lacking in any practical advice which will help students navigate the real sexual landscape.
At best, Consent Matters is patronising (the acronym FRIES, anyone?). At worst, it woefully fails at preventing/mitigating dangerous tendencies in its students. Colleges, due to safety concern and the new six-person rule, are unable to hold consent courses in person. There are not enough trained consent facilitators to take on mere groups of five. The danger is colleges will rely on Consent Matters to reduce instances of sexual assault and harassment, and will not supplement adequately with online workshops. Consent Matters is not fit for purpose as the sole method of consent education.
Colleges may choose to supplement the course with additional material. They are not obliged to. It is probable that students, asked or even mandated, to take the course will click through using the upper right-hand arrows, digesting none of the content and consuming the (ostensibly 1 hour long) course in a mere five minutes. Consent Matters is not fit for purpose as the primary method of consent education. As a consent facilitator myself, I know all too well that the handouts, power-points, pithy buzzphrases, and cheeky acronyms of consent education do nothing to provoke change. Ask anyone who has chaired a consent workshop – “why are we here?” The discussion.
Scenarios are posed; freshers are given time to read; and at the end, the group discusses any consent issues and how we personally might react. Consent facilitators are there to answer questions that otherwise go unanswered. I once had a participant brush away his 2012 Bieber-bangs and ask, in the mire of fresher’s week awkwardness, how one could ask for consent without killing his partner’s arousal. I looked at that man, gave him an equally awkward answer, regarding dirty talk and body language too explicit to be recorded here, but felt, in hindsight, glad that someone had given him the straight answer needed to be a consent-focussed partner, however awkward that exchange had been for both of us. Indubitably, students are emboldened by the safe space of consent workshops, free to ask questions and receive practical answers that the Epigeum stick figures are unable to give.
There is a darker side to these consent workshops. Students have asked me how it could be rape if someone, blackout drunk, hadn’t said, ‘no.’ Bop outfits, however fashionable, tasteful, and well-themed, have subjected their female wearers to name-calling of the harshest degree. “Whore.” “Slut.” “Slag.” These words are not the arsenal of a drink-emboldened stranger down Cornmarket. They are said jokingly. Endearingly, even. By other students. University administration and the misguided writers of Consent Matters are disconnected from the reality of sexual assault and harassment in Oxford. A course which divorces consent education from face-to-face discussion is ineffective. The students most likely to take, with earnest attention, this online consent course are the least likely to need its guidance. The University must impose a mandatory course, consistent across colleges, which allows discussion between consent facilitators, freshers, and their peers. It is worth the expense and time for us to answer those awkward real-life questions and, in doing so, reduce the emotional and physical danger to our students.
The author wishes to remain anonymous.