Learning Better Consent
We need classes about sexual consent at our university. People here do not always respect each other’s boundaries. People here have survived sexual violence. People here don’t realise that this is a problem.
At Glasgow Uni Amnesty International, our campaigns officer Sarah Bacom and the society as a whole is working on a campaign to instate compulsory consent courses at our university, under the banner of the larger Amnesty campaign, My Body My Rights. So far the Senate has not been cooperative, even after the group found someone willing to facilitate classes for free at no expense to the university. They have put up some posters about bullying and harassment and can’t make room for anything more participative at this point. So let’s talk about why these classes are necessary.
Sometimes masculinity is so fragile that the suggestion of a basic leveller of knowledge about assault provokes backlash, only confirming the need for such classes in the first place. I don’t need to link to a recent Tab article for you to guess the kind of reactionary bullshit I’m referring to.
Consent is not something to just be taught to potential rapists. It is for potential survivors, who need support to know when it is okay to say “stop”, and be angry, and feel out of control of their own bodies. Learning consent is comprehensive and applies to all of our relationships. In every interaction we have some kind of consent is assumed or given: to discuss a certain subject, to commit to a certain responsibility, to use certain gender pronouns.
“Do you mind me asking..?”
“Are you well enough to..?”
“No pressure if you don’t want to join.”
Small conversational adjustments can avoid many moments of potential discomfort. Looking at daily interactions through the light of consent can translate into the high-stakes environment of sexual encounters. Being honest about what we want from each other and being sensitive to others’ needs is key. Learning to recognise our own reactions to non-consensual actions is a good place to start.
Only once I started to consider the meaning of active consent was I able to reflect on past experiences and realise where it was missing. It’s frustrating to rely on hindsight. It makes you feel like you were complicit in the intrusion of your own boundaries because you didn’t call it out at the time. But it’s worth it to know that you can hold people accountable if you need to and be aware in future. Not everyone will have the resources to report assault due to disability or circumstance. However, educated people are better equipped to stop rape from its root in a culture that is more likely to disbelieve a survivor than prosecute an assailant.
Often, sexual lives begin at university, soaked in alcohol and rash decisions. Teaching children how to respect each other is something that should be done from square one, but teaching adults how to respect each other as (a)sexual people is dismissed as unnecessary. In fact we are being taught by society and the media to disregard consent. We are expected to be okay with naked pictures of women being leaked online, with the phones of innocent people being tapped, and with daily headlines about sexual violence and abuse.
No space is really safe. No person of any gender is exempt from risk. It is reasonable to question if the scourge of violence on our campuses that leaves so many people mentally shattered will end. Even socially conscious pro-feminist and LGBTQ+ communities cannot ensure the safety of the spaces they claim to provide. If those who have talked the talk about equality in meetings and classes can so easily slip back out into the real world and inflict pain, what hope is there?
There is hope for the ones who will listen and realise the importance of defining consent for themselves. It is a nuanced concept which goes beyond “no means no”. It is about appreciating the reasons why maybe that no goes unheard, and realising that silence does not mean “yes”, and that dancing in a club does not mean “touch me”. And at the very least if we all sit through this kind of training, no one can ever claim to have misunderstood what constitutes rape.
Don’t be that guy. Swallow your pride and let’s educate ourselves.
*‘Learning Good Consent’ is a zine published in the US with personal and queer narratives and resources on this topic: http://www.phillyspissed.net/sites/default/files/learning%20good%20consent2.pdf