Why Is The Issue Of Consent At University So Difficult To Grasp?
The Debrief: How and when did sexual assault become so prevalent on our university campuses, What exactly is ‘lad culture’? And why, in 2015, do we need to teach young adults about consent?
For me, university was like the time a boy in the year above me at school called me ‘tits’ every time he saw me in public for about a week after bumping into me in the gym. Except it was on a loop, for three, long, years.
I started university at Oxford in 2006. Before that point I’d never experienced the sort of sexism that leaves you with a lump in your throat, unable to think of a comeback beyond ‘err… err’ when you’re normally pretty quick off the mark.
I remember lads in drinking societies running around, guffawing, ‘It’s not rape if you shout banter.’ I remember kicking a guy out my student house because he was referring to the women in terms of a ‘points system’. ‘How many points did you get last night mate?’ was regularly overheard. For those of you not familiar with the scale, one = kissing, two = boobs, three = handjob, four = oral sex and five = penetrative sex.
I’m not alone here – Britain’s universities are facing big problems tackling racism, homophobia and sexism. There is much talk about creating safe spaces for minority groups on campus and sexual harassment in our universities has received particular attention lately, with many citing ‘lad culture’ as the cause.
One in seven women responding to the National Union of Students’ (NUS) Hidden Marks survey in 2010 reported experiencing a serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student. Over two thirds had experienced verbal or non-verbal harassment, including groping, flashing and unwanted sexual comments, and 12% had been subjected to stalking.
Action is being taken. Oxford and Cambridge were the first universities to start running compulsory consent classes for undergraduates in 2014. This year new students at the University of Bristol were given a consent quiz when they arrived.
Why are consent workshops important?
So what’s going on? Why has the government had to step in? What exactly is ‘lad culture’? And why, in 2015, are we teaching young adults about consent?!?
It seems that people are finding it difficult to draw the lines of what is and isn’t acceptable. Charlotte Chorley, Cambridge Student Union Women’s Officer, tells me that ‘consent workshops’ are important because ‘sex education at school tends to be minimal (when it even happens)’. The key objectives of workshops are to ‘stress the importance of respecting everyone’s bodily autonomy and sexual preferences, against generally held beliefs that some forms of sexuality, sexual expression or sexual practice are more valid than others’.
In September this year Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Business, wrote to universities across the country asking them to set up a task force to investigate the ‘sexual and verbal assault’ against women on campus. He said he wanted to end ‘lad culture’ on campuses.
The fact that both universities and government are taking such direct action is an acknowledgement of a systemic problem in this country.
However, it’s not all plain sailing. Earlier this month, a student at Warwick recently sparked controversy. Writing in The Tab, George Lawlor, a politics and sociology student, said, ‘I love consent,’ but described being invited to workshops on the subject as ‘a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face’.
He finished by saying, ‘Self-appointed teachers of consent: get off your fucking high horse. I don’t need your help to understand basic human interaction...’ He was then photographed holding up a sign saying, ‘THIS IS NOT WHAT A RAPIST LOOKS LIKE.’
Now, George, here’s the thing… you might understand what consent is. You might be a vocal advocate of it. But you’re missing the point. Nobody ‘looks like a rapist’. Rapists are not a type. They’re not like Seapunks, City Boys or Health Goths. They’re not a group of easily identifiable people who dress the same and go to the same places.
Clearly these conversations about consent are necessary, not optional – the stats speak for themselves. In the UK over 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 are sexually assaulted every year. Four out of five rapes are committed by somebody the victim already knows.
But how much is ‘lad culture’ actually to blame?
This year the NUS called for a summit on ‘lad culture’ off the back of new research which reveals that 50% of people asked identified ‘prevailing sexism, laddism and a culture of harassment’ at their university. Participants in the report defined ‘lad culture’ as ‘a group or pack mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption, and ‘banter’ that was often sexist, misogynist and homophobic’.
You don’t have to look far to find examples of this. In 2013 the Rugby Football Club at Pembroke College in Oxford was made to apologise for an email sent out to members with the subject line, ‘FREE PUSSY’. In the email, the club’s Social Secretary provided details of plans for an event where each male guest should ‘pick’ a female fresher of their choice.
‘Please bring TWO bottles of wine – one for yourself and one for your guest,’ the email continued. ‘You must open the bottle in advance, and include a substance of your choice. It may be spirits or food or anything you like.’ Before adding, ‘Please be as clandestine as possible in your deed.’
‘Lad culture’ might not be the direct cause of all sexual assault or harassment on campus. Just as it’s unhelpful for George Lawlor to say, ‘This is not what a rapist looks like,’ it’s equally unhelpful to explicitly link lad culture and rape culture as two sides of the same coin and say, categorically, ‘This is what a rapist looks like.’
However, when you unpick the term, used by both the NUS and Sajid Javid, what’s being referred to, really, is a culture in which the dominant and accepted social norms of a privileged majority belittle and dismiss others, making homophobic jokes (‘that’s so gay’), racism and sexism.
Sean, who identifies as gender queer and sometimes presents as a woman, tells me that when he was a student he was a house party when the barman from his university bar shouted ‘suck my dick’ at him publicly. He reported this to the welfare officer, the perpetrator was asked to apologise, but never did. Sean says, ‘For me the bar became a very unsafe space – I felt very awkward – it just made me not want to go in there.’
It was ‘trans misogyny’, Sean says. ‘He was sexually harassing me to make fun of me.’ This is ‘the trouble with lad culture, as I would imagine it’ he adds. ‘The whole essence of banter is that that they’re using the power they have to make things ridiculous… but they don’t understand, because it doesn’t affect them.’
This month, a transgender awareness poster from Bristol University’s LGBT society, which read, ‘If you’re in a public bathroom and you think a stranger’s gender doesn’t match the sign on the door, follow these steps. 1: Don’t worry about it, they know better than you,’ came under fire, because some people were concerned it would encourage men to see this as a challenge to enter female bathrooms (a safe space) as a prank.
Jae, a 20 year-old student and trans woman, tells me that ‘lad culture’ gets in the way of good stuff. ‘The worry of what lads are going to do on campus can adversely affect campaigns going on which should be doing good things,’ she says. ‘It’s tied to this notion of banter – from the male perspective, the whole thing is just going to be seen as some kind of massive joke.’
Policy alone won’t dismantle ‘lad culture’. Indeed, in the last few years alone websites such as uniLAD and The Lad Bible have sprung up in our newsfeeds, encouraging their male users to rate women and make lolz misogynistic comments.
The figures speak for themselves: we’ve got a long way to go. But, unlike when I started university, nearly a decade ago, there is a very necessary, national conversation taking place now. Dismissing that as a ‘patronising waste of time’, a la Lawlor is short sighted.
Where does sex education at schools come into it?
Arguably running consent classes at university is too late. In 2013 Ofsted reported that both personal, social and health education and sex and relationships education are inadequate in 40% of English schools. And, certainly, rape occurs off campus, too. If you don’t start conversations early on then you end up with young men, like Lawlor, who believe themselves to be above the conversation, while others don’t feel they are invited to the table to have it at all.
In a recent Guardian video about sexism, lad culture and rape culture a young male student is asked whether he feels like he can talk about ‘this stuff’ with his mates. He says no, ‘We just insult each other.’ The presenter asks whether he would like to be able to talk to his mates and he says ‘Yeah, I’d like to be able to talk to people about it... but… I just know they won’t take me seriously.’
Nobody should be shut out of the conversation. Not even the ‘lads’.
Rape is an acceptable joke, and the language of rape has become an acceptable part of everyday discourse. It’s the guy saying, ‘It’s not rape if you shout banter.’ It’s the girl in your seminar saying, ‘We’re being absolutely raped with work this week.’ This sort of language is legitimised under the auspices of ‘banter’. But far from being funny, it endangers those on the receiving end – eroding the concept of consent and endording victim blaming: ‘They shouldn’t have drunk this/worn that/gone there.’ The problem then becomes that victims of rape, sexual assault or verbal harassment don’t feel they can speak out, for fear of not being believed or, worse, blamed. As the NUS report points out, many respondents felt university education was ‘gendered’ and noted ‘negative attitudes towards feminism and gender-related topics.’
Looking back, I realise now how frustrated I felt at university; unable to go out without getting groped, receiving a comment about my body and an aggressive response when I retaliated. I felt voiceless and pushed out of situations that were meant for me. At the time, I suppose, I even half-believed the narrative that I was just a humourless killjoy who wasn’t in on the joke.
Confusion around consent is just one symptom of entrenched attitudes. Beyond this in our culture, broadly, the media objectifies women making it easy and even acceptable to see them as dehumanised objects: body parts, for sexual desire only. It’s a vicious cycle. But having a conversation is one way of breaking it, a starting point.
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