Just last week, the University of York welcomed the next generation of wide-eyed new students into the vodka-soaked embrace of freshers week. By all accounts they enacted the usual montage of wasted loans and chunder sessions; some passed their first evening singing extremely loudly outside my bedroom window. But this year, amidst the trays of jagerbombs and awkward drinking-game revelations, each trembling fresher had one extra date in their welcome pack. A class on the issue of sexual consent.
Consent classes have courted controversy from the start. On their announcement last year, male opponents lined up to denounce the classes as insulting and patronising, complaining of the role of the university women’s officers – themselves undergraduates – as self-appointed ‘educators’. Supporters have been equally pugnacious, decrying the attacks as ‘misogynistic’ and ‘reactionary’.
Nationally, the rhetoric has been even more heightened. Take the cautionary tale of George Lawlor – a student journalist at Warwick whose online article ‘why I don’t need consent classes’ went down almost as badly as the closure of Willow. The accompanying picture – of an unfortunately smug-looking Lawlor holding up a sign entitled ‘this is not what a rapist looks like’ – was gleefully demolished by the Twitterati. He endured an online barrage of abuse – ironically including rape threats – and has since been hounded from lectures and student bars.
As Lawlor discovered to his cost, the case in favour of consent classes rests on one highly compelling principle: if even a single potential victim can be saved, then it’s tough to argue that your sensibilities should trump sitting through one short briefing.
But is lecturing people who are already adults, mostly hungover, and in the middle of one of the most tumultuous weeks of their lives so far, really the best way to address the crucial issue of consent? Might school, for example, not be a more effective and less controversial arena for educating young people?
Currently school sex education is at best a mixed bag. I recall that my school sex ed classes were taken by the headmaster: a verbose and austere elder gentleman, the very thought of whom doing the deed was a greater deterrent for teenage pregnancy than an entire warehouse of prophylactics. Far from his natural home of 2nd century Roman history, he decided to broach the subject through a group viewing of teen-drama Skins. ‘So you see boys’ he concluded, with steepled hands and his trademark soporific delivery, ‘Sid really shouldn’t have become entangled with this Mad Twatter fellow, and losing one’s virginity can be a decidedly funny business’. All I learnt about consent, is that I would very much have liked to withdraw it.
Given that the age of consent is 16, improving this sorry state of affairs seems the obvious way forward. By putting consent onto the school agenda you sidestep accusations of patronising adults, you reach everyone rather than just those who go to university, and, perhaps most importantly, you teach children at a formative age when they’re still developing their ideas.
University is simply too late: you can’t close the stable door when the horse is already out there in the club, three vodka triples down and inappropriately manhandling his peers. Furthermore, even the classes’ most ardent supporters accept that they’re wielding a blunted instrument. If Johnny Rapist has reached adulthood secure in his conviction that every arse in the club is rightfully his to pinch, then two women lecturing him for 15 minutes the morning after Hawaiian night is unlikely to change his mind.
And while campus consent continues to gobble up the column inches, school sex ed stagnates. Outgoing Education Secretary Nicky Morgan recently vetoed MP proposals to make sex-and-relationship education a compulsory part of the curriculum. Though schools are increasingly adept at the ‘sex’ part – cue apprehensive biology teachers distributing cucumbers and condoms – ‘relationship issues’ like consent and domestic abuse are largely neglected.
And so consent classes can go one of two ways. They can remain a potential distraction; an excuse for gender political point scoring and a way for campaigners and institutions to pat themselves on the back and claim that they’ve done their job. Or they can provide a platform for further, more constructive action on this important issue at a younger, more appropriate age.