By Kate Wyver
"Sexual consent row as feminists accuse Bristol University of downgrading workshop to online quiz"
"Feminist group furious over Bristol University's 'reckless' changes to sexual consent workshops"
These were just two of the headlines last week from newspapers reporting changes made by the University of Bristol to its face-to-face sexual consent classes. But there is more to the story than the headlines might suggest.
Optional consent lessons are still being offered, though they are now taught alongside other topics including drug and alcohol awareness, personal safety and community living. Meanwhile, a section on assault and consent has been added to the mandatory e-induction for all students moving into university accommodation. In previous years, attendance for the classes was low, but the new efforts have increased numbers.
Consent lessons are regularly accused of being patronising, demonising and simply unnecessary, but the ultimate value of a well led session – that it has the potential to prevent someone from committing rape – cannot be underestimated. They offer a platform for difficult questions to be asked, away from porn, Reddit or ill-informed, exaggerating friends. They teach that rape and sexual assault don't only occur in dark alleys, and that perpetrators are more often than not known to their victim. They teach about homosexual as well as heterosexual assault and about victim blaming, revenge porn and sexting. They teach about rights and responsibilities, and where to get help.
In its current form, sex education in Britain is something to be ashamed of, with the Local Government Association describing it as a "ticking sexual health time bomb" and students as young as 11 demanding better. At the same time, one-in-three female students in the UK reportedly experience sexual assault or unwanted advances on campus.
Every year as freshers' week rolls around there's a new article in a university newspaper from a young man denying the need for consent classes, but the hideous statistics speak for themselves and prove the need for these discussions. Any efforts to increase awareness around issues of consent should be welcomed.
Lumping consent into a talk with a number of other topics may suggest it's not deemed worthy of deeper discussion. However the university reports that attendance for the new classes has doubled. Last year the uptake for the consent lessons was 40% of the 6,000 freshers living in student accommodation. This year 80% attended. Surely it is better to engage disinterested students through the lure of the other topics, while making the most of the opportunity to present them with information about consent?
Online, the e-induction has the potential to engage better with nervous freshers. Around the world, online-only services such as the Nigerian information provider My Question and the Arabic educational service Karaz have proved popular among young people, providing a platform for them to ask questions they are otherwise too embarrassed to ask. It's not hard to believe that offering a more private space for students to learn about consent could be more effective than a Powerpoint presentation with a group discussion. At the very least, the obligatory course serves students the facts and would perhaps promote a discussion or two over the kitchen table.
Ultimately, it is the content of a consent lesson that makes the difference. As the optional classes have doubled in attendance and the online course is now mandatory at Bristol, these efforts to engage students through new formats should be celebrated. They are an attempt at positive change, not a reckless disregard for victims.
Kate Wyver writes about politics, culture and women's rights. You can follow her on Twitter here.
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