This University Has Mandatory Consent Classes

by Emma Cueto

Sexual assault is a major problem for universities. Different schools have taken different approaches to try to curb this problem — and at the University of Oxford, instituting mandatory consent workshops organized by the Oxford University Student Union is one strategy that might just have it right. The decision has received a surprising amount of criticism, but it actually seems like an awesome idea for a wide variety of reasons. (Bustle has reached out to the Oxford University Student Union for comment.)

The Oxford consent classes are not a full-blown college course, but rather workshops. The program has been around for at least five years, but as of this year, it will now be mandatory for all freshmen. And Oxford is far from the only UK university to institute mandatory consent education; many universities have started similar policies.

The trend hasn't been without its criticisms; for example, last year, Warwick student George Lawlor wrote in an essay, "I don’t have to be taught to not be a rapist." He argued that being expected to take a class attempting to educate students about consent "implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent and that’s incredibly hurtful. I can’t stress that enough."

But despite the assumption that students don't need these sorts of classes, the truth is that many students do not know what consent is. And despite the assumption that the classes are condescending or patronizing, in truth, the purpose is not to lecture students, but to engage them in a dialogue. "We want to start a conversation about how our lives and relationships can be improved by communicating and respecting each other's boundaries," the OUSU explains in a video that outlines the goals of the consent workshops.

Orla White, the 21-year-old Student Union VP for women, told the Sun in an email, “The classes are really important to initiate conversations around consent. They break taboos and encourage discussions which didn’t happen in sex education at school." She continued, "The feedback we get is extremely positive because students can discuss the issues in a safe environment with people their own age.”

In other words, far from being a way of shaming students, the workshops are meant to make students more comfortable and to answer their questions and concerns.

And it seems to be well-received, at least if a Guardian essay from 2014 by Siobhan Fenton entitled "What I Learned In A Sexual Consent Class At Oxford." Fenton writes, "[We] left more aware of the complexity of consent and how it depends on a nuanced understanding of context rather than a mere box-ticking exercise."

And, perhaps somewhat sadly, consent education probably is necessary at most schools. Studies have shown that not only are an appalling number of women and girls the victims of sexual violence in our society, but also that many men who rape women don't even seem to realize what they are doing is rape. For instance, a survey done of college students here in the United States just last year found that not only did 13 percent of male college students said they would rape a woman if they knew they could get away with it (already a disturbingly high number), but also that 32 percent were willing to say they would force a woman to have sex — just so long as you don't describe it as rape.

Overall, numerous studies conclude that more men "will admit to sexually coercive behaviors... when behavioral descriptions are used instead of labels." This implies that men know they shouldn't rape, but also that at least one in five men don't know what rape is.

This isn't the only statistic that shows we need more education around consent for young people, which isn't surprising, given the high rate of sexual violence among college students. In light of all this, making consent education mandatory seems like a responsible step to take.

And it's pretty cool that Oxford is making that change. Hopefully this trend will soon become the norm for universities in the UK and elsewhere.

Image: Giphy