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Should students have to pass a consent course?

Jim Dickinson reviews HEPI findings on student sex and relationships, and asks if we should compel students to learn about and pass a test on sexual consent.
This article is more than 2 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Back in 2015, just as then Business Secretary Sajid Javid was ordering a crackdown on violence against women on campus, Warwick student George Lawlor had something to say about one of the proposals being widely promoted by SU womens’ officers – consent training.

Brave culture warrier George, whose comments attracted national and international media interest at the time (and considerable support from the likes of Spiked!), argued that he didn’t have to be taught to not be a rapist:

That much comes naturally to me, as I am sure it does to the overwhelming majority of people you and I know. Brand me a bigot, a misogynist, a rape apologist, I don’t care. I stand by that.

He’d wanted, he said, to call the people leading the charge behind the classes admirable and heroic – but instead he thought they were they selfish, making themselves feel better by “indulging in the delusion” that all that’s needed to save the vulnerable from foul predators is to “point out the blindingly obvious.”

Smug, righteous and self-congratulatory

The striking thing about the Tab piece and the surrounding media circus (“Do you need lessons from feminazis on how not to rape? Call now…”) is that it could have just argued that the intervention was unnecessary, or ineffective, or even counterproductive. But the evaluation was overlaid with a kind of aggressive viciousness towards student campaigners at the time that had been around since the mid-nineties:

Self-appointed teachers of consent: get off your fucking high horse. I don’t need your help to understand basic human interaction. Secondly, go and do something. Real people need your help and they deserve better than you. Next time you consider inviting me or anyone else to another bullshit event like this, have a little respect for the intelligence and decency of your peers. You might find that’s a more effective solution than accusing them of being vile rapists-in-waiting who can only be taught otherwise by a smug, righteous, self-congratulatory intervention.

I was thinking about George and his cheerleaders when I looked at HEPI’s new policy note on sex and relationships among students – and its striking finding that 58 per cent of students agreed that all students should have to pass an assessment to show that they fully understand sexual consent before entering higher education.

It’s not clear whether that figure is higher than it would have been during the last blast of “lad culture” in the middle of the last decade, or whether the press just gave too much prominence to the nine per cent who strongly disagreed – but either way it reinvigorates a debate about how universities ought to approach the education and prevention work that OfS says should be surrounding its approach to harassment and sexual misconduct.

Full marks

There’s multiple ways to think about this kind of intervention into behaviour. One is to interrogate the differences between higher education framed as a place to learn about this sort of stuff, and a place where in order for higher learning to happen, participants need to have already learned about this stuff.

You can make a really good case for the latter, which emphasises that higher education is an adult learning environment and stresses that decent consent education at 18 really is too late to make a difference to most of the victims on Everyone’s Invited. You can make an equally good case that for whatever reason, the HEPI results find that a third of students disagree that the education they received at school provided them with “a comprehensive understanding of sexual consent” – and that that needs fixing.

More generally, the idea of university as a place where rape or sexual assault is framed as “making mistakes” certainly feels deeply dated and perpetrator centred – we’ve surely moved on from a “clip round the ear, boys will be boys” approach to sexual misconduct. But that points towards making PHSE a real entry criteria, so surely we should be doing it properly and making it a pass/fail at Level 3 rather than fiddling around editing online, backside-covering “harassment at work” web quizzes for a student audience and thinking that will make a real difference.

You could write pieces like “let’s put the campus sex panic to bed” and bemoan how suspicious the student body is of eachother insofar as a minority think they need consent training, but a majority believe it should be compulsory. Alternatively you could argue that in the absence of reliable national figures on prevalence, but in the face of the data we do have, students are right to be wary of others’ behaviour and to be demanding action to tackle it.

Frame game

Another way to evaluate is to apply Mary Douglas’s “cultural understandings” frames – where we might think about tackling sexual misconduct on campus via egalitarian approaches (education and awareness), individualistic approaches (via incentives and rewards) or authoritarian approaches (via rules, monitoring and punishment).

All three have problems. Education and awareness approaches are usually voluntary, and have tended to attract pitifully low numbers, and then from those more likely to be victims than perpetrators. There’s also the killer question of whether it’s the education that matters or the passing of the test that matters, or both – although it’s interesting that HEPI finds a slim overall majority of students that think relationships and sex education “should be made compulsory at my university during the welcome period.”

Individualistic approaches are easier if there are behavioural competence ideals floating around, but they’re harder to pull off when you have lads’ lads like George who presumably wouldn’t go near a “Good Lads” initiative if the sector tried. And I could write a whole separate piece on rules, monitoring and punishment in this space – suffice to say that there are real concerns about whether such approaches really win hearts and minds, and whether they make a difference as long as people think they’ll get away with behaviour that largely takes place in private between people that know each other.

If nothing else it’s interesting to me that consent training here is framed as a kind of authoritarian-egalitarian hybrid – it’s education, but you must do it and you have to pass. It’s not dissimilar in public policy terms to the compulsory speed awareness course when someone is caught by a speed camera – not a panacea but a surprisingly successful intervention since its introduction. (And for clarity I’m drawing the comparison on the basis of a compulsory-education hybrid, not because I think a “first offence” student who assaults another should just be sent on a course.)

Making space

There are lots of other frames we could use. We could ask whether universities are resourced for all of this, where education and testing would “fit” into an already packed timetable, or the way we frame bystander training on this sort of stuff (it’s always “boys looking out for girls” when it’s about sexual misconduct, but a “student Stasi spying on students” when it’s about racism).

And we could be radical – if we’re going to run a pre-entry test on consent (and ideally other conduct and harassment issues) and schools aren’t cutting the mustard, why aren’t we asking UCAS to take a lead rather than developing as many approaches as there are higher education providers over something that ought to be pretty universal?

What I do keep coming back to is the notion of readiness and safety. It matters less whether you think “students these days” are infantilised or more childish, or whether you think that for for all the “adult environment” claims of the past it was our willingness to brush off deeply harmful bad behaviour as “kids learning” that was part of the problem.

The issue for me is that beyond individual understandings of the legal meaning of rape, or videos on how micro-aggressions impact others, if it’s the case that universities are communities that have values and standards we need to spend some time on making sure that people that are new to that community (including staff) are properly inducted into it. That is about consent – but it’s also about race and racism, and wellbeing, and power, and how people in the community treat and relate to each other.

I don’t know whether this means that a compulsory course or a workshop or a theatre production from a local charity is right – and I don’t know whether it should be credit bearing or pass/fail – but I do know that all of this needs much more real time, resource and space than we currently give it “during” or “pre” freshers week. The prize if we create real capacity is that all students could end up both with an understanding of a set of important public policy dilemmas, and they’ll be safer on campus too.

2 responses to “Should students have to pass a consent course?

  1. Something I feel is often missing from this debate is how consent education isn’t just educating would-be perpetrators. It was at a consent workshop uni that I finally realised that all those times I was made to feel uncomfortable in the past weren’t my fault because I was drunk or naive. It teaches people to expect a reasonable level of respect for their boundaries and to feel comfortable enforcing them. It’s empowering.

  2. Courses will only reach those that attend willingly, those that are forced may engage but are likely to reject much of what is presented. Then there are the cultural and moreover the religious issues, who will be willing to be branded ‘ist for insisting ALL have to attend?

    And even though students may have attended, taken on board the courses output and behave appropriately with other students how does this protect them against non-student attacks? Intoxication by any means leaves people, especially inexperienced students, vulnerable. So unless the unpopular ‘take responsibility for yourself’ message is included we are deluding ourselves this will stop all sexual assault and rape issues for victims of any gender and may make stranger attacks more likely.

    Accepting adulthood and responsibility seems to be getting later and later as sexual maturation gets younger and younger, if they haven’t learn about such things as consent during PSHE in school prior to FE and HE then the problems much bigger than just Universities can deal with.

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