An Open Letter to George Lawlor: Why We Need Consent Classes

I started reading ‘Why I don’t need consent lessons’, published this week by the Warwick Tab, in the hope that it was sarcastically titled clickbait. Disappointingly, it was just as the title suggested, the most disgusting, moronic and self-absorbed viewpoint that I have read in a long time.

Clearly the anger that I felt was a similar feeling to that experienced by George Lawlor the writer when he was invited to this year’s “I Heart Consent Training Sessions”. But how such an invitation can trigger ‘crushing disappointment’ I’m not quite sure, especially at a time when, according to a 2014 NUS survey, one in four students experience being groped or harassed whilst at university. It’s not a pleasant statistic to have to think about, but that makes it all the more important to discuss. Such condemnation of an open discussion about consent, sex, and the grey area that surrounds it, in the safe environment of a consent class I find incredibly close minded to say the least. However, the frustration that I felt was well and truly topped when another Warwick Student, fresher Jack Hadfield, publicly refused to go to consent lessons. Maybe I would have been able to take some of his points more seriously if I could see past the downright offensive way in which he talks about feminism and women. He should be wholly ashamed of voicing his concern that ‘some batty, vindictive, or remorseful portion decides the next day that maybe she wasn’t really into it after all’. Neither of these men seem to consider that they might have wildly misinterpreted the situation, funny that. This is not an issue of rape and consent to them, but rather a fear of feminism actually pushing for equality, giving victims a rightful voice, and leaving them feeling emasculated. My point is proved by a comment on the article which claims ‘third wave feminism is a cancer to society’. I find it disgusting that Hadfield in particular manages to take such a controversial issue and make himself the victim, claiming to have never been that comfortable around girls, and that the ‘obsession’ with consent is ‘scaring a whole generation of young men’. How terribly awful that you might have to think twice before acting on a desire for someone, and actually question the implications of having sex with a person.

Lawlor acknowledges that ‘there have been tragic cases of rape and abuse on campuses in the past’ yet completely contradicts himself in saying that ‘Russell Group students’ understand the nuances of consent. Clearly not, given that one in seven female students will admit to being raped or sexually assaulted during their time at university, and that doesn’t include the ones who don’t want to come forward. Lawlor also fails to grasp that consent sessions are not just aimed at ‘rapists’ but also at deeply ingrained attitudes of entitlement and misogyny. Rape and sexual harassment is not a problem that is going to change overnight, and no one is suggesting that one consent session is going to drastically change the viewpoint of every person who attends, frustrating as that is. This is one step in a process of what can be done to change the way we view rape, sexual violence, and victims of it. Sexual consent classes are not just about combatting rape itself, but also about tackling endemic rape culture in our society and helping to reduce victim blaming attitudes. Hadfield can convince himself that this rape culture ‘doesn’t exist’ if that’s what puts him at ease but given that according to Amnesty ‘a third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped’, I’d say that he’s missed the point. With this figure in mind, when Lawlor reduces sex to being ‘simple’ in that ‘yes means yes. No means no’, are we counting flirting as consenting? Whilst many are able to define what they think ‘rape’ or harassment is, as a society we’re still all too ready to blame victims when presented with real life situations.

I take particular issue with the inclusion of photos in both articles, especially Lawlor’s use of the caption ‘Do I really look like a rapist?’ This part of the article does nothing but fuel the stereotype that rape is committed exclusively by old, pervy men in dark alleys and that those who appear to be ‘decent, empathetic human beings’ would not dare to commit such a crime. Every woman I know has a story of sexual harassment or assault that makes me feel sick, and more often that not these aren’t random creeps on the street but men in our social circles. It’s an unsettling and chilling fact, but 80% of victims actually know the perpetrator prior to the event. Even more worrying, for 47% of victims it is committed by a friend or acquaintance. There is in fact no way of telling who is capable of committing a violent sexual offence.

It’s interesting that Hadfield is quick to judge that consent classes ‘are useless and may even be damaging’ when you surely would have to attend one to know. I spoke to Julia Paolitto, Media Relations Manager at the University of Oxford, who confirmed that consent classes ‘were held at all undergraduate and several post-grad only colleges’. Last year these classes, run by students for students, were made mandatory as part of official freshers’ week programmes. She added ‘the response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive, and the University is working on a range of other activities with the student union to help promote a safe and collegial environment’. Whilst there aren’t consent classes as such in Leeds, positive progress has been made in recent years to raise the ‘zero tolerance’ profile. Last year, the ‘We’ve Got Your Back’ policy, funded by The Police Crime Commissioner and The Footsteps Fund, allowed training to be provided for over 30 bars and venues in Leeds City Centre, ensuring that staff are not only aware of the different kinds of sexual harassment, but are equipped to deal with it.

There is, of course, the argument that by the time we reach university age, educating fully on this matter has been left too late. But if a consent class allows one person to open up, or for one person to have their attitudes altered slightly, if one person will then not go out and commit an act of sexual violence, and one more person will not be a victim then surely it can only be a good thing.

Helen Brealey

Image source: The Independent

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