Sexual consent classes: Neo-puritan preaching won’t stop rape

Lessons on correct way to have sex is a gross overstepping of individual boundaries

Mandatory sexual consent classes will now be part of the orientation programme for first-year Trinity College students living in halls. Photograph: Alan Betson

Mandatory sexual consent classes will now be part of the orientation programme for first-year Trinity College students living in halls. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Should young men have compulsory lessons on how not to be a rapist? It seems that Trinity College Dublin has decided that they must. Mandatory sexual consent classes, the first to be delivered in an Irish university, will now be part of the orientation programme for first-year students living in halls.

The classes will be modelled on similar courses already in place in British universities. They are intended to curb the number of sexual assaults on campus.

A 2014 student survey at Trinity College found that one in four female respondents, and 5 per cent of men, had a non-consensual sexual experience during their time at university. And the issue goes well beyond Trinity College: in 2013, a nationwide study by the Union of Students in Ireland indicated that 16 per cent of respondents experienced some kind of unwanted sexual experience while in third-level education.

Undoubtedly there is a problem. But implicitly diminishing and patronising men, treating them all as potential sex offenders who need to be forcibly educated by their elders and betters, is not the way to solve it.

Not surprisingly, some young men at British universities have voiced their feelings of resentment and frustration. Jack Hadfield, a student at Warwick University, asked: “Why would any normal, right-thinking man attend a class that demonises them and normal, healthy male sexuality by pretending that all men are latent rapists who would take advantage of women if they thought they could get away with it?”

Another Warwick student, 19-year-old George Lawlor, wrote: “I don’t have to be taught not to 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 . . . I already know what is and what isn’t consent. I also know about those more nuanced situations where consent isn’t immediately obvious as any decent, empathetic human being does . . . Yes means yes, no means no. It’s really that simple.”

Dissent

This is not just about the iniquity of styling all men as potential perpetrators and all women as potential victims. Introducing mandatory lessons on the correct way for students to have sex, whatever their gender, is also a gross overstepping of individual boundaries on the part of the university authorities. The people arriving in halls may be young, many of them fresh out of school, but they are nonetheless autonomous adults, responsible for their own choices in life and answerable for the consequences of their actions.

Requiring them to turn up and be lectured about their private sexual conduct, as an essential condition of their offer of accommodation – even if students have the option of leaving the talk whenever they choose – is both demeaning and infantilising. It implies that these adults are incapable of handling their personal interactions without being told exactly what to do and what not to do, just like children. It turns intimacy into a scripted, officially sanctioned interaction with all the joylessness of a brisk business handshake.

Besides, where is the evidence that it makes any difference?

Compulsory

It is naive in the extreme to imagine that spelling out the meaning of consent is going to lead to some kind of eureka moment among would-be sex offenders where they see the light and resolve to be exquisitely respectful to women from now on.

The prevalence of sexual assaults on campus – and elsewhere – will not be remedied by this neo-puritan preaching to students. As well as being inappropriate, it is simply too late by then. The time for teaching and exploring the nature of consent is when people really are children. The absence of thorough, open and honest sex education in schools may be one of the real reasons that Irish universities are struggling to deal with an excess of lairy behaviour now.

Feminist

Rather than being coerced into an ABC introduction to approved sexual etiquette, these are boundaries that students must negotiate and define for themselves, hopefully experiencing pleasure in the process. It’s called being an adult.

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