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Universities do have a sex assault problem – but consent classes won't fix it

Birmingham, UK - July 14, 2010: Graduate college students photographed from above wearing traditional mortar board hats and robes at their degree ceremony in Birmingham University 

A decade ago last month, I became a fresher for the first time, expecting, as I assume my fellow first-years did, to be met with all the requisite hallmarks of university life: lurid coloured booze at £1 a pop, mornings that stretched lazily into afternoons, mealtimes ditched for toast and takeaways. At 18, freedom is the name of the game for newly untethered teens.

That same freedom can be their undoing; a new report from Universities UK has found that two thirds of universities have now introduced consent courses for students – some of which were mandatory during freshers’ week. The classes seek to educate on matters of recognising sexual affirmation, and have in recent years become as de rigueur in those inaugural days as the halls social or the societies fair.

Last year, an acquaintance, aged 40, relayed her shock, on joining a London university, at being schooled on acceptable terminology (“cisgender” had not by then made it to her native South Africa) and the appearance of wardens in hi-viz jackets at union nights, apparently introduced for students’ sexual safety.

When does no mean yes? Never, by and large. But consent classes can achieve little, surely, because a 45-minute lecture cannot account for the ambiguity of what is unsaid, which is where blurred lines can be most pernicious.

Gauging a person’s sexual interest isn’t about presenting them with a tick-box questionnaire prior to ripping their clothes off but reading social cues, listening and, fundamentally, obeying the laws of human decency – all of which are learned from natural human interaction, and not behind desks.

Tackling sexual assault on campus is crucial: an “epidemic” of sexual violence has hit universities, with reports rising by 82 per cent in the past year.

The reality is, however, that by 18 it is too late. On top of that, classes that are optional classes, which is most of them, are highly unlikely to be attended by those who need them. Learning to behave yourself – in the presence of alcohol and women, or otherwise – begins in childhood and remains a work in progress from then on.

At their core, consent classes seek to paper over two concurrent social shifts: the pinballing male-female dynamic, significantly altered by women’s academic and workplace ascent, and the MeToo movement and the rise of “toxic masculinity” (adherence to gender norms that alienate both sexes).

Then there’s the fact that being 18 is simply a grey area in itself. This is no excuse for sexual impropriety. But insidious, inadvertent malice finds its roots far earlier than at a freshers’ foam party, and a lack of clarity between the sexes – especially if alcohol is involved – seems unlikely to be fixed with a workshop.

Much is made of “snowflake” younger generations – their safe spaces and trigger warnings and clapping being replaced by “jazz hands” in lectures so as not to induce anxiety; their reported disaffection for alcohol and sex.

Consent classes may be a byproduct of that, but in attempting to quell fears on the subject there is a risk of stoking them. They may even plant the notion that sex is likely to be problematic, thereby inducing an expectation that things will go wrong.

Hyper-awareness is probably better than none at all. But unless consent classes can find a way of navigating the grey areas, they may only be adding to them.