The recent #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns have sparked a worldwide conversation about consent and sexual harassment. Something that started in Hollywood has turned into a reckoning against sexual harassment and assault; and one that can be felt across half of the world. Those that were previously untouchable are now being held responsible for their actions, in a way that was never possible before. A change is coming; it’s not just on the Sunset Boulevard, and in the corridors of Westminster, but in all public institutions. Nine months ago, the University of Cambridge introduced an anonymous reporting system for students and staff to collect data on the nature of sexual misconduct at University. Since the scheme opened, there have been a staggering 173 reports of sexual misconduct. But what, if anything, is our own university doing? Could the University of Edinburgh’s Students’ Association be doing more?
The Student spoke to Esther Dominy, Edinburgh University Students’ Association Vice-President of Welfare about what the Students’ Association is doing regarding sexual misconduct and consent at University. “Last academic year, we launched the No One Asks For It campaign in collaboration with the University and Sports Union […]. As the campaign wraps up this year [we] are working on creating a new campaign to launch this September. In January, we held a consultation with Sexpression […] on what that campaign should look like and we are now developing proposals based on that for a campaign focusing on survivor support and educating students around consent.”
This year, the Students’ Association launched a campaign focusing on consent exclusively, working with the society Sexpression to create consent stalls at The Big Cheese, giving out condoms to students. Sexpression:UK is a student-led independent charity that runs informal and comprehensive sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools and Universities.
The Student spoke to Rohanie Campbell-Thakoordin, the Lesson Planner for Sexpression, regarding the Consent stall at the Big Cheese: “It requires at least six people to be free on a Saturday night, to come and do this. And if volunteers aren’t able to do this, then there’s no table. It feels a bit of a shame and a bit like Edinburgh University Students’ Association are missing a trick.
“If we’re not there to do it, then there won’t be one. I think [Edinburgh University Students’ Association] need to go further than a kind of highly publicised, hash-taggy kind of thing at the beginning of the semester […]. Posters get taken down, people forget. […] It needs to be a continued thing.”
Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge now run mandatory consent classes for their first-year students. In 2016, Cambridge Clare College students boycotted the workshops, calling them ‘patronising’; criticisms for consent classes are that they can be too ‘gendered’, with some saying that they demonise men. In response to these criticisms, Rohanie said: “[at Cambridge] there was this perspective of ‘well I don’t need to learn about consent because I’m not a rapist. […] I’m sure 99 per cent of people will probably say ‘I know what consent is, I don’t need to be taught about it’. […] You can see it as condescending, but it’s about talking about the basics. […] You can think you know the basics, but quite often, you don’t – because it still happens, and it’s still a problem in universities and in the wider world. I think you can be condescended for an hour if it means you’re going to understand the basics. I think having a gender-neutral approach to it, […] is obviously important, for cis-gendered men to not feel like they are being attacked, or like someone was making a sweeping statement. […] It’s hard because in UK law, it’s only classed as rape if it’s penal penetration. So, if you take a sexist, cis point of view […] penis = man, and therefore it’s a male-on-female [crime]. Women are disproportionately affected by sexual assault, but they aren’t exclusively affected by it.”
Does Edinburgh University Students’ Association run any consent workshops? In my interview with her, Esther said: “[Edinburgh University Students’ Association] does run workshops on bystander intervention, but we don’t have the resources to deliver them to all students. This is something we have been pushing the University to introduce, and they are now planning to provide in-person bystander training to 600 student leaders this September. Consent is something all students […] should be taught about and it is the duty of all universities to ensure their students are educated about consent. […] [Edinburgh University Students’ Association] has an anonymous reporting system for harassment, but this is not connected with the university. We have previously successfully lobbied the university to collect data on the numbers of reports they receive – these statistics make it clear that students are increasingly reporting sexual assault and harassment and that the university must respond effectively.”
“There is always more to do, and universities have a huge part to play in tackling sexual violence and harassment”, Esther said. “I have been lobbying for the introduction of a sexual violence and misconduct policy, a staff-student relationships policy, a new reporting form, specialist training for investigators and training on receiving disclosures for all staff.”
Consent is important: learning, and teaching others about it, is perhaps now more important than ever. Maybe consent classes for only bystanders are not enough. We need to talk about it, and to keep talking about it; as Esther said, proposals are being sent, and campaigns are being planned. But proposals need to be turned into policies, and campaigns need to be consistent. All that is left is for the university to make these plans, and these hopes, a reality.