Content Warnings: discussion of sexual assault, rape and specific sexual assault case
Preparing for your first year of university leaves you with a lot to remember. There’s often an unfamiliar city to navigate, boxes and bags to squeeze into the car and the terrifying but exciting prospect of independence just around the corner. Sexual consent isn’t likely to be at the forefront of your mind as you enter the intense world of university. Education on consent is lacking across the board, whilst reports of sexual assaults on campus rise. University is the time for new experiences, which may involve sex with different people. With lots of university culture being focused around drinking and going out to new places, understanding consent and keeping all your experiences consensual is vital.
We need to educate ourselves to be aware of what sexual consent means and what happens when consent is not given. We need to be aware of what is being done to support survivors and prevent more incidents of sexual violence at university, and what part we all play in consensual sexual encounters.
What is consent?
Simply put, sexual consent is where a person has the ability and freedom to agree to sexual activity (Consentiseverything.com). If a person is coerced or manipulated into agreeing to sexual activity, this is not consent. If a person lacks the judgemental abilities to agree to sexual activity, this is not consent. Drunk, drugged or unconscious people cannot consent. This is true even if the other person involved is also drunk or under the influence of drugs; in that case, neither party has the mental capacity to freely consent to sexual activity. There are other reasons someone may or may not lack the capacity to consent and understand what they’re consenting to and any potential consequences. Serious learning disabilities or mental health conditions may alter people’s ability to consent, or even short-term factors like a head injury can affect consent too.
Understandings of consent can become confusing when you consider more circumstances. Any person of any gender or sexuality has the ability to commit sexual assault or to be assaulted; many men and LGBTQ+ people feel that their experiences of sexual violence are not valid, but sexual violence can affect anyone. Despite common media stories, sexual assault is not always perpetrated by a stranger. Rape Crisis says that around 90% of people who are raped know the perpetrator before the offence. Therefore, it is also important to understand that you are not entitled to sexual consent from a partner, regardless of how committed the relationship or how long you’ve been together. Likewise, people have the right to revoke consent at any time during sexual activity; someone may consent to one act but then wish to stop. If someone is kissing or engaging in some sexual activities, this does not necessarily mean they are giving consent for sex. If someone continues with sexual activity after the other party has not given or revoked consent – or is unable to due to reduced capacity – that is sexual assault or rape, depending on what happens. Simply put, sex without consent is rape.
The reality of sexual assault on campus
Most of the factors here should already make sense to you – of course if somebody is unconscious, they can’t give consent. Unfortunately, these situations do occur and there are prominent cases where an unconscious person has been assaulted. In March 2016, American student Brock Turner was charged with the sexual assault of an unconscious, intoxicated woman on Stanford University campus. Court proceedings discussed the inability of the woman to give consent, due to her high blood alcohol levels and her unconscious state when she was found. This high-profile case started many conversations surrounding sexual assault on campus, rape culture and the privileges given to Turner as a wealthy white male and respected athlete at Stanford. Turner served just three months of a six-month county jail term; already reduced from the recommended minimum of two years. Turner’s case particularly highlights how privilege and entitlement can become embroiled in sexual consent and ultimately assault (which is a whole other conversation to be had). Sexual assault on campus does not just mean cases that occur literally on university campus ground, like this case, but also encompasses any situations involving people from university – staff or student.
The question of consent
Consent should never be assumed, it should always be clearly given. Everybody, regardless of gender or sexuality, should always check for consent before engaging in sexual activity. You should always feel comfortable asking for it and deciding whether you consent or not, whoever you’re with. Being anxious about saying no to somebody so saying yes anyway is not freely given, enthusiastic consent. If you’re not comfortable expressing how you feel about continuing with sexual activity, you should stop and consider why you’re feeling that way.
Asking for consent is easy. You can simply ask “Do you want to have sex?” or “Are you okay with this?”. With some partners you may find reading their body language and then confirming verbally works too. You should always receive a clear yes – a non-answer, unclear consent or a firm no means there is no consent given, and you should stop. Continuing without consent leads to situations of sexual assault and rape. Practicing clear consent, and respecting others decisions is necessary for all sexual encounters.
Fighting sexual violence starts here
Sexual violence on campus is being discussed throughout the UK right now. A report from Revolt Sexual Assault, a campaign focused on giving voices to survivors of sexual assault, found that 62% of students and graduates have experienced sexual violence (out of 4,500 respondents). 8% of female respondents reported that they had been raped at university. These figures are alarming: how is it the experience of so many students to be assaulted at university? 360 female students out of 4,500 respondents have been raped. This should be 0. The consequences of sexual violence can be devastating. Many survivors are assaulted by coursemates who they then have to see in lectures and seminars every day. Some feel unable to report it, so suffer in silence in a system where support can be hard to find without involving officials. Students are dropping out to avoid perpetrators and to heal at home with a family support system that is often lacking if your university is far away. With more harrowing stories of sexual violence on campus appearing every week it appears there is an epidemic throughout UK universities. So what can be done?
In October 2016, Universities UK released ‘Changing The Culture’, a report encompassing various universities to examine violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students. The taskforce considered the evidence and created guidelines to tackle these problems, particularly that of sexual violence. These include initiatives to provide bystander training, ensure staff are trained to deal with disclosures of assault or rape, improve reporting procedures and create signposting systems to support for students. Many universities are actively focusing on providing these initiatives, including Newcastle, Oxford and Keele. At Newcastle, their Changing The Culture workgroups have already facilitated improvements to first-year consent workshops and a streamlined reporting procedure. These changes are vital to improving understanding of consent and providing support for survivors who wish to report their assault. Preventive and supportive actions are both vital to tackle the problem of sexual assault on campus.
Student-led activism against sexual violence on campus is also growing, alongside the institution-led changes enforced by the Changing the Culture project. ‘It Happens Here’ is a movement spearheaded by Oxford students, focusing on spreading the anti-sexual violence on campus message and providing a support network for survivors of all sexual violence. There are now It Happens Here student societies at other universities, including Durham and Newcastle. Newcastle’s society works closely with the student’s union and Changing the Culture to provide the student survivor’s voice to campaigns and developments, whilst also running their own peer support groups for survivors. The work of societies like this is crucial in showing survivors that there is a community for them to work through their experiences and to campaign for consent to be compulsory and clear.
Consent is compulsory – always
At university everybody deserves the same opportunities to learn, grow and enjoy themselves. This extends to sexual experiences, and these opportunities should never be taken away by people who do not understand or respect consent. Be active in asking for and giving or refusing consent in all circumstances and educate people if they don’t understand why it is so important. The more everybody treats consent as a norm, not a novelty, the more we all become aware of what constitutes a consensual experience. Even amongst the craziness of newfound independence and the excitement of starting university, there is no excuse not to care about consent.
If you’d like to learn more from any of the services/groups mentioned above, or access support for any experiences of sexual assault both on campus and off, please make use of any of the resources listed here.
SurvivorsUK (for males only)