This passage was originally published on Panoptica on 1 October 2016. It was part of a larger article analysing the ‘walkout’ of sexual consent classes during York University’s freshers week. What follows below is my contribution to the article.
Like many young men, I would consider myself to be a Decent Guy. I think I have a respect for women (established by my strong mother). And yet, when I arrived at university as a fresher this time last year, I was glad to find sexual consent workshops organised as part of the week.
These workshops are for people of all genders who don’t fully understand the concept of consent. There’s an alarming misconception that rape is only a forced sexual act, not a sexual act without consent. And beyond that, they were for all the people who suffer from participating in a society that can stigmatise even the politest of declinations.
That word, stigmatisation, that arises so often sexual discourse, is the core of the matter: this isn’t about appeasing egos or validating people’s good natures. This is about socialisation, and combatting the very real tools of malicious acclimatisation which lead to the sexually abusive scenes about which we hear far, far too often. These sexual consent classes, coinciding with a university experience which often does, and indeed should, lead to breaking down boundaries and challenging preconceptions, contribute to the wider deconstruction of apparatus which work to harm people of both genders today.
When I participated in sex consent classes, I was struck by the range of scenarios – a man leering over a girl in club featured alongside a loving gay couple crossing a boundary that they shouldn’t have without first clearly discussing it. Consent, love and sex are, as we know, not black and white issues – they are complex, emotional notions, often unhealthily built up over the years through society and art to appear to be concrete and transformative. These questions are human and practical, and will always be a topic of discussion.
This discussion is one all too rarely had in schools and in society. However drenched with sex 21st century European culture is, we Britons are still remarkably prudish. The classic British stereotype still holds true. In schools and in life, we shy away from discussing the nitty gritty of sex. As the result, very often the closest thing to sexual education many young men (not exclusively men) receive is pornography.
Mainstream porn is full of downright unhealthy attitudes, from unrealistic standards for bodies and sex. Moreover, consent – which is active and always retractable – is replaced by an anticipatory inevitability. It’s about when, not if. As a result, it is the duty of teaching establishments like universities to counter this. They provide their charges with the academic and personal grounding needed to enter the world of work as respectful, conscientious human beings.
The responsibility doesn’t stop there: it’s the duty of all of us as intelligent, critical thinkers to always challenge the norms of the world around us. Facing up to uncomfortable truths is what we all must do on any topic to truly be the best we can be. Avoiding this confrontation stinks of a very male privilege in an unacceptable way.
This breaking down of social norms can only be a good thing. Many participants won’t need to hear the contents of these workshops. They won’t even need to participate if they do choose to attend. Some will benefit from them, though, for whatever reason. These workshops, where difficult concepts and scenarios can be broken down without shame or pressure, can have a powerful and very real impact.