University is far too late to start teaching people about consent

Our sex education needs to be better from the start

Last week a women’s officer at York spoke to 5,000 freshers on the importance of consent and sex education. It was the university’s first foray into consent classes, but it was interrupted when around a quarter of the students attending walked out with some complaining the lecture was “patronising”.

Ben Froughi, a 23-year-old third year Accounting student at the university, was one of the people handing out flyers outside the class, urging people not to go. He explained: “If students really need lessons on how to say yes or no, they should not be at university.

“No student arrives at a university not knowing if forcing someone to have sex is acceptable or not.”

Despite the flaws in his protest and his obvious issues in understanding the importance of consent education Froughi has a point. Of course everyone should understand consent. Of course it should be a concern at every university to protect its students from rape and sexual assault. Of course dismissing the talks as “patronising” is the wrong way to prove you’re informed enough not to have to go. But aside from all that, the idea that understanding consent will be implanted and solidified in our empty young spongey minds only at university is wrong.

We need to teach people about healthy sexuality and a good attitude to consent at school, not when they’re grown adults in university.

In fact a report released last month found that sex education in the UK is failing us from primary school level up. Students felt uncomfortable with how their teachers spoke about sex, not in a healthy, consensual, sex positive way, but in a way which was negative and out of touch. Their teachers taught them about sex poorly because they were embarrassed and ill-equipped to speak about it, allowing boys in the class to act out and behave disruptively to mask their own anxieties, while the girls felt harassed and judged. Obviously, it’s a pattern that can continue to university.

Crucially, last month’s report also showed that students believed sex education was focused on too late in their school career – and that was between 12-18. The students taking consent classes this year are in some cases in their mid twenties.

Because our formal sex education is failing us, we’re forced as children and teenagers to look elsewhere to form ideas about what is right and wrong. And because we’re fucking it up in the classroom, it allows the same patterns and mistakes to be repeated at university – acting out, being disruptive, boycotting talks. With that level of disruption and confusion around an issue, it’s easy how to see how consent classes can become a circus, an arena to discuss ideological issues or argue about free speech and being talked down to instead of actually teaching anyone anything.

Obviously in an ideal world, what Ben Froughi is saying would be universally true – that because universities are ostensibly places for intelligent people, everyone there would be intelligent enough to know when no means no. But it only takes a look at the cases we’ve seen in the past couple of years to prove that the ideal theory isn’t the reality at our universities. It didn’t matter that Brock Turner had a place at Stanford, a prestigious university; he’s still a rapist.

Last year our poll found that 61 per cent of students felt like they didn’t need consent classes. But in a follow up consent survey 87 per cent of students reported being groped in nightclubs, 27 per cent said they’d been spiked, 15 per cent had been victims of rape and 36 per cent had been victims of assault.

Yes, the statistics are depressing, but they show that consent and sex education is still a problem at university. Despite how well informed we may be academically we still need to be educated and coached on when it’s OK to have sex with someone else. It’s obvious to say that that’s a problem, and yes, consent classes are a good step to tackling that. But the backlash from some students illustrates that university level consent teaching should be the last step in a lifetime of positive and clear sex education. In the long term we need to teach children why consent is important, so we have informed adults treating each other with respect, rather than angry ones walking out of classes where they feel patronised.