Critics of consent workshops are idiots

Opposition to the consent workshops is absurd and shows just how much we really need them

Cambridge consent Feminism Freshers james riseley Sex women workshops

1 in 13 female Cambridge students recently reported that they had been sexually assaulted during their time at uni.

85,000 women are raped a year and over 400,000 are sexually assaulted. Sexual consent workshops are a response to these shocking rates of sexual violence. Basically, they’re an excellent idea.

The classes tell freshers what consent is (“active and willing participation in sexual activity”) and why it matters (the person you want to have sex with is a human being, and forcing them to do things they don’t want to can cause irreversible damage).

But there hasn’t been universal support for them, so let’s look at some of the objections people have made and how stupid they are.

The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill thinks the classes kill romance by teaching freshers they need to say things like ‘Yes, you may now engage in coitus with me’.

People obviously don’t need to give consent that way. “Yes, I’m happy to do this” is more than enough, provided the person isn’t too drunk to give consent. But workshops do tell people that they need to ask basic questions like “are you ok with this?” and “do you want us to go slower?”

Those questions use everyday language (not words like ‘coitus’) to make sure both people want what is happening. Teaching people to communicate like this gives us the vocabulary to help prevent unwanted situations. O’Neill’s objection is (a) misrepresentative, (b) offensive, and (c) stupid.

People at Cambridge have criticized the classes too. A writer at Varsity thinks that the workshops are dangerous because they are too authoritative: “if our choices are rule-governed procedures, or an enactment of someone else’s idea of what is abusive, degrading or hurtful, they become acts of conformism rather than exertions of individual autonomy”.

This argument is worse than incoherent. “This is what sexual assault is and don’t do it” is a command, just like “don’t murder a bunch of people”. Having people conform to those rules is good, and no-one really cares about your autonomy to depart from them.

Another Varsity writer (in a piece defending the workshops, but which just makes them seem less useful than they actually are) makes a similar statement. He says that “the sessions will hopefully help you to come up with your own model of consent”.

People don’t need different models of consent. They need to be taught that there is a single model of consent – consent that is unambiguous and active. Sexual advances towards someone not consenting according to that model are abhorrent. Sexual violence is rife in part because people don’t see that there is one model for consent and they don’t know why it matters.

Freshers are opposed to the initiative as well. One thinks they are “very patronizing and unnecessary” and another thinks that “workshops like this are just an excuse to further emasculate male students”.

There’s a common basis to most of these objections. They ignore the problem (disgraceful rates of sexual violence against women) and/or don’t think that we can fix it with education. Using the first just shows that you are ignorant, but using the second is more understandable. Even a professor of classics at Cambridge, Mary Beard, is unsure whether the classes will achieve their intended outcome.

This concern is important and worth addressing, but education ultimately works. It helps get rid of ambiguity around situations that shouldn’t be ambiguous, but which apparently are to lots of people. It helps create a culture which shames lads who prey on drunk women. And it makes people know why consent matters, what it looks like and why sexual activity without it is totally shameful.

Those 30-minute workshops will force people to engage with the facts and it will clarify things from the get-go. They are valuable not just for the content they provide but also for the environment they create – one that recognizes we have a problem and which is actively trying to fix it.

Whether they are successful or not, you can’t deny that they’re a massive step in the right direction.