A Warwick Uni student has divided opinion by standing up against sexual consent workshops in universities, describing his invitation to attend the NUS-led classes as “a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face.” He posted a picture of himself in his article in The Tab holding a sign which read “This Is Not What A Rapist Looks Like”. The consent class organiser then posted a response, also in The Tab, saying that she’s not sorry her workshop made this writer feel uncomfortable because in truth, that is what a rapist looks like.
Some reckon this guy is awesome for standing up and saying what a lot of people were thinking. Others are properly pissed off, saying that he clearly does not get how rape culture and consent actually work.
Sure, a lot of people think they know how rape culture and consent work – but researching for this story we found it’s a crazy twisty debate. This student-tabloid-faintly-written-signs-frenzy has shown how worried and confused we are about these issues. We knew people were worried about “rape culture”, but now it’s emerging that some people are worried about “consent culture” too.
Scenes of Reason like things simple. So that’s what we did.
Nothing explains consent better than this video about tea. The making them drink tea bit is the rape bit. Rape is sex without consent.
The idea of rape culture is simple. This Buzzfeed article does a great job. This video gives it to you straight.
In a nutshell, rape culture is everything from the images we see and the songs we hear to the media portrayal of rape which all combine to make us think that rape is only something that happens at knife point in a dark alley, and that all other forms of unwanted sex are the fault of the victim by ‘asking for it’, being drunk or being overtly sexually attractive.
It means accepting violent sexualised images of women as the norm. Rape culture makes it seem like having sex with someone who hasn’t given you a resounding, enthusiastic ‘yes’ is not doing anything wrong.
A lot of sticky issues have been brought up in this debate. We’ve broken down what was said by each side to take you through it one idea at a time.
Let’s start with the picture George Lawlor posted alongside his article opposing the NUS consent classes. It reads “This Is Not What A Rapist Looks Like”. That’s nowhere near the whole point he was making, but let’s stick to this one sentence for now.
Josie Throup, the consent class organiser, responded to this picture saying “the truth is, it is” what a rapist looks like.
She told the BBC: “Obviously, I’m not suggesting for one minute this guy is a rapist. But 80% of rape survivors know their attacker.
“So when you post a picture and say ‘this is not what a rapist looks like’ you’re wrong.
“A rapist looks like someone on your course, someone you work with, a friend, a neighbour, a date.
“Suggesting a rapist does not look like an ordinary man or woman – that’s perpetuating the myth that rapists are strangers lurking in dark alleys.”
What is often forgotten (like we forgot until a reader kindly pointed it out to us!) is that men can also be victims of rape. There’s really no single profile of what a rapist looks like.
George Lawlor now sees the wording on his sign as “probably a faux pas on my part”, recognising that of course someone who looks like him could be a rapist – anyone could be a rapist.
He explains what he really wanted to say: “It’s not about gender, class or ethnicity. It’s was about me, personally, being offended, as a human being and an individual.”
Why was he offended? In his article, he explained: “I already know what is and what isn’t consent. I also know about those more nuanced situations where consent isn’t immediately obvious as any decent, empathetic human being does. Yes means yes, no means no. It’s really that simple. You’d think Russell Group university students would get that much, but apparently the consent teachers don’t have as high a regard for their peers as I do.”
Russell Group means a specific bunch of universities, btw. So his point is that it’s an insult to assume that people with brains enough to get into uni need to be taught about consent. It’s just not good manners to point at someone and say you probably need to know more about consent.
Josie Throup responded: “If, as this writer claims “Russell group students” understand the nuances of consent, how do we explain the fact that one in seven women students will be raped or sexually assaulted during their time at university? This epidemic is going unseen and un-talked about.”
That 1 in 7 statistic is taken from an NUS report based on a survey of over 2,000 woman university students. We so rarely get to bust out our stats knowledge at Scenes of Reason that we don’t mind telling you now that a survey involving upwards of 1,000 participants, so long as those participants were selected fairly, is likely to produce pretty valid results.
It seems fair enough that George Lawlor feels he doesn’t need to be taught not to rape. Most of us probably feel that way about ourselves and our friends.
This is partly down to the “dark alley myth” we talked about in #2 – we don’t tend to think about rape as something that happens between people who know each other, even though that is the case most of the time.
It’s also because different kinds of unwanted sexual behaviour, including women forcing men to have sex with them, are often not associated with the word “rape”. The law isn’t even clear on this front! Sometimes both people involved are unsure whether what happened was consensual or ‘counts’ as rape. Some are calling this grey rape, and is what we should be worried about more than stranger danger.
You wouldn’t think there was a problem from talking to your friends. Often you can’t tell there’s a problem until you look at the bigger picture. That’s why statistics can be so important.
It’s natural to feel offended by the implication that you personally need to understand more about consent. But what this 1 in 7 statistic tells us is that more people – both men and women – clearly do need to understand more about consent, and the way rape is talked about today means that we may understand even less than we think.
Lawlor reckoned he had this “no means no” version of consent down, and that’s why he was offended by the suggestion that he couldn’t get his head around something so simple.
People who run the I Heart Consent workshop, like Josie Throup, reckon this understanding isn’t good enough though: “…many people think it’s as simple as “Yes means yes” and “No means no” when our workshops teach there’s a spectrum of misunderstandings in between, and consent can only be an enthusiastic yes.”
Consent workshops aren’t about teaching men not to rape. They also look at rape culture, and how things we might think of as normal or harmless jokes may do serious harm. They also discuss slut shaming and prude shaming. This means respecting people’s choices whatever they are, so long as they’re their choices.
Here’s something Lawlor said that made us stop and think for a second: “…do you really think the kind of people who lacks [sic] empathy, respect and human decency to the point where they’d violate someone’s body is really going to turn up to a consent lesson on a university campus? They won’t. The only people who’ll turn up will be people who (surprise, surprise) already know when it’s okay to shag someone. No new information will be taught or learned. It will just be an echo chamber of people pointing out the obvious and others nodding along, thinking the whole time thinking that they’ve saved the world.”
Hhhhmmmm… does teaching consent in this way do much towards solving the problem?
Josie Throup had a good example to show that consent classes are small first step towards making a difference.
It is possibly true that someone likely to commit a rape won’t fancy going to a consent class. BUT, someone who that person respects might attend a class!
Throup explains: “On this campus, Warwick sports teams chant songs about rape. A friend of mine from a club here at Warwick told me about a pre-drinks in which members of his club raised their voices as one in the chant. An exec member who had attended an I Heart Consent workshop last year told them to stop, mindful of survivors in the room who would be traumatised, and perpetrators who would be empowered.”
So teaching consent in workshops begins to create a culture on campus, one which empowers people to actively counter rape culture – embodied by chants about rape.
This less evenly put copycat article by fellow Warwick student Jack Hadfield proclaimed:
“I am not a rapist. But I’m in my second week as a university student, and already modern feminism and “consent culture” is trying to pin that label on me.
“I think we all know what goes down at these [consent classes] anyway, don’t we? The male students will be bombarded with stats about “1 in 4 women,” bogus and offensive conspiracy theories about “toxic masculinity,” and suggestions that yes, all men are potential rapists.“
Hadfield was being very smart there and parodying the #yesallwomen hashtag. Here’s what that hashtag was meant to mean.
The consent class debate explained: Consent classes are not about assuming that all men are rapists. It’s fair enough to feel offended if someone doubts your personal ability to understand consent, but the number of women being sexually assaulted during their time at uni show us that there is a big problem to solve. Everyone – men and women – need to make sure they are down with all the ins and outs of consent.
Fancy digging deeper?