Discussion: Why We Need Consent Workshops

Discussion: Why We Need Consent Workshops

I’m confident that Harry Shepherd-Smith won’t be the last person to write a sensationalised article fretting over the barrage of third-wave feminists forcing consent workshops on freshers. He certainly isn’t the first. There are quite a few questions that we should be asking about the usefulness of consent workshops in Universities, it is really quite disappointing to see yet another ill-conceived article published that fails to bring them up. We’ve seen the angry-and-confused-male-student gimmick before and it doesn’t contribute anything to the discussion.

The suggestion that men are “predisposed to respect women” and no “rational human” will commit rape can be thoroughly discredited. There has been a great amount of research into who perpetrators of sexual violence are and, unfortunately for Harry, they show us that it is not only “maniacs” and monsters that rape others. In fact, it is widely accepted that perpetrators are a very heterogeneous group with numerous motivations, characteristics, offending patterns and backgrounds. Mental illness is not a requirement. The main link between the perpetrators, in all the studies conducted within colleges and universities, was found to be the “misinterpretation of cues from women as sexual invitations.” This shows us that in university contexts it is very likely that those who are assaulting and raping women on campuses are misunderstanding what consent is. Surveys have even revealed that between 1 in 12 and 1 in 4 college aged men have said that they have committed acts that meet the legal definition of rape or sexual assault, but the vast majority (84% in one survey) didn’t believe that those actions were illegal. Consent workshops were not conceived of out of thin air by hysterical feminists, they were introduced as a concept by charities like Rape Crisis as a reaction to years of research.

In response to evidence that shows us that perpetrators (male and female) are misunderstanding what constitutes rape and that sexual assault is disturbingly common, universities and charities have decided upon the obvious route of trying consent workshops. As a Senior Resident for University of Bristol halls, I was someone who was trained to deliver these workshops, and Harry’s representation of their content could not be further from the truth. Designed by Rape Crisis, they are intended to be gender neutral and offer a variety of situational examples using different genders, sexualities and sexual encounters. The idea behind them is to start a conversation; to encourage students to think critically about the examples and identify where consent may have been given and where it may not have. There is not a single part of the workshops that suggest that men are always perpetrators and women are always victims. If you don’t believe me you can find the materials on the University website yourself.

As for the questions we should be asking, there are several. Is there evidence to suggest that they actually work or are there any mechanisms currently in place for us to assess their impact? We could look to Bystander Intervention Training for clues. This is a similar rape myth busting program that has been running both in the U.S. and the U.K. for several years, and has been the subject of many studies. Public Health England conducted a an evidence review in 2014, found that there are clear and positive changes reported consistently within the literature for participants in the attitudes and behaviours of students who participated in bystander intervention programs. This included decreased perpetration of violence, decreased rape myth acceptance and increased knowledge of consent. 

So, we can see that these sorts of programs do work, but then we must ask, is this bystander intervention program the same or similar to what Bristol University students are receiving? Is the delivery of the consent workshops, through Senior Residents like myself, appropriate or effective? Do articles like Harry’s suggest that they are not working? Are consent workshops a way for Universities to relieve themselves of any or all responsability to do more to prevent sexual violence and support survivors of sexual violence? These are the sorts of questions I’m still waiting for people like Harry to write about, if they really do care enough. 

Sarah Redrup

Hiatt Baker Senior Resident + Public Policy Masters Student