The vast amount of coverage over the Julian Assange case in the past couple weeks have definitely opened up a rather depressing can of worms and some worrying attitudes about sexism towards women. Whilst Assange denies any wrongdoing, some of his supporters’ articulations are sheer rape apologism. What I find most unfortunate is how common this is it has exposed a gross misunderstanding of the concept of consent, both what it is and how it works and should work within sexual situations.
There isn’t a shortage of bloggers talking about the rise of rape apology in recent weeks. Here is a great one from Rhiannon Hedge the NUS Wales Women’s Officer http://www.nusconnect.org.uk/blogs/blog/rhiannonhedge/2012/08/18/Assange-the-hero-who-couldnt-rape-and-other-fairytales/
The point that needs to be made is that rape apology and misunderstanding of consent is incredibly relevant to the student movement. Many responses to our Zero Tolerance campaign deny that sexual harassment happens in their campus because they cannot possibly fathom a place they see as safe, as a place of anxiety and fear for others. Even though our Hidden Marks research found that 68% of our respondents experienced sexual harassment in or around their institutions, people still believe it doesn’t happen on their campus.
What many negative respondents to our campaign don’t realise is that often, the only way to realise something is there is to ask. This past year the Twitter hashtag #ididnotreport arose, in which victims of many types of sexual violence from harassment to rape describe their experiences and why they did not report, and in many cases, why they haven’t told anyone at all. If the demonization of the women who are accusing Assange is anything to go by, to understand why many victims of these sorts of crimes don’t report when they see how disrespectfully they are treated.
This entire premise of consenting sexual activity that two (or more) people share is that both (or more) partners consent to the sexual activity which takes place. Presuming an entitlement to do things to or say things about other people’s bodies without asking their consent is quite frankly one of the root problems of the endemic of sexual harassment that women have to suffer throughout their time as a student. Negotiating consent is core to engaging in sexual relations with other people and if you are not prepared to negotiate consent or ask your partner what they would like, or whether they want you to do something, then you have no business engaging in sexual relations with them. Women’s bodies are not just objects that you can buy a season ticket for and can turn up whenever you feel like it, to use for your pleasure alone. I would also ask the question, why on earth would anyone want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with them, unless they wanted to exert power over someone else without consent. The Hidden Marks research exposed the grim reality that women students face in their day to day lives in pursuit of their education. Here is a case study from the report which demonstrates a fundamental lack of concern or understanding of consent: “I was approached by a group of male students as I was walking out of my halls of residence and they were all shouting sexual things at me and then one of them approached me, grabbed me around the waist and then started to touch my breasts and bottom. He was saying things like ‘you know you want this’ and ‘you know you're up for this’.”
It doesn’t help the matter that sex education in schools, when it does exist, rarely even touches on understanding the issue of consent. In order to have a truly healthy sex life, the empowerment to say no, and the teaching that consent is not just the absence of a NO but the presence of an enthusiastic YES, is absolutely essential. However, unfortunately sex education (in particular for women) is often taught under the impression that we are always responding to other people’s desires instead of negotiating a healthy consensus about what people want in their sexual relations.
If the concept of negotiating consent is offending and upsetting some people so much, then this tells me that we have an urgent responsibility to educate people on this issue. It goes to the heart of rape victim blaming and the reason that sexual assault and violence is trivialised and women’s experiences not taken seriously.
It’s easy to get angry about this issue, but far more effective to get organised. As women we need to mobilise to start challenging and explaining the nuances of consent: what constitutes as consent, who can consent, and what to do if consent is not given.
Groups can start consent workshops, speak to student mentors about talking to their mentees, and having healthy reminders posted within campuses. Student officers can try to convince staff, especially at orientations and inductions, to take a proactive approach to informing incoming students about Zero Tolerance policies. Our Zero Tolerance campaign aims to challenge the culture which perpetuates sexism and violence against women to create a culture in students’ unions which is zero tolerance of sexual harassment and understands why.
Universities need to be a safe space for students to learn, and also to relax. Zero Tolerance policies explain to potential victims that they will be taken seriously, and says to potential harassers that what they are doing is not acceptable. But in order to make real change, widespread education on consent and respect is crucial.
The NUS Women’s Campaign will be creating a resource to help student’s unions educate students and develop a more healthy relationship with the issue of consent.