Once, university was a place of dreaming spires, £1 shots and drunkenly hooking up on sticky dancefloors. But, as freshers flocked to their campuses last week, many found themselves, in between initiation rites such as buying their first toaster and throwing an illegal party in halls, more prosaically obliged to attend talks about sexual consent.
Oxford, LSE, Warwick, Cardiff, Leeds, Queen Mary University of London, Sussex and Bradford have all trailed “anti-lad-culture” schemes. Many Cambridge colleges are running compulsory consent workshops, and at Bristol teenagers rocking up to campus have found themselves having to sit through sexual-consent quizzes before they can move into halls.
The debate is littered with “A dress is not a yes” badges, “I love consent” T-shirts and a pervasive and simplistic analogy between sex and a cup of tea. (Someone might offer you a cup of tea, but at any point, even after they have boiled the kettle, you can change your mind about wanting it. You may not have vocally turned the tea down, but still no one can force you to drink it. Get it?)
One student who has just started at a university in London found herself having to sit for two hours through a discussion on consent, which was “a bit excessive”. On the other hand, she saw the point, as sexually “people can feel pressured do something they don’t want to do”.
But as concern over sexual behaviour has gone into overdrive, a backlash has begun. At York University last week students staged a walkout.
Aghast at the thought of a compulsory “gender-neutral discussion” led by student union women’s officers on “microaggression” and the “theory of consent”, one in four freshers left the hall before the session even started. “We don’t consent to consent talks!” shouted one.
Intrigued, I attempted to attend York’s next consent talk to see how patronising, or helpful, it was. But the talk scheduled on the university’s timetable for Friday was no more. Organisers said there had been “an administrative error”.
So I turned to Ben Froughi, 23, a third-year accounting student at York, who handed out flyers urging the boycott, and Mia Chaudhuri-Julyan and Lucy Robinson, the student union women’s officers who led the university’s controversial consent workshops.
Both sides agree that sexual violence on campus is a serious issue. As Froughi says: “It’s very important to do everything necessary to prevent incidents of rape, harassment, assault and abuse. I doubt consent talks have ever prevented an incident like that from occurring.”
But “if students really need lessons in how to say yes or no, then they should not be at university,” Froughi told me. “No student arrives at a university not knowing if forcing someone to have sex is acceptable or not.
“I think the talks are inherently patronising of both genders. There is no ‘correct’ way to negotiate getting someone into bed. Suggesting there is encourages women to interpret sexual experiences that have not been preceded by a lengthy, formal and sober contractual discussion as rape. Consent classes propagate a backward message that all women are potential victims and all men potential rapists.”
Last year a softly spoken 19-year-old Warwick student, George Lawlor, was labelled a rapist after he refused to attend an I Love Consent workshop.
For Froughi this is also a freedom of speech issue. He notes that what the National Union of Students terms “unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature” includes actions such as “someone asking you questions about your sexuality when it was clearly irrelevant or none of their business” and “someone making comments with a sexual overtone that made you feel uncomfortable”. He worries that consent courses suggest “the right for a woman to feel comfortable must overtake the right to free speech”.