An Education? : My consent class experience

Written By Tara Ann Sheridan.

What is consent? Is it a catchy slogan telling us that ‘No Means No’? Does the academic definition

“The freely given verbal or non-verbal communication of a feeling of willingness to engage in sexual activity”

truly provide us with insight into the conversation about rape culture and the prominence of sexual assault? No, because consent can’t be summarised, it can’t be wrapped up neatly in a bow with a sticker saying ‘Consent is Sexy’. In actual fact, consent is not simple, it is not something that we can assume that others have prior knowledge of. It changes and develops in relation to each person, to each sexual experience. The idea that consent can exist in the grey area, that it can be unclear and people can be unsure, is the main one I learned when taking a UCC Consent Workshop.

Prior to my experience of these workshops, I had made the assumption that I knew unequivocally what consent was. These workshops were not going to teach me, a young, dedicated feminist, anything I didn’t already know. I was mistaken. The incredible thing about these workshops is that by providing a space in which you can chat casually and openly about consent, the perspectives of others allow for a much broader understanding of what consent is. The fear I had, and perhaps many others continue to have, is that these workshops are another lecture. It’s another hour out of my day that could be better spent not studying. Why bother?

The necessity of these workshops is proven by the statistics that are circulated time and time again, but must remain in the public consciousness because these are the black and white facts of rape culture. They can’t be dismissed or disregarded. One in seven UCC students have been the victim of a rape or sexual assault. How can the consequences of this statistic be ignored when in the opening weeks of term, three first year students in Cork where raped and two subsequently dropped out of college due to their trauma after the attacks. One in five nationally, one in three worldwide. The sheer vastness of these numbers are staggering. How can we eradicate a problem that is so prevalent? Is it a pointless task to go to these consent workshops to simply be reminded that the problem is insurmountable?

Well what is our alternative? There is no room for complacency when the lives of students, our students, are affected every day. The person sitting beside you in Boole 2, the friend you made on your first day, your roommate; how can we do nothing in the face of an issue that exists so prominently, one that is always threatening the outskirts of our lives? The workshops allow each individual person to help that little bit. Small changes ripple out and make a wider impact, the personal becomes the political.

What I learned in taking this workshop is that nuance is a primary part of consent. As I have said, they are not a lecture in any sense of the word. There is a grey area. This is a particularly difficult thing to come to terms with. We are led to believe that consent is simple and easy, clear cut with no room for error but the consent workshops take a more realistic approach. There isn’t a three-step program for asking for consent, but the workshops provide an opportunity to learn the language of consensual sex, what approach to take when the lines are starting to blur, how to be aware of the difficulties that occur when we start to near the ‘grey-area’. This program isn’t the usual, basic teaching that we’re used to. The most interesting part of the workshop for me was the times when there was disagreement about whether consent was or wasn’t given. It acknowledged that sometimes it is hard to tell, but that there are ways of making sure the experience is comfortable and enjoyable for everyone involved. There is a difference between willing and wanting.

There are limitations to these workshops, but these limits do not lie at the foot of the workshops themselves. Instead, they rely on people showing up. They are of no use if the wider campus community does not participate in them. For these workshops to continue, for them to eventually become mandatory, people have to take the time to go. It is not enough for these workshops to exist. They require participation. Their success rests on the shoulders of students. We must take responsibility for the culture that exists in UCC surrounding sexual violence. These classes are the first step in a much longer process, but each of us must take that step.