What’s the Story with ‘Consent’?

Consent is a pretty well defined term, isn’t it – ‘to give permission for something to happen’ – then what’s the issue here, why are so many Irish third level institutions recently asking their students to attend workshops on the term? It’s because with sexual consent there are no textbook-hard-and-fast rules on what the verbal and non-verbal indicators are for granting permission for sexual advancement, each situation has to be assessed individually – and it’s that grey area that these workshops wish to address.

 A recently released EU study showed that 21% of the Irish surveyed said that “having sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain cases”, examples of said situations were being drunk/on drugs, voluntarily going home with someone after a night out or wearing provocative clothing. I personally read that as being roughly 1 in 5 people in Ireland that currently have a distorted view on consent.

 Over the past year, third level Student Unions across the country have begun to offer sexual consent workshops to their student population to address issue of sexual assault in Ireland, but even more so the issue of understanding when sexual consent is and isn’t being given. Trinity held a pilot workshop for their first year students in their halls of residence as part of their orientation last September, and after an attendance of over 400 students they now plan to offer college wide workshops.

 Other Irish Students Unions have followed Trinity’s suit and proposed consent workshops, however in the last few weeks both UCD and UL have had to cancel their proposed workshops due to lack of interest. Are workshops an effective medium to tackle the issue? It’s perhaps too much to expect the students who don’t have a grasp on consent to voluntarily be seen not understanding it.

 While this is the first year that these workshops have been rolled out in Irish universities, Oxford has been running them for 6 years with this last year being the first year that they were mandatory for all incoming first years.

“Mandatory consent workshops” – the irony of that statement can clearly be seen but is there a necessity to it? Is it condescending to lecture young adults on whether they know what ‘yes’ and ‘no’ mean or is it a conversation we need to have to ensure that the narrow line of sexual consent is understood by all?

 In another attempt to engage the student body in a conversation about consent, last year Trinity’s Student Union launched a campaign with the video ‘What is Consent’ which highlighted the verbal and non-verbal indicators when it comes to sexual consent. This could be a more effective medium to engage students into reflecting on the matter than a simple attendance at a workshop. Visual campaigns are certainly a great start to get the mind thinking on the topic, but I can’t help but think that proactive conversation and scenario based discussions to outline indicators of consent and non-consent can add to a spectrum of tools that can help minimise sexual assault in young people.

By Aisling Kelleher

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