How Can We Teach Consent
Operating Within A System Where Consent Does Not Thrive
By Radovan Stolarik
Content notice: This article discusses rape culture and sexual assault in detail. Please read with care.
“What were you wearing?” “Why didn’t you defend yourself?” “Maybe you shouldn’t have put yourself in that situation.”
Victims of sexual assault are often faced with these questions when coming forward about their abuse. This attitude is indicative of a culture that prevents survivors from being understood and seeking justice for themselves.
But how do we dismantle such a culture?
Brief background of sexual assault on campuses
According to a study by Labhardt, Holdsworth, Brown, and Howat (2017), one in seven female students in the UK experience sexual assault during their studies. These numbers could be equally large for male students but, as SurvivorsUK (2023) states, only 4% of male victims come forward. Many of them have a higher risk of substance abuse and suicide.
Their situation is often made worse with hurdles that keep them from reporting the crime and their offender from facing the consequences. Many institutions lack an effective system to target these crimes and many survivors are left traumatised by the investigation process. A study by Holl, Reid, Molisso, and Pullerits (2023) shows that 37% of the survivors described the behaviour of the police officers as “not okay”. Some were also claiming that the police was demanding too much personal information, that they were making many errors throughout the investigation and that the process was taking too long. Some even doubted whether the legal system could ensure their safety at all. Some victims completely withdraw from the investigation due to the pressure that the accusations put on their own families, and being blamed for the crime by people close to them and by themselves. A brief look through these statistics may lead us to one question:
Why does this happen?
These statistics hide even darker truths. According to the following study, only a few survivors of sexual assault will come forward to the authorities. This means that the real amount of instances of sexual assault is much larger and is being swept under the rug due to silence, shame, and trauma. Within different societies and cultures, positions on sexual assault can be problematic as well.
The sexualisation of women is almost too commonplace in some instances. In my home country, I distinctly remember one of the channels being specifically marketed towards men. One of their first programmes was an iteration of sports news hosted by half-naked women. I remember being deeply uncomfortable by how light-heartedly the men and women took these programmes and how frequently they were willing to engage in sexism and unabashed sexually-charged commentary - even in front of minors, such as myself at the time. As this anecdote serves to show, women and femme-presenting individuals are often depicted as the ones who are “lusted after” and their humanity is completely erased.
On the contrary, men are depicted as the ones who encourage sexual activity and are stereotyped as constantly seeking sex. This leads many to distrust and ridicule male victims of sexual assault. When Terry Crews spoke about being subjected to sexual harassment in 2018, he was mocked by his peers and met with skepticism. Rape culture therefore perpetuates stereotypes that harm all genders in our society. Taking these factors into consideration, yet another question emerges:
How do we help and educate those around us?
There is a wide range of charities all over the UK, such as SurvivorsUK and Rape Crisis Grampian, that offer survivors support and resources.
Valuable work is being done right here at the University of Aberdeen through CASE - Consent Awareness and Sexual Education group. I have been a committee member since September 2020 and have got to host a few workshops on the topic of consent and the topic of sexual assault against men. Each time I hosted or attended one of these workshops, I was blown away by the level of discussion that they stimulated. These events were a fantastic place to voice discontent with gender stereotypes and expectations as well as the toxicity and influence of pop culture on the prevailing issues with bringing up consent. CASE was the main way I learned about the factors that promote rape culture and the ways we can promote consent culture instead.
One of the most useful things that CASE has taught me, through facilitating these events, was the principles of being an active bystander. A lot of people may be inadvertently engaging in behaviour that further victimises survivors of sexual assault. This may be in the form of insensitive jokes or more overtly making excuses for abusive actions. People may not be aware of the seriousness of their words and actions and are not usually encouraged to think differently. An active bystander will confront these false ideas about the inconsequence of these actions, and educate on their impact instead. A conversation with a friend or a family member who is defending an abuser or kindly alerting someone when their behaviour is untoward can go a long way in terms of promoting consent culture. However, there are some precautions that active bystanders must take. These include taking measures to ensure their own safety from being victimised themselves, as well as respecting the wishes of the person they are defending. People may also not want to be seen as outsiders and prefer to stay quiet. When possible, simple actions or just simply not being silent can slowly challenge a system that, in reality, hurts everyone regardless of their gender.
CASE organises various events from consent cafés to movie screenings, such as most recently Jennifer’s Body (2009). The enduring demand for groups like us proves that people need a safe place to express their frustrations and educate themselves. As long as we have active bystanders, one thing is sure:
There is hope for the future
Most research confirms the willingness of students to be active bystanders when witnessing sexual assault take place. Our generation is therefore taking a clear stance against abuse and that can fill us with pride and optimism.
I am frequently inspired by how often I meet people that speak out in favour of survivors and can confront their biases. On the other hand, necessary conversations can be hard to generate due to stigma and complicated feelings shrouding the topic. Putting the feelings and experiences of survivors first and foremost as well as self-education are absolutely essential for change to happen.
Even if consent culture may not be compatible with a system that discourages victims legally or culturally, this system can be updated. And the first step to changing the system starts with ourselves.