THIS WEEK, HATTY NASH SPEAKS ABOUT HER CAMPAIGN, ‘CAIUS4CONSENT’, AND WHY NO ONE IS ABOVE CONSENT EDUCATION
In my experience at Cambridge, I have found that most people are desperate to show how forward-thinking and progressive they are. ‘Woke’ points are the currency of most conversations. The equivalent to Bridget Jones’s ‘Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya?’ is the North London drawl issuing from the smoking terrace of Life: ‘I may have gone to Eton but dear god I live/sleep/breathe access.’
And don’t get me wrong – I love that we’re trying. I like living and studying in a place where it’s cool to be socially aware. It is not the experience of education that I’ve had so far and I’m fully aware of how isolating and draining the alternative can be.
But what is becoming increasingly clear to me is that a surface level belief in social equality (a thoughtful comment about the dominance of the male gaze in front of your supervisor and then rating your chirpse’s arse out of ten on the group chat) creates the illusion of a welcoming and inclusive environment, but doesn’t actually solve anyone’s problems. It’s like putting ‘intersectional feminist’ on your tinder bio then opening with a dick pic once you’ve reached the relative safety of someone’s dms.
The emphasis on the performance of wokeness means that issues such as consent – so crucial in the privacy of a bedroom, the dark corner of a club or the (until recently) closed doors of a swap – don’t really make it out into the open. If there’s no one there to see you championing the rights of your sexual partner, the student whose arse you grabbed in Cindies, or the fresher you forced into downing a bottle of port, then why bother?
And it just seems so obvious to talk about consent. I mean, didn’t you hear? We go to Cambridge! We are educated! Consent is like Key Stage 3 Social Conscience in comparison to the 1st class BA in Wokeness that we’re all aiming for. We are so totally over consent.
And that’s why I’ve started the #Caius4Consent campaign. Because there is no point in pretending to live in such an ‘aware’ community if we continue to ignore one of the most basic and fundamental tenets of being a decent human being. Because we’ve got to stop talking about consent like it’s for those other people – the ones who don’t know better. Because I have regularly heard friends and strangers say things like ‘I just did it so it would be over with to be honest’, ‘I would have felt guilty otherwise’, or ‘I didn’t want to… but like, I don’t mean I was raped or anything!!’
Consent should be an ongoing conversation, and one that involves everyone. Thus I’ve tried to make a campaign that is as visible as possible – one that makes you laugh and listen and (with any luck) read on. So here are some of the answers you need to be armed with when approaching consent (you’ll find more of them on our website.) Go on, give ‘em a read – there’s nothing woker than admitting you’ve got more to learn.
- But like…I’m not an evil scary rapist, so I guess this information doesn’t apply to me?
The idea that rapists are outsiders – evil men hiding in bushes or in dark alleys – is quite simply dangerous. It prevents victims from coming forward and seeking help; it stops people from educating themselves about the issue; it means people are less likely to believe victims because they know that the accused is ‘a good person’.
97% of survivors of assault knew their attackers before the attack. Rape and sexual assault can happen to anyone, and be perpetrated by anyone, no matter their age, class, culture, ability, sexuality, faith, race, or appearance. Rape and sexual assault can occur inside marriages and committed relationships, by trusted family or close family friends, or by community or religious leaders.
In addition, the whole point of this campaign’s slogan (YEAH CAIUS! But it’s okay to say no, Caius) is to show that it’s not only important to learn someone else’s boundaries, but also your own. Everybody has to know that there is never an obligation to have sex – even if you went back to their room, even if they’ve been really nice to you, even if you said you would earlier, even if you think it’s the quickest way to get the whole thing over with. It’s your body and you make the rules – always.
- Okay so I clearly need to know about this stuff. So what is consent?
Consent is active, enthusiastic and willing participation in sexual activity. It means that all parties involved had the freedom and capacity to make the choice.
- Huh. Seems pretty simple. What’s the catch?
Due to inadequate sexual health teaching in schools and the weird (and frankly dangerous) sexual stereotypes perpetuated in movies, television and porn, most people seem to be woefully uneducated about the issue of consent.
If you have received some kind of formal education on consent, generally the message that people seem to get is “Guys, no means no! Listen to women”.
- Hey! What’s wrong with ‘no means no’?!
Well firstly, it frames consent as a purely heterosexual issue. It thus ignores the presence of sexual violence in the queer community and excludes LGBT+ people from the cultural and educational conversation about consent.
Secondly, it positions men as the gatekeepers of consent – as if it is always one man asking one woman to have sex. In reality, consent is an issue that everyone should learn about – not only so that they can seek consent from their partner(s), but also so they recognise that they are also entitled to choose.
Finally, it implies that if someone doesn’t say no, they are automatically consenting to sex. This is a dangerous lesson because it ignores situations in which a person might not be able to say ‘no’. Passivity does not equal consent – people may become passive or unresponsive in situations where there are power imbalances or if they are uncomfortable. Really the slogan should be: ‘anything but the presence of a freely given, enthusiastic, fully informed, clear YES, means no’.
- But isn’t asking for consent like that kind of a mood kill?
Okay so clearly consent needs a rebrand. Consent should not feel boring, scary, confusing or like a ‘mood kill’. Consent is what will (hopefully) gain you access to every single sexual experience of your life! Consent is therefore the sexiest thing ever! Communicating with your partner, listening to what they do and don’t like, being in tune with how they’re feeling – these are all components of a healthy and hot sex life. “Is this good for you?”, “Do you like this?”, “What would you like to do?” – if you’re uncomfortable asking any of these questions then the ‘mood’ clearly wasn’t that great to begin with.
- So once my partner has said yes, I’m in the clear?
Er, no. Consent is fluid, retractable, and cannot be given in advance. It is not a single yes/no contract but rather an ongoing conversation that must last throughout the entirety of the encounter. Your partner may have seemed really keen a week ago, five minutes ago, or even during sex, but they always have the right to call the whole thing off.
Equally, it is important to remember that consent to one act does not mean consent to all – consent must be provided by all parties for every sexual act, whether they have previously engaged in that specific act or not.
- Okay but if someone says no, can I persuade them to say yes?
In movies, sex is often depicted as something to be won or stolen from women – as if men have to manipulate, persuade or trick their way into bed with women. Again, this is a heteronormative stereotype, but it is dangerous for another reason. It implies that if someone says no to you, it is your JOB to persuade them to change their mind and that this is not only acceptable, but actually romantic.
A partner may say ‘yes’ to sex because they feel obligated to or because they don’t feel confident enough to speak up. Consent cannot be considered consent if an underlying and unspoken pressure or obligation exists. Similarly, coercion or manipulation is not the same as consent – consent must be freely given.
- But if my partner says no I’ll be really sad 😦
Wow calm down, this is not all about you. Someone could be refusing to have sex with you for any number of reasons and that is entirely their business. They do not owe you an excuse. If someone says ‘no’ then it is not your place to interrogate them or make them feel guilty. Badgering, eye rolls, sighs, sulking, teasing, or irritation are all forms of emotional manipulation and they make a lot of people feel pressured. No one is entitled to sex and no one should be made to feel bad for refusing to have sex.
- But isn’t it all a massive grey area anyway?
You will often hear people say that consent is a ‘grey area’. Consent has been MADE a grey area by the damaging taboos and expectations that we hold about sex. It doesn’t have to be. The grey area myth is damaging as it lets rapists and sexual aggressors off the hook. If a lack of clarity around consent is normalized, rape can be excused as an accident or merely a misunderstanding.
For more information/guidance/support on any of the issues tackled above:
- Go to jcr.cai.cam.ac.uk/welfare/caius4consent for a much more detailed version of these Q&As
- Go to https://www.breakingthesilence.cam.ac.uk/ to report an incident of sexual harassment or misconduct (either anonymously or otherwise)
- Go to www.cambridgeforconsent.com or follow them on Facebook. The Contacts section of their website is an amazing resource if you are looking to seek help about any of the issues I’ve mentioned.
- Go to https://www.womens.cusu.cam.ac.uk/campaigns/consent/ to get in touch with the CUSU Women’s Officer or to read some consent mythbusters.