Pick any social problem, real or imagined. Whatever it is, the solution proposed by well-meaning busybodies is always to get it on the school curriculum. Obesity crisis? Get schools to teach healthy eating. Financial crisis? Teach kids how to budget. Doctors over-prescribing drugs? Teach kids about the correct use of antibiotics. Rape culture? Compulsory ‘sex and relationships’ education.
Earlier this year, wannabe Prime Minister Nicky Morgan argued that sex education in schools does not go far enough and proposed new measures to make such lessons compulsory and cover a wider range of issues – such as consent. Morgan might have been surprised to discover just how much Jeremy Corbyn agrees with her on this point. He also wants children to be given lessons in ‘age-appropriate’ sex and relationships education in order ‘to help end sexism and tackle violence against women and girls’.
Classes in how to have ‘acceptable’ and ‘healthy’ sex do not stop when school uniform is abandoned. Many universities now routinely encourage students to sign up to sexual consent workshops. At some, a compulsory attendance requirement provides an interesting introduction to the notion of consent. At others, such as Manchester University, over 5,000 students have voluntarily joined the ‘We Get It’ campaign against sexual harassment on campus.
The demand for consent classes is fuelled by a growing panic about the existence of a campus rape culture. In recent weeks the government’s Business Secretary Sajid Javid has ordered an inquiry into assaults against women on campus and the head of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, has declared ‘sexual violence, harassment and ‘lad cultures’ have no place on a university campus, nor anywhere else’.
Unfortunately for these modern day crusaders, claims about rape culture are built on completely spurious evidence. Most frequently cited is a 2010 NUS commissioned report, Hidden Marks, which reports the staggering finding that 68 per cent of respondents had been victims of sexual harassment. This shocking statistic is quoted without question and extrapolated to the whole student population by politicians and media alike. But this research wouldn’t pass muster on a basic undergraduate social science course.
The data is based on a tiny sample size: just 2000 self-selecting participants completed an online survey. To ramp up the shock value further, different kinds of behaviours are lumped together with everything from banter, sexist jokes, inappropriate touching and serious sexual molestation all being grouped together to support the existence of a culture of sexual harassment.
Premising sexual consent campaigns on this alarmist panic-mongering means that women are presented as the passive victims of sexually abusive men. Although the demand for compulsory sexual consent classes is often led by feminists, the message they promulgate is not one of gender equality. Several universities expect male students, particularly those who play in the football or rugby teams, to attend ‘Good Lad’ workshops where they can be re-educated out of their supposedly innate tendencies to ravage and defile innocent ladies. Men are taught that it’s not enough for a woman to simply say ‘yes’ to sex, she might change her mind; so she needs to be asked repeatedly – or she might have had a drink and not be able to say what she really means.
Alongside consent classes universities run awareness raising initiatives. Posters adorning university corridors show a young man alongside the quotation, ‘I know it’s a no when she’s asleep. Do you?’ As the overwhelming majority of men are not potential rapists they do not need such patronising instruction. But consent classes and posters like this do serve a purpose. They create a climate of fear around sex. The message to women is ‘never trust men and under no circumstances risk falling asleep next to one’.
Consent classes teach that sex without formal, explicit and enthusiastic consent given at every stage of a sexual encounter is rape. This consent can only properly be granted when all parties are totally compos mentis. Clearly, whoever designs such campaigns has never been young or in lust. The idea that stone cold sober students partake of lengthy negotiations about what they do and do not agree to get up to in the bedroom is far removed from any reality most people inhabit.
This lesson is worse than just unrealistic. It reinforces the idea that sex without contracts and agreements is rape. Above all else it tells students that passion, spontaneity, excitement, the sheer thrill and pleasure of seducing or being seduced, are not experiences that make life worth living but undesirable emotions that need to be controlled at all costs.
Sex consent classes are better at scaring students into abstinence than any priest with tales of hellfire and damnation ever managed. Instead of acknowledging this, students are sold the message that ensuring explicit and ongoing consent is ‘sexy’. Yes, really. Perhaps there are some people who find being asked ‘Can I place my hand on your thigh?’ and ‘Now can I touch your left breast?’ a turn on. But many do not. The declaration that everyone is to find this ‘sexy’ reveals the authoritarian and intrusive drive behind these classes. Surely one of the many glorious things about sex is that there really is no accounting for taste. And what adults get up to in the privacy of their own bedrooms and the intimacy of their own relationship is no one else’s business but their own.
The sex and relationships education that begins in schools goes far beyond biology to create young adults who are fearful of each other and fearful of sex. They are scared of intimacy and scared of unregulated emotion. The demand for consent classes isn’t responding to an increase in rape, it’s a response to an increase in fear. That 5,000 students in Manchester have signed up to a campaign to end abuse on campus is nothing to celebrate. It’s an indictment of the extent to which they’ve been taught to fear each other and to fear sex. How sad.
Joanna Williams is the education editor of Spiked