Should Consent Classes Be Mandatory for University Students? Depends Who You Ask.


UK student George Lawlor took exception to a class on consent for male students offered by his university, posting this picture that’s quickly gone viral and sparked intense debate. (Photo: The Tab)

Do you think this young man looks like a rapist? And more importantly, do you even believe there is even such a thing as what a rapist “looks like”?

After George Lawlor, along with all other male students, at Warwick University in England was invited to attend a class on consent, Lawlor took to student publication The Tab to protest and claim offense at his being invited to such a class and such a class even existing.

“Of course people should only interact with mutual agreement, but I still found this invitation loathsome,” writes Lawlor. “Like any self-respecting individual would, I found this to be a massive, painful, bitchy slap in the face….It implies I have an insufficient understanding of what does and does not constitute consent and that’s incredibly hurtful.”

While data on requirements for courses on consent does not exist in the United States, as of 2013, 13 states have laws requiring public high schools to develop a dating violence or healthy relationships component for health classes or comprehensive sex-ed programming.

The image of Lawlor holding up his “This Is Not What A Rapist Looks Like” signs ran with his story.

Earlier this year, Michael Kimmel, PhD, the distinguished professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook(SUNY) and the executive director of the university’s Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities, told Yahoo Health that indeed, when it comes to rape on college campuses, “[w]hat we’re talking about here is not 70 percent of men as marauding predators, a fairly small number of men who are serial predators who feel entitled to sexual assault.” And yet, he noted, “It is bystanders who facilitate the behavior of this 5-6 percent of men who are predators.”

So perhaps the question posed to Lawlor really ought to be if he knows what being an active bystander looks like.

Furthermore, Kimmel added, that many college men don’t think of rape as rape, but rather as “having sex” — and kind of “harmless fun” that certainly isn’t rape. And again, this is where being an educated bystander comes into effect. Without active bystanders to disrupt these kind of culturally motivated patterns, the way young men are socialized ensures, Kimmel says, that “[w]hat happens in guyland stays in guyland.”

Related: ‘A Rape Was Not the End of My Life, But the Beginning of Something Bigger

“I already know what is and what isn’t consent,” Lawlor continues in his op-ed. “I also know about those more nuanced situations where consent isn’t immediately obvious as any decent, empathetic human being does. Yes means yes, no means no.”

But experts, and many campus sexual assault activists, disagree.

“We’re not talking about men assaulting women, but the silence of some men enabling the predatory behavior of others,” says Kimmel.

Furthermore, “[c]onjuring the specter of alcohol-fueled ‘mistakes’ is a time-tested strategy to displace perpetrators’ culpability onto their victims or, alternately, onto campus as a whole,” Dana Bolger, co-founder of Know Your IX, told Yahoo Health earlier this year. “It’s important to remember that rape has been prevalent all through the ages — before colleges went co-ed, before women’s lib, and certainly before binge drinking became a norm on campus.”

This January, The New York Times reported about a new trend among colleges in the U.S. wherein sorority houses have been hosting their own house parties, offering an alternate social alternative to the traditional fraternity house party. The sororities hope that by hosting their own social events, they will be able to create a safer environment for women and reduce the chances of female attendees becoming the victims of sexual assault.

A recent survey commissioned by the Association of American Universities (AAU) found that 27.2 percent of female college seniors report having had some kind of unwanted sexual contact while incapacitated by drugs or alcohol or by force since beginning their college careers. A startling 13.5 percent reported penetration, attempted penetration, or oral sex.

Related: Millions Earmarked to Clear Massive Rape Kit Backlog

“I want to call the people leading the charge behind these classes admirable, I want to call them heroic, but I’m afraid they’re not,” wrote Lawlor. “There are countless other more useful things they could be doing with their time. They could be making a difference by actually going out and campaigning, volunteering and caring for other people. Instead they selfishly make themselves feel better by indulging in the delusion that all that’s needed to save the vulnerable from foul predators is to point out the blindingly obvious.”

And yet what might not be blindingly obvious to Lawlow is that, especially among men in undergraduate environments, “privilege sometimes breeds a certain arrogance and entitlement, whether to a desired grade in the classroom, or to women’s bodies,” says Bolger.

Which is why another English university student, Nessa Dinneen, took to her own person blog to counter Lawlor’s argument — widely supported online by commenters on numerous social media sites — herself.

“I could not believe that people thought it was ok that this guy was essentially whinging about having to attend a class against his will and comparing it to being forced to have sex against your will,” writes Dinneen on her motivation for addressing this issue.

She explains that while, “[a]s a girl growing up, I’ve always been told never to do anything I don’t feel comfortable doing, but it got to a stage where it was easier to let it happen than to keep feebily resisting.”

Furthermore, she adds, she finds herself regularly groped or touched without her consent when out. “On nearly every single night out I’ve ever had, there’s always been at least one guy who’s come up behind me and squeezed my a**,” she specifies.

Related: How 1 Student Can Be Accused of Rape at 2 Colleges — and Receive a Scholarship to a 3rd

And when it comes to Lawlor’s insistence that he fully understands those “nuanced situations” where “consent may not always be obvious,” Dinneen explains, “Do you think that if a murderer was on trial that the jury would go ‘Well in fairness like, he was drunk when he stabbed that guy so he should get his sentence reduced at least’. No. Because the world doesn’t work that way. If boys’ fundamental morals go out the window when they’re drunk — so much so that they’re not concerned whether a girl is consenting to their actions or not — then the problem is with their fundamental morals.”

Which is why, she says, things like consent classes matter.

“Men don’t need to be taught not to rape. They need to be taught what rape is. What full consent is in different scenarios. So that the things that have happened to me in only the last 2 years don’t happen to girls in the future.

Because the sad fact is that even after writing this post I’m still going to have similar experiences to the ones I’ve described, if not worse. And sad fact number two is that every girl who is reading this is guaranteed to have a few stories of her own similar to mine and many will have ones that are much much worse. It may be shocking to say but I’ve actually been pretty lucky.”

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