TW- This article contains references to sexual assault which some readers may find distressing.
Universities have often been painfully silent when faced with allegations of sexual assault. In recent months they have faced increased resistance from students. Many are demanding that institutions adopt a front-line position in supporting victims and condemning perpetrators.
On 3rd May I had the opportunity to appear on BBC 5 Live to discuss what exactly needs to be done to tackle the increasing threat of sexual assault on our campuses.
This comes in the wake of a survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute, which found that 58% of students would approve the introduction of compulsory sexual consent tests. The hope is that this would ensure each student has an acceptable understanding of consent before arriving at university and mixing with the rest of the student body.
The University of Warwick has taken this concept one step further with plans to introduce a compulsory consent module for students, entitled the Warwick Values Page. The university has been under the spotlight after sexual assault allegations in recent months. Students in Warwick carried out a sit-in protest on campus to denounce the university’s negligence earlier this year. Women’s officer, Amara Okoye, told BBC 5 Live more about what the proposed module entails.
“From the next academic year… students will have to complete a course, answer questions, do some reading to confirm their understanding of all of the content [regarding consent and sexual assault] before their university cards will be activated.”
Of course, any progressive action taken by a university is a positive thing. Hopefully this move by Warwick will encourage other institutions to do the same.
However, the question must be asked if this is the best we can do, and if not, what else can be done?
A test or module like this will certainly go some way to bridge the gap left by school sex education, which many students agree is lacking. Some teachers argue that the sex education on the school curriculums is perfectly sufficient. Nevertheless, three quarters of students surveyed felt their schools had not given them a “comprehensive understanding of sexual consent” by the time they left for university and the outside world.
Deeper education around consent could also provide a lifeline for those who are yet to realise that they may have been a victim of sexual assault. Patriarchal views about the treatment and role of women in society, as hard as we try to reject them, often form the basis of what we deem to be acceptable behaviour. Classes at university could provide a new perspective on consent and give a voice to those previously silenced.
However, others worry that this is all too little too late.
By the time young people arrive at university, their views and attitudes towards consent have already been established and engrained. It is true that nearly all abusers know perfectly well how to ask and gain consent; they simply do not care.
Afterall, rape and sexual assault are rarely the result of lust and almost always in the pursuit of power.
This also raises the question, are universities truly to blame for the prevalence of sexual assault on their campuses, or does the problem lie much earlier in their students’ development? Should we be calling for better sexual education in schools? Would earlier interventions have a larger impact on behaviour?
With no legal power, there is of course little that institutions can actually do to punish perpetrators. So, along with an attempt to shift attitudes via the consent tests, universities and colleges should also focus on providing appropriate care to victims who are often left feeling neglected by their institutions.
Possible innovations could include greater publicization of university help lines and the creation of support groups to ensure that victims are not left to fend for themselves.
Independent groups have already been set up online, such as The Guard (@theguardofficial on Instagram). This student-run service provides everything from group chats to safety ratings for bars, all in the hope of reducing sexual assault. However, for students to feel truly supported, these services should be coming from the university itself.
Unfortunately, sexual assault will never go away entirely. Yet, its rising presence among student populations should be worrying to all. The success of Warwick’s consent module will hopefully be monitored by other institutions and if all goes to plan, there will be a nationwide coordinated effort to make students feel safer across the UK.
To gain further information about this topic you can access our full radio discussion at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000vq90
To find out how you can access nationwide sexual assault support services please visit: https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/student-advice/after-you-start/sexual-assault-at-university
The survey about mandatory sexual consent tests from HEPI can be found here: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2021/04/29/most-students-think-passing-a-sexual-consent-test-should-be-compulsory-before-starting-higher-education/