The announcement of sexual consent classes for new students at Oxford and Cambridge Universities has been met by a flurry of response. The initiative has been regarded as a welcome step to combat campus sexual violence, and students have voiced immense gratitude.
For new students, each class lasts for a single half-hour during Freshers’ week. The basic structure of a session consists of statistics on sexual violence, followed by a discussion on consent. Attendees are presented with hypothetical scenarios in which consent may appear to be vague, to encourage debate. There are generally 10-20 people per workshop. Whilst initial attendance is compulsory, once the class has begun students are given the option to leave whenever they want.
The Vice President of the Oxford University Student Union, Anna Bradshaw, voiced a goal to ‘break the culture of silence’. The general idea is that a workshop on sexual consent can encourage students to contemplate matters of sex, consent and rape openly and considerately. Cases of potential ambiguity can be discussed with peers in a clear, non-judgemental way. The classes are not purported to wipe out all instances of campus violence, nor are they accusing all students of misconduct. Nevertheless, they are a step towards the overall aim of lowering, and ideally one day eradicating, the rates of campus sexual abuse and harassment.
But why have these measures been implemented at Oxbridge specifically? Are these universities more prone to occurrences of sexual violence? Do they need these classes more than other institutions?
There have been numerous documented cases of harassment and abuse at each establishment, with shocking stories from both Cambridge and Oxford. Recent film The Riot Club is based on Laura Wade’s stage play Posh, which was modelled around Oxford’s infamous Bullingdon Club. It explores the Bullingdon-esque ‘LADS LADS LADS’ mentality of Oxbridge’s self-ordained ‘elite’. These particular people are misogynistic, aggressive, and unabashedly bear a tangible air of entitlement: with the capacity for such blind arrogance in their midst, there is evidently something gravely wrong in Oxbridge.
The worrying reality of the matter is, with abuse figures at appallingly high levels nationally and internationally, it is not just Oxbridge students for whom sexual violence is a constant threat. A survey by the NUS reveals 37% of women and 12% of men in universities across the UK have experienced sexual harassment. American statistics also paint a perturbing picture, with an American estimated to suffer sexual assault every two minutes.
Sexual violence is partly spawned by the grotesque conviction that it is acceptable to subject someone to another person’s will. This attitude is writ large among those who conduct the air of superiority typically attributed to the Bullingdon Club, and therefore such behaviour is arguably particularly rife at Oxbridge. Consequently, the sexual consent classes are certainly a great step forward for Oxford and Cambridge. Education in the importance of every individual’s own autonomy is paramount, especially for those who may have been drawn to believe otherwise.
But these are not the only universities with the scope for major improvement. Across the UK and across the world, there are those who, tacitly or otherwise, declare themselves ‘superior’. It might not necessarily be for socio-economic reasons like the manner of the Bullingdon Club, but the sad truth is misogyny and prejudice are not present solely among the socio-economically privileged. Privilege comes in many forms – for example, the sense of entitlement which fuelled the Steubenville rape case was built up by West Virginia’s reverence of sports players. Inexcusably, the rights of fellow students were not regarded as equal.
Most significant to take from the new sexual consent classes is not a damning indictment of Oxbridge student culture in particular, but their attempts to tackle occurrences of sexual violence. Whether or not attacks are more common at these institutions is an important matter to be addressed, but the classes themselves are a method that all institutions should consider implementing.
Campus sexual violence is not a problem confined to Oxbridge; it is an atrocity which sweeps across an alarmingly wide plane. Efforts towards ‘break[ing] the culture of silence’ must be made by everyone, not just Oxford and Cambridge. If workshops on consent become the norm for students nationwide, we can be proud of a higher education system which takes clear steps towards making every university in the country a safer place.