Why We Still Need to Talk About Consent

Camilla is a second-year International Relations student, who is interested in politics, diplomacy and international law.  She is as passionate about equality and social mobility, as she is addicted to coffee.

[Featured Image: different posters from Amnesty.org’s “Let’s Talk About Yes Campaign. They read: Let’s talk about awkward; Let’s talk about scary; Let’s talk about turn on; Let’s talk about sharing; Let’s talk about embarrassing, Let’s talk about difficult, Let’s talk about desire, let’s talk about rejection.” Source.]

Yes, we still need to talk about consent. At this point, you might be wondering why? You might think that most people would agree what is or is not consensual and be able to recognise this behaviour in themselves and others. But after seeing that most people who watched Bridgerton did not recognise the assault scene it is clear that we still have a massive problem in society in this regard. 

So, what is consent? Consent is securing the verbal confirmation that you and your partner are on the same page, and that two people who are free to make their own decision willingly agrees to engage in sexual activity. It is making sure that you have your partners enthusiastic “yes” every time, not just once. In the words of Florence Given, “If it is not a fuck yes, it is a no.” It also means that people who are drunk or under the age of consent cannot consent. 

But if consent is that simple, why do we have to talk about it? Because it somehow isn’t respected. A report published by Revolt Sexual Assault and the Student Room in 2018 showed that 62% of the respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual assault on campus. Similarly, according to a report by Amnesty in 2018, “1 in 10 women aged 15 and over in the EU have experienced some form of sexual violence.” If movements such as the Metoo movement and 16 days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence prove anything, it is that way too many people, especially women and other marginalised groups, have been exposed to gender-based violence or some form of sexual assault. It is hard to acknowledge that most of us know someone who has been a victim of gender-based violence or a perpetrator even if we aren’t aware of it. 

Why is consent not universally recognised or accepted you might ask? Critics often claim that consent policies are there to punish men, thus completely ignoring that it is not only men that can be perpetrators of assault. In fact, a survey done by the Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct concluded that “8.6 percent of men say they’ve experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact during college.” People who tend to make the argument that consent laws are there to punish men also seem to ignore that men are more likely to be raped than to be falsely accused of doing so. Others have argued that the constant ask for consent is “not sexy”, is embarrassing or ruins the spontaneous nature of sex, and that turning consent into a legal form is a bad thing. Here the issue is that some would argue that apparently legally binding written forms is the only way to secure consent in a way that would ensure that no one gets falsely accused of sexual misconduct. And whilst I agree that such a consent form is too stagnant and ineffective, because consent is changeable and reversible, I would argue that sexual assault is in fact what is “not sexy.” 

Not only is consent important – It is also illegal in many places to have sex without consent. In 2018, 9 out of 31 European Countries had a consent-based rape legislation and the number has increased since then. According to Amnesty International, authorities in Greece, Portugal and Slovenia were also considering these changes back in 2018. A consent-based legislation is needed for a few different reasons? One reason that sexual violence laws must be consent based and not forced based is that the first reaction for the body under attack in many cases is to freeze, not to flight or to fight. In fact, involuntary paralysis has been recognised as a common physiological and/or psychological response to sexual assault.

Many programs, projects and laws have been started or implemented to address the gap between consent and public opinion. By now, several universities have created modules or campaigns to combat the level of sexual assault and harassment on campus. Many UK Universities such as Edinburgh, SOAS, and Oxford have conducted classes in consent and have considered branching out to address hate crimes as well. This comes after the Changing the Culture Report which showed multiple cases of hate crime, harassment and sexual violence in universities which is unacceptable. For example, Kings has implemented both a campaign “It Stops Here” and a module called Consent Matters. Yet, what the implementation of such modules fails to do is offer meaningful multifaceted solutions to a more cultural issue. In fact, modules and simple campaigns risk just coming off as tokenization, where real change is spearheaded by conversations as well as awareness. Notably, the Istanbul Convention has stated clearly that consent must be “at the centre of any legal definition of rape” or other form of sexual assault. The convention aims to end sexual based violence and prevent further violence from being perpetrated. A few too many European States have been slow to implement consent within legislation on sexual violence, which is one of the reasons several activists have done lobbying to change consent-laws in countries where it has yet to be implemented. Many activists have been pushing for consent-based legislation in Denmark before the Danish MPs finally voted to change its legislation in December 2020. Before this, activists such as Amalie Have and political parties like the Red Green Alliance Party have been fighting for this for years.

This shows that change is happening, even if it is happening slowly. 

Where does this leave us? Clearly, consent is not a grey area, yet sexual harassment and gender-based violence affect way too many of us. Universities, lawmakers, and the rest of civil society is slowly becoming more aware and trying to create change. By acknowledging that society still has far to go, and that we could all benefit from becoming aware of issues regarding consent, we can start to actively work for and achieve change. This is why we still need to talk about consent. 


Amnesty International’s 2019 report https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur18/9784/2019/en/




‘Consent Matters’ Matters: Only 189 students completed the consent awareness module





Florence Givens, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty

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