USI praise Irish universities for continuation of consent education

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) last week praised third level institutes across Ireland for introducing consent classes for students, with which the main aim is to normalise speech around consent and encourage people to know their rights around bodily autonomy.

As USI launches their 2016 Sexual Health and Guidance (SHAG) week, they are encouraging more colleges across Ireland to consider introducing consent classes.

The USI outlined that at consent classes, students are made consider how assault occurs on campus, in public and in relationships, and it also gives students the opportunity to reflect on what consent means and when someone is in a position to give, or not give, consent.

“Consent classes are the fastest and most efficient way to educate people on what is and is not acceptable when it comes to sexual activity and relationships,” said Annie Hoey, President of USI.

“We need to teach young people to talk about consent, to report violence and rape, and ensure that consent is asked at all times before sex. Sex without consent is rape. These classes will encourage participants to explore sexual wellbeing and their own personal boundaries, remove any stigmas associated with consent and reporting incidents, and reduce the attitude of victim blaming,” she continued.

These “classes” or workshops were introduced in NUI Galway in 2014 with funding secured from Explore.

SIN spoke with Elaine Byrnes, Doctoral Researcher at the School of Psychology in NUI Galway, who emphasised that Smart Consent Workshops set up in the University were to encourage a positive attitude to sexuality and were a “supportive, safe environment” for students to explore and discuss the “grey areas” of consent.

Smart Consent Workshops were held during last SHAG week. They were not mandatory or lecture-like in nature. Ms. Byrnes expressed how she believes it is very important that people feel they can participate in Workshops to their own level of comfort.She explained how this was a vital part of the workshops so people felt they could opt out of any activity they did not feel willing to participate or share in and indicated to SIN how the necessity for this was highlighted by University of Warwick student, George Lawlor.

Lawlor objected to the fact he was “invited” to attend “consent lessons” at his institution. He was angered by what he felt was a “loathsome” invitation and saying he did not “look like a rapist”, refused to attend; he felt he didn’t need to be told the difference between yes and no.

The Smart Consent Workshops run in NUI Galway were not mandatory and focused on being peer-supported and interactive.

In the workshops, Ms Byrnes said attendees were asked to define consent and she said it was obvious people do have a level of understanding of what it means – from a definitional perspective. However, the very nuanced nature of consent is what is then teased out and discussec by participants, with the importance of consent being on-going emphasised throughout, and this is one thing that many took away from the workshops.

She said knowing what you want for yourself and communicating that with your partner is a key part of consent. Ensuring that both parties are feeling safe and okay is paramount.

“To me, immersed as I am in all things “consent” I would argue that it is not solely a gender issue,” she said.

“It transcends gender and sexual orientation. Reducing it to a gender issue is very facile – it is a bi-directional process of communication and mutuality in the decision is vital.”

Ms Byrnes explained how a large online survey conducted on 1,500 Undergraduate students last year in research for her PhD also gave great indications of the sexual experiences and behaviours of students. While the survey questioned students on comfort with and frequency of behaviours, and also alcohol related sexual experiences, it also drew data on students’ understanding of the communication of consent and the perceptions of what non-consenting sexual activity was.

The findings of the survey were consistent with international research. Initial data analysis showed 25% of females reported having experienced sexual contact or attempted sexual contact in their lifetime by someone using or threatening to use physical force. 8% of males reported this. 11% of females further indicated they were certain or uncertain (but suspected) someone had sexual contact with them in the past 12 months when they were incapacitated by drugs, alcohol, when passed out or asleep.

Ms Byrnes indicated how the role of alcohol contributes to the grey area, in which communication signals may be misinterpreted, or people may behave in a way they wouldn’t do sober as they are less inhibited by alcohol. When it comes to sexual activity then it is so important for people to understand that they cannot give consent when incapacitated – by drugs or alcohol,” she said.

Ms Byrnes explained how the bottom line is encouraging consent to become part of the encounter – not a a “buzzkill”.

The USI also emphasised that the main objective ofsuch classes is to teach young people about sexual empowerment, and to streamline discussions around consent – what it means to give consent and what it means if sexual activity continues without consent.

-By Sorcha O’Connor

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