No means no: Why sexual consent is a growing educational issue in colleges

Campaigns like SHAG and SHIFT weeks aim to put the focus on the big issue of sexual consent at third level institutions, writes Áilín Quinlan

FROM ‘Cups of Tea’ and business cards carrying definitions of sexual consent to flash-mobs, sex magicians, posters and workshops, the message to third-level students across the country this autumn is simple: no means no.

The concept of giving or obtaining consent for sexual activity is a prominent theme in the sexual health campaigns, SHAG weeks and SHIFT weeks beginning around now at third-level institutions nationwide.

And while the message is for all students, first-years are a particularly strong focus.

“Last year it emerged that the concept of sexual consent was not actually familiar to students at all — but it became a very comfortable topic to talk about and it really worked,” reports Trinity College student union welfare and equality officer, Damien McClean, who said similar workshops on sexual consent will be held at the college again this month.

Reports that first-year students had to attend mandatory classes on sexual consent at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) last year were inaccurate he says.

First-years were “strongly encouraged” to attend the workshops, he says, but they were never compulsory.

“There were misconceptions about what was involved — they were never compulsory,” he said, adding that a total of 18 workshops around the topic of sexual consent will be held over the course of Fresher’s Week which runs from September 17 to 21.

The topic will also dominate the agenda during several Shag Days sprinkled over the college year.

The publication of findings of the ‘Smart Consent’ study by NUIG over the summer has focused minds on young people’s ambivalence around what constitutes sexual consent, particularly when alcohol is involved.

Researchers found that while 86% of college students agreed that alcohol impacts on the ability to give consent, nearly 40% also felt a woman could still give consent after drinking heavily.

Those findings are one reason why student unions feel the issues around sexual consent need to be hammered home — the other is what they see as a significant lack of education around the issue at second-level.

Podge Henry, student union welfare officer at Dublin City University (DCU) is planning a week of ‘Smart Consent’ workshops for first-years students this autumn.

“Consent seems to be a big issue at third level in Ireland,” he says.

“We think that students arriving from second-level are very vulnerable, especially when you add alcohol into the mix.

“We felt it would be good to direct this at first-years because they’re new to college life and possibly more vulnerable than older students.”

At Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), Stephanie Fogarty, the student union vice president with responsibility for welfare has planned a special ‘Be Safe Day’ for September 12 which will see the distribution of 800 business cards, carrying a definition of sexual consent: Consent is the active and willing participation in sexual activity.

“This card makes it clear that both partners must have the freedom, and the capacity, to make the choice,” says Stephanie. The campaign, she says, focuses strongly on freshers.

“When first-years come into third- level education it is all very new,” she says. “There are no rules in regard to things, because life is not as structured as at second level, so college life can be quite overwhelming at first if they don’t receive proper information. I don’t think the understanding about consent is there.”

That message will be repeated during the college’s Shag Week, which takes place from October 3 and involves the distribution of sexual health packs, along with information about sexual consent and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Over the 2017/2018 college year, a number of planned talks and workshops about the issue of sexual consent and consent in general will take place at CIT.

Waterford Institute of Technology’s (WIT) student union is running a major social media campaign promoting that sexual consent is as simple as a cup of tea, according to SU president Michael Murphy.

“Up to last year, our campaigns focused mainly on issues like STIs and sexual health. Sexual consent would have been there in a more peripheral way but from last year we changed the emphasis because we realised consent was not something you necessarily learned at primary or second-level, and for first years we felt it was an issue.”

A former students’ union welfare officer, Murphy recalls that he has encountered incidents or discussions across student life where the issue of consent would “not appear to have been clearly understood”.

“For most first-years it’s their first time out of home and they’re exploring many new things, including sex,” he says.

The interactive campaign at WIT will run on different ‘SHAG’ days over the year, focusing on the message that: Consent Is Like A Cup of Tea. There will be free STI checks, condoms and sexual health information. The campaign, whose first day is planned for September 26, hinges on an animated YouTube video, ‘Consent is Like a Cup of Tea’.

“The message is that sexual consent is like a cup of tea and if you say ‘no’ then you don’t want tea. In the same way if you don’t want to have sex you don’t have to have it,” he says. “Students like that it’s so straightforward and simple. People can get into complicated definitions but the concept is very basic and clear.”

When Feelgood called, Róisín O’Donovan, student union vice president and welfare officer at DIT was busy putting the final touches to the college’s Personal Safety Campaign which begins on September 11 and strongly focuses on the issue of sexual consent.

This campaign will be followed by a Mini SHAG Week in November, which, she says, will be strongly consent-orientated and specifically aimed at first-year students, though all students can participate.

“There’s a lack of information about sexual consent at second level,” she says, adding that posters bearing provocative questions such as “Should You Still Ask Your Girlfriend for Consent,” or “Does Asking for Consent Kill the Mood?” will be prominently displayed on campus.

AT Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), student union president Philip Desmond says discussion around the issue of sexual consent will focus on first-years during Fresher’s Week, from September 11. Consent will also be a major topic during SHIFT Week in the first term, and in SHAG Week in the second term, he says, adding that the campaign attempts to be preventative by fore-arming students with clear information about the issue of consent.

“We’re trying to prevent something happening,” he explains adding that the campaign will run across social media and on the ground, through discussion forums, experts speakers from organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre and the distribution of posters around the college and in bathroom stalls.

Kelly Coyle, SU vice president for welfare officer at University College Cork (UCC) plans to raise the topic of consent at first year-orientation days, scheduled to run throughout the first weeks in September.

“It’s important that everyone knows from the start what consent is,” she says, adding that many students arrive in college with little or no understanding of the concept. “They don’t understand consent is ongoing — if you go home with someone and then change your mind, that’s saying no.”

UCC SHAG Week, which begins on September 18 will also emphasise discussion around sexual consent and, among other things, will feature a talk by Shawna Scott of the Sex Siopa and performances by the Sex Magician. Consent will be a theme throughout the entire academic year, and the students union is already collaborating with the Sexual Violence Centre Cork to organise a One Billion Rising Flash-mob in Cork next February around the issue of sexual assault.

“Consent is the presence of a ‘yes’, not the absence of a ‘no’,” says Coyle.

’None of us had received guidance regarding sexual consent at second level’

WIT second-year business student John Fortune, WITSU School Convenor 2017/18 at Waterford Institute of Technology. John was impressed with the way last year’s SHAG Week promoted the issue of consent. Picture: Larry Cummins

Now a second-year business student at Waterford Institute of Technology, John Fortune was impressed by the way last year’s SHAG Week promoted the issue of sexual consent as something as simple as a ‘Cup of Tea’ — the campaign continues this autumn:

“It was a unique way of looking at this topic. It really caught your attention.

“You’d wonder how giving sexual consent was like a cup of tea, but the link with Mrs Doyle saying ‘ah go on, go on, go on’, was very relevant to the concept of sexual consent,” he said, adding that the campaign elicited a lot of interest and much discussion.

“Some of my classmates and I discussed it at the time. None of us had received any guidance regarding sexual consent at second level — I think they thought it wasn’t necessary.

“When you come to college it’s a different ball game because the student union focuses on providing information on sexual consent.

“I think it’s vital for first-year students, because if you’re a first year and on a night out, students don’t always understand that ‘yes’ when they’re sober isn’t the same when the person is drunk.

“Some people didn’t realise that, and the way the union focused on it was clear and easy to understand.

“I think it really hit home because it defined the boundaries for people. There was very good feedback on it.

“People felt it was easy to understand and relevant to their lives.”


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