Age of consent: New terms of engagement for male students

Far from struggling to understand the dating scene in the #MeToo era, young male college students say it’s never been more straight forward. Áilín Quinlan reports.

Age of consent: New terms of engagement for male students

Far from struggling to understand the dating scene in the #MeToo era, young male college students say it’s never been more straight forward. Áilín Quinlan reports.

WE were expecting to hear that it’s never been more complex or more difficult for young males to negotiate the dating scene, given the growing emphasis on female empowerment and the issue of consent.

However, when we spoke to male students at third-level colleges around the country the answer was loud and clear — the message on consent is getting through.

The #MeToo movement and the consent workshops now offered by many students’ unions “haven’t rewritten the rules of dating,” explains Scott Green (20) a science student at NUI Galway.

“They’ve quite simply brought our attention to the darker aspects of consent, that is, coercion or the lack of consent.

“They’ve brought to the fore discussion about repulsive sexual behaviours and how we, as a society, have declared that we won’t accept them anymore.”

Green believes the consent message is getting through. “I truly believe that younger generations are really taking it to heart.

Scott Green
Scott Green

“It’s becoming more common to ask more often. ‘Do you want to come back to mine?’ is no longer the be-all and end-all of consent.

“There are now usually further questions such as ‘Do you want to go to my room?’; ‘Should I get a condom?’ or a simple ‘Do you want to do this?’.

“There are now more stages where consent is asked for and importantly could be rescinded if needed.”

Last year optional consent workshops for students at Trinity College enjoyed an attendance of more than 90%, according to Damian McClean, USI Welfare Officer and former Trinity College Student Union Welfare Officer.

John* a third-year science student at Trinity College, believes third-level consent workshops are playing a crucial role in helping students take a mature approach to relationships.

“The older you become, the more you realise that in an interaction, it’s more important how your actions were received rather than what your intentions were,” he says.

“In my time in Trinity, I’ve seen people talk more and more about consent, and it’s clear that people are taking it seriously.

“The dating scene hasn’t become more difficult. People are just more aware of how others feel. In my opinion that’s a good thing,” he says, adding that there’s no culture of “fear” around consent because it’s not a “new” thing — “it’s just in the spotlight due to recent events.”

#MeToo is a complex issue, but, he observes: “In my opinion, it can be broken down to the fact that multiple people committed sexual assault or rape.

“And that’s what consent classes are trying to prevent.”

Students are increasingly more aware of what is and what is not acceptable, he believes.

“With #MeToo gaining traction, people are now more aware that their actions will be called into question.

“Whether it is with the gardaí or by a tweet, you will be held accountable.

“I still go out with my friends, I can still compliment a girl but now I know that if she isn’t interested that’s that.

“There is a difference between confusing signals and a ‘no’. That’s what consent classes point out and if that’s all people take away from them then that’s a success.”

Young men are not fearful of the culture of consent, says Green: “I don’t believe there’s a culture of fear around it. I think it’s beginning to get recognised that it needs to be respected.

“Consent is really a simple matter that revolves around one question: ‘Do you have it?’”

“That’s the only rule and if you don’t have consent to have sex with someone that is rape. To put it bluntly but accurately.”

Mark*, at 21-year-old media student at UL, says often the people who are unsure about the issue of consent are “the ones who don’t have a proper idea of what consent is” because they haven’t fully informed themselves.

“If you’re ill-informed about something it can be scarier,” he says.

Findings from a report published last month on the success of consent workshops appear to underline these perceptions.

The study, carried out by researchers from NUI Galway, showed an increase from 62% to 81% of students who agreed, after attending a workshop, that they would be more confident talking with peers about consent.

The percentage of students who strongly agreed that they had all the skills they needed to manage consent also rose from 28% to 60% after attending a workshop, according to Are Consent Workshops Sustainable and Feasible in Third Level Institutions? Evidence from Implementing and Extending the SMART Consent Workshop.

Researchers found it was possible to have a significant impact on attitudes to consent within a short time frame — a workshop lasting 60-90 minutes — and recommended that the initiative be continued and expanded with the support of additional resources.

The general consensus from the students who spoke to Feelgood was that the strong message of the #MeToo campaign has not discouraged young men from dating, but has clarified issues around sexuality and what is and is not acceptable.

“I believe what people are afraid of is being called out for ugly behaviour,” says Green. “As a society, we’re no longer willing to tolerate crude remarks being yelled across the street and women no longer have to accept a smack on the bottom as a compliment — they can rightly point it out as being wrong.

“I don’t think males are afraid of complimenting women, I think a small minority of men are afraid of being called out for sexist behaviour.”

While he acknowledges that there is still a minority of male students who push the limits with females, he says, even they’re “beginning to realise that sexual aggression is not going to be tolerated anymore in this society.”

Boasting about sexual conquests is increasingly unacceptable. “No one wants to be seen as a womaniser,” says Green.

Lorcan O’Donnell, deputy president and welfare officer at the University of Limerick, says the union would “wholeheartedly” welcome consent classes becoming compulsory throughout the third-level education system. “This has been something that we have been pushing over the last number of years”.

When UL provided voluntary classes on consent some years ago, he says, the uptake “wasn’t great”. However last year a certain amount of mandatory tutorial time was given over to consent workshops, and although it was on a small scale, he says, the attendance was good.

“We’re currently working with course and module directors to get consent workshops as part of mandatory tutorial time for some classes for this semester,” he explains, adding that organisers are hoping to educate 600 incoming first-year students this coming semester on consent and more in semester two.

“Tackling sexual assault, sexual violence and rape culture is something that UL Student Life is taking a strong stance on this year.

“With all that has occurred in the last year including the #MeToo campaign and the Ulster Rugby trial, sexual consent is part of the nationwide narrative and there are conversations being had about it.

“We plan to do that through widespread consent classes and campaigns and events tackling sexual assault.”

However, he believes that teaching 18- 19-year-olds about consent in college when many of them have already had sexual partners, is “too late”.

Pat*, a postgraduate art student in his late 20s at the Limerick Institute of Technology, believes second-level is the place where education about sexual relationships should start.

“These are the formative years for young guys and they are not getting the sex education they need,” he says. “They have all the hormones, they are getting the sexual urges, yet it’s never mentioned about how to deal with these things in a relationship or how to approach women.

“I think the issue about consent does get through, but there are lads out there who are over the top and trying to show off to their friends.

“When you get about 20 lads together in a high testosterone atmosphere, they can say ignorant things, and make rape jokes or talk about spit roasting. Men tend to desensitise themselves to be one of the gang.

“I think though that when it is one on one, there is consent and I’d like to think the rest is all for show because they are out celebrating or drinking.”

UL student Mark* also believes the main problem confronting young adult sexuality is the lack of any real education about sexual relationships and sexual behaviour at second level.

“The lack of proper instruction about sexual behaviour is the problem. Prior to arriving at college most students haven’t had any education about sexual relationships — they don’t get it at the time they are taught, for example about sexual health and STIs,” he says.

He believes a strong healthy message about sexual relationships is needed which would counteract the negative messages that can be transmitted through online porn.

“A lot of people will form their opinions on relationships based around what they see in terms of TV, films and porn. The lack of a message which counteracts what they are seeing is the problem,” he says, adding that the lack of a real message to counteract the porn they watch, can lead some young men to develop a “warped” idea of a sexual relationship.

Green believes the influence of pornography is limited. “I don’t think the majority of males take [porn] too seriously. They recognise it for what it is — actors acting for the camera. I think a lot of young males avail of it certainly.

“However there is a certain contingent of males who learn most of what they know about sex from porn and I believe that’s dangerous because porn isn’t meant to be a means of education. A reliance on porn for knowledge does hint at the failings of the sexual education system here in Ireland.”

Alcohol has always been the big social lubricant in Ireland, and although that hasn’t changed, the emergence of dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble has meant, says Green, that not everyone needs a drink to muster up the courage to talk to a woman.

Thanks to the apps, he says, “some social pressure has been removed around ‘making the first move’.”

Consent workshops also make it abundantly clear, says Damian McClean that if someone is intoxicated they cannot give consent.

“It is important to know that if you are drinking you are still aware of the issue of consent,” he says. “The law does not go away because you were drinking.”

* Names have been changed

Casual sex culture

WHILE the students we interviewed are confident that males are increasingly getting it right when it comes to consent, two college counsellors take a different view.

After more than three decades working in the area of student counselling at the University of Limerick, clinical psychologist Dr Declan Aherne believes we have “ended up in a casual sex culture without being properly introduced to it or properly prepared for it.

“We are having to backtrack and discuss what the ground rules are,” he says. In this free-wheeling atmosphere, many young people may opt for casual sex because “they think it will fill a need, for example, for relationship or intimacy”.

Casual sex may not meet this need, warns Aherne.

“People are trying to find their way to feel good, feel normal and be part of a social group. They are engaging in casual sex at a surface level and this is not fulfilling any deep human need. It is about immediate gratification and a sense of ‘this is how I prove I am likeable or popular’.”

“The Ulster rugby trial epitomised to me what is happening in a culture of drinking to excess, and engaging in casual sex and pornography has to have a further contributory factor to creating that environment,” he says, adding that ‘no’ can still mean ‘yes’ in some cases when “a guy has a couple of pints under his belt”.

“We have to come to grips with this. I believe date rape is totally under-reported because of this problem around consent,” he says.

Dan*, a college student counsellor, says there can be a pack mentality among young men and peer pressure can push them into boorish behaviour. “It’s a case of ‘we’re all on the tear and we’re all trying to impress each other’”, he says.

He believes there’s still a lack of awareness among some young male college students about what legally constitutes consent.

“The law is quite strict on it but some are not aware of what criteria constitute sexual harassment or what constitutes consent. Some are aware and don’t care,” he says.

“When something happens it’s usually down to a lack of awareness of what constitutes consent, and also down to alcohol”.

*Not his real name

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