Caroline West: A consent culture saves lives and we owe it to victims to build on this

We might never live in a world with zero sexual violence, but we can all work together to minimise it, and support victims in a holistic and timely manner
Caroline West: A consent culture saves lives and we owe it to victims to build on this

We can start at home by teaching our children about consent, respect, bodily integrity and boundaries, writes Caroline West. 

Rape culture is not just the act of rape — it is the commonality of victim blaming, dismissal of trauma, rape jokes, a retraumatising justice system, and the lack of funding given to support services. 

The fact that a victim’s prior sexual history and therapy notes can be used in court is part of this culture; it implies that previous sexual activity is more important than a rapist’s decision to rape someone.

Consent culture doesn’t just challenge all aspects of rape culture — it centres consent as a vital part of sex, but it also celebrates sex and pleasure. It recognises the importance of positive sexual rights. 

These include access to contraception, access to holistic sex education, and the right to have pleasurable sex with who you want, when you want, and however you personally define sex and pleasure.

Consent culture also aims to raise awareness of the fact that sexual violence is a spectrum. For some, this is a new concept as previous understandings of sexual violence centred solely around violent penetration. 

However, sexual violence can take many forms, from groping, sexual harassment, and coercion. 

Overt violence, as we have traditionally understood it, may not be present. 

We also need to recognise that sexual violence doesn’t always happen in person either — image-based sexual abuse such as sharing nudes without consent or sending rape threats digitally is also part of this spectrum of sexual trauma.

This awareness is important as language contains the power to heal. If we can name our experiences, it can help us to understand them, look for support services, and begin to process what has happened. It also helps us identify the problem — research needs to include all forms of sexual violence in order to build an accurate picture of the reality of sexual violence in Ireland.

While it can be easy — and understandable — to feel overwhelmed at the sheer scale of sexual violence in Ireland, there is much comfort to be taken in the changes being made. This is not just theory or wishful thinking — Ireland is more ready than ever before to do this work.

Since Active* Consent began in 2019, 31,000 students have voluntarily taken consent workshops, and even during the pandemic 17,000 students participated in the online workshop. Around 2,000 secondary school students and their parents have also taken part in consent workshops.

Consent officers

Furthermore, the national consent framework has seen the appointment of consent officers in colleges. Sexual harassment in third level is also being addressed through the national anonymous Speak Out online reporting mechanism, and academics who have been disciplined for sexual harassment will have to declare this when seeking research funding.

What else can we do outside of these examples? We can start at home by teaching our children about consent, respect, bodily integrity and boundaries. Sex doesn’t have to be a part of this conversation until an appropriate time, but consent is after all just another name for respecting other people.

A crucial first step is to start with believing victims. Greetings card companies and Hollywood might want us to think that ‘I love you’ are the three most powerful words in the English language. It’s not. 

‘I believe you’ has the power to change — and save — a survivor’s life.

We can also examine our own attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence. It can be a process to unpack all the messages about sex, gender, pleasure, and consent that we receive from society and the media, but this is important to do. We can do this by learning about consent through workshops, podcasts, books (I highly recommend Ask: Building Consent Culture), and by admitting that we don’t know everything but are willing to start learning. We can learn in a multiplicity of ways.

We can also support organisations doing this work. We can hold fundraisers and ask our TDs what they are going to do to ensure rape crisis centres are no longer severely underfunded.

We can also run events with our student societies, youth clubs, or community groups to talk about consent and look at creative ways to have this conversation.

Art is a great way to include visual language and include people that might not necessarily go to a workshop. Drama is also a fantastic way to engage people and the Active* Consent play The Kinds of Sex You Might Have At College got an overwhelmingly positive response from students.

Challenge victim blaming

Finally, we can challenge victim blaming when we see it. The only cause of sexual violence is a person who makes the decision to commit sexual violence. Previous sexual activity, clothes, or alcohol are not to blame for someone choosing to hurt another person. We see victim blaming in the media or hear it from our friends. Perhaps we have said it ourselves. There is no shame in once having made comments but now that we know better and know the harm caused, we can call it out and stop the cycle of hurt.

We can support our friends who may disclose to us. Active* Consent conducted research that found that 79% college students disclosed incidents of sexual violence to a friend before anyone else. It is important to recognise that you might have anxiety about saying or doing the right thing in this case, but the Active* Consent Start Here campaign has tips for how you can support your friends.

A consent culture is not impossible; in fact it is already being built in Ireland. Active*Consent has a new digital hub launching in a few months which will be the first of its kind in the world. This is just the beginning to build a better world for all. We might never live in a world with zero sexual violence, but we can all work together to minimise it, and support victims in a holistic and timely manner. 

So much progress has been made so far — imagine how much we could do if we all did a little bit of this work. Consent culture saves lives, and we owe it to victims to keep this transformation going.

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