The freshers heading off to university this month won’t only be bombarded with invites to join clubs and enough free Pot Noodles to sustain them till Christmas. They’ll also be swamped by advice on how to have sex. These young men and women, who probably thought that squirm-inducing sex-ed classes were a thing of their childish pasts, are in for a rude awakening. For now, sex education extends into adulthood: students must now have ‘consent classes’.
At some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, they’ll be compulsory. You’re an 18-year-old guy who’s been in a happy, lovely sexual relationship for two years already? Tough. You must still submit to being instructed in the right and wrong way to have intercourse. The brainchild of the National Union of Students and various women’s societies, the classes will last for 30 minutes. Students will be taught that sexual consent must be ‘active’ and ‘willing’, say the organisers of Cambridge’s classes. That is, you should seek audibly stated consent — ‘Yes, you may now engage in coitus with me’ — before the sex act occurs. How romantic!
At more than 20 universities, the NUS is hosting ‘I ♥ consent’ workshops to instruct new students on communicating consent or non-consent to a potential sexual partner — basically, lessons in how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. They’re handing out ‘I ♥ consent’ stickers for students to wear and various ‘sexual health products’ to help them ensure that the sex they have is always safe and ‘informed’. It’s hard not to feel sorry for these youths, who probably fantasise about campus life being a free-wheelin’ saucy time, yet who find themselves plonked in a mortifying seminar at which a woman waving condoms will tell them what a minefield sex can be.
There is delicious doublespeak in the idea of compulsory lessons about consent. The new puritans of modern student officialdom may ‘♥ consent’ but not so much that they will give students a choice about whether to be lectured about sex. You will be compelled to learn about consent! Worse, initiatives like these are likely to backfire, and bugger up rather than boost young people’s understanding of sex.
The consent classes are part of the NUS’s war on ‘lad culture’ on campus. Earlier this year, the NUS held a ‘Lad Culture Summit’ in London — I’m not making this up — to discuss the alleged scourge of boyish banter and antics at universities around Britain. Apparently these lads, with their silly ‘Vicars and Tarts’ fancy-dress parties and their rugby-club booze-ups, think womankind exists primarily for mankind’s sexual gratification.
To prove its point, the NUS published a headline-grabbing survey this month revealing that 37 per cent of female students, and 12 per cent of male students, have experienced sexual harassment on campus. Sounds bad. But bear in mind that NUS’s definition of sexual harassment includes not only ‘groping’ — which we all agree is terrible — but also ‘unwanted sexual advances’. Aren’t unwanted sexual advances a central part of student life? Given that unwanted sexual advances can include everything from a drunken bloke dancing dodgily around a girl he fancies to a leery guy trying out naff chat-up lines on a female student who isn’t interested, it’s nothing short of amazing that only 37 per cent of women at uni have experienced them. When I was at college, pretty much every night involved unwanted sexual advances of some sort or other. And students simply said no. (Or sometimes yes: to a sozzled 19-year-old, having sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with is often better than not having sex at all.)
We can all agree that sex without consent is wicked. But that doesn’t mean sex must always be accompanied by explicitly stated consent. The compulsory consent brigade seem to think that unless two people in the throes of passion have said to each other, ‘I consent to this intercourse’, something untoward and even criminal has occurred. This is literally the case at universities in California, where a new law demands that sexual encounters between students must involve ‘affirmative consent’ — that is, consent must be ‘unambiguously communicated’ by both parties before sex takes place. The law says that ‘lack of protest… does not mean consent’. To translate this into everyday experience: if a male student is snogging a female student, maybe even getting to second base, he cannot take the fact that she is allowing him to do this as a sign of her consent. He must ask her: ‘Do you consent to this?’ British universities are heading in the same direction. It’s surreal. Have any of these consent promoters ever actually had sex? If they had, they would surely know that one of its great pleasures is that it’s an unspoken, instinctual, experimental thing.
To turn sex into a contractual engagement is to make it similar to prostitution, only without the exchange of money and not nearly as exciting. To negotiate each stage of intimacy through statements of consent — ‘I would just like you to confirm that I have removed your bra and you are not feeling uncomfortable’ — is to kill off seduction. It turns what ought to be a words-free encounter into something like an office meeting. It is, as any Eng lit student knows, Orwellian. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s puritanical dystopia, ‘the sexual act, successfully performed, was rebellion’.
Students of Britain, rebel! Bunk off compulsory consent class and learn about real sex in your digs instead.