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Across the country Welcome Week ‘consent talks’ have drawn headlines, praise, and protest. And while consent talks are nothing new here at Lancaster, they seemed to be filled with issues of their own.
Going into the second year of consent talks for Fresher’s Week, LUSU, the University itself, and all the JCRs had a lot to keep in mind. Trying to find the balance between the detailed, inclusive, and mandatory consent talks some groups pushed for, and the push back of groups who find consent talks demeaning and a waste of time created a difficult balance for this year’s planning. VP (Welfare) Dave Whitlock and VP (Campaigns and Communications) Rachel Hughes told SCAN: “The talks were organised through a partnership between the university and the students’ union and were intended to be relevant to everybody. This is an important issue and we wanted students to leave the talks with an increased understanding of their rights and their responsibilities and a deeper insight into the subtleties of consent.”
The question then was, did this ‘partnership’ create talks that students found relevant, understandable, and helpful. Both VP’s told SCAN “Hundreds of students attended these events and we hope they students found them informative and educational.” However this ‘hope’ was unable to answer a number of issues raised in liberation groups around campus. From mental health concerns for survivors to the lax standards of “mandatory” it’s hard to say exactly how many of Lancaster’s new students attend the talk much less learned anything from it.
One issue that became clear as fresher’s week commenced was that the language we use as individuals, but even more on an institutional level, around consent was failing our student body and our new students before their consent talks even happened. Take a look at the college chants, and the article in this edition about how the language in them creates an uncomfortable and sexualised space. The Bowland Fresher Rep instructions told the Reps to “Avoid sex with a fresher” – a word that holds little weight. Avoid is a word you use to suggest that someone not step in a puddle, and fails to imply that sex with a fresher is far more than something that ‘just happens’ and is (and must be) an active and conscious choice.
Jokes around the consent talks themselves, from reps and JCRs, told freshers before they walked in (or decided not to go) that these were not mandatory and to be laughed at. A member of the Pendle JCR Media and Comms team posted the time and location of the consent talk, 18 minutes before it started, with “Up to you if you want to go – it’s all about consent innit- but I’d recommend it.” With little time until the talk began, the location being across campus, and the joking attitude towards the talk, it’s understandable that Pendle had a difficult time getting freshers to attend. Pendle president, Sam Cox, did tell SCAN that “Pendle College JCR Executive is fully supportive of the consent talks held during freshers week and actively encouraged fresher reps to make first years aware of the importance of these talks. The post on the official College media does not appropriately match how seriously members of our JCR Executive take issues surrounding consent and this should have been delivered with more appropriate language at the time.”
However, the member who posted responded with “all the posts about freshers week events were cheeky, because otherwise they’d be a rote list of times and locations and we might as well have published a spreadsheet. consent is a serious thing, but you don’t always have to talk about it in hushed and reverent tones. Chill” While few of us would say you must talk about consent in ‘hushed and reverent tones’ only, the jokes we make about consent must continue to reinforce the idea that it is an important.
As NUS Women’s Officer Hareem Ghani recently outlined in a piece for the Independent, consent talks are the first step in combating sexual assault and rape on and off campus. Consent talks give students comprehensive understanding of what consent means, how it can – or cannot – be given. Even more, consent talks give students knowledge about the resources available to them in case of assault or rape. From the Unisafe app to counseling on campus, in the past years the university and the student’s union have worked hard to provide resources for students, but those resources do little good if students do not know they exist.
Many of this year’s consent talks had high attendance rates, and the talk itself worked to be inclusive of a number of sexualities and gender identities. While they were not perfect, they were a step in the right direction for Lancaster. Plans are being made by student groups and LUSU to find more ways to create better consent talks and year long discussions of what consent means for us all. At the end of the week though, one thing can be sure, in order to create a culture of consent on our campus we have a long way to go.