A few days ago, I was sitting down in my College’s Hall at the University of Cambridge with the rest of the first year undergraduates to be, since the Matriculation ceremony was yet to take place, being welcomed by the Master and the Senior Tutor. This was a wonderful moment. After receiving my A-Level results of 2A*s and an A, and another A* in EPQ, I had been accepted by Cambridge in August. Yet it was only then, nearly two months later, when sat in the Hall, that it finally sunk in. “Yes, I’m actually going to read History at the best university in the world,” I thought to myself. I remain grateful to the University and my College for this opportunity which I intend to grasp to the full.
I had already looked at my piece of paper detailing the sessions freshers were expected to attend. Of course, after years of state schooling, with all those letters demanding voluntary contributions, and stern teachers with their, “I would suggest you do this”, I was by now well aware what “expected to attend” meant. This was no problem at all, since, on inspection, there was nothing unreasonable about the titles of the sessions. There was a talk by the bursar, a fire safety presentation, and, among others, a “Good Relationships Workshop.” I thought nothing of this last, innocuously named session.
It was only when we had been divided up into groups while still in the Hall, and each small, manageable group escorted to the seminar room, that I began to wonder just what on earth a Good Relationships Workshop might be. As I said, we were escorted to the Workshop. That is to say, had I wanted to, I would have found it either very difficult or impossible to slink away to my room to read another chapter of J.R. Green. In this respect it was quite different to any of the other freshers’ talks which occurred afterwards; it would even have been possible to skip the fire safety talk without being noticed! Only when we were all sat down and the first slide of the PowerPoint Presentation was up on the screen did I see that this was a Consent Workshop.
At this point I should issue some important disclaimers. I do not make light of rape, which, of course, I define as a sexual encounter which takes place in the absence of consent. I would never commit rape. I would not like to be raped. I have the deepest sympathy for those who have been raped. I think action should be taken by the State and by state-privileged institutions, and by society as a whole, to bring rapists to justice and to shut them out of polite society by means of discrimination and ostracism and so forth. Please do not regard these remarks as an exhaustive statement of my views, but I think for now they should suffice. I do not think you would find many people who would disagree with the above, and even then it would probably be a question of phrasing it better.
That was what I had always assumed. And surely, at such an institution as the University of Cambridge, no one would need to be told not to rape other people? Surely, Cantab freshers would not be told they must attend a compulsory lecture on the topic of “not raping”, in much the same way that they must attend a talk about where the fire exits in all the buildings are? Surely the Students’ Union would not be so powerful at Cambridge as to insist on this? I thought everyone took it for granted that students came to Cambridge, year on year, after much hard work, sometimes at considerable expense, often from half-way across the world, to get a first-class education in their chosen field. They do not need to be told not to rape in the same way as they do not need to be told not to murder. They are bound by the criminal law of the land, in which ignorance of the law is no defence.
Now, even at this point a question arises: Why the more ambiguous title on the piece of paper given out to students as they arrived at Cambridge? Could it be that even those responsible for the organisation of the session felt that perhaps this was a rather inappropriate subject to bring up even before Matriculation, literally only a few hours after many of the UK students had arrived? Could it indeed be that were the nature of the session to be made explicit it might elicit some form of protest, most likely expressed through non-attendance?
To be sure, the academic who was running the session jointly with the Welfare Officer from the Students’ Union did seem to find the prospect of talking about sex on the very first day rather odd, and, to her credit, did apologise for that. To her further credit, the academic acknowledged that some people in the room might have deeply held religious views concerning sexual morality. Those views, however, were given scant regard in the content of the session.
If the session got off to a good start, it did not progress very well. It began with the figure of 77% being unveiled on a board; this, we were told, was the percentage of Cambridge students who claim to have been sexually assaulted while at the Universit y. This seems staggeringly high, but we were assured that only 3% of rape allegations are ever wrong. Even if this figure is true, again, is it really the best way to introduce students to the University – by frightening them out of their minds?
On that note, I also must report that at this Workshop I received my very first “trigger warning.” Until that moment, I had thought that these warnings either did not actually happen or that the words “trigger warning” might have been an amusing caricature dreamt up by American satirists. Not so. The Welfare Officer gave us all a real “trigger warning” and assured us that we could leave the room at any moment we liked if we were “triggered.” If he had explained what he meant by that, I might have known whether or not I might be permitted to leave. I see that Google defines the phrase as follows, “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.” I spent the next few minutes wondering how I might fake being “triggered”.
The next section consisted of reading through “scenarios” in groups. One of these scenarios was about a young homosexual couple. The couple had been together for some time and had already experienced a certain level of intimacy. However, after having consensual anal intercourse, the relationship breaks down, because perhaps one of the two men had not been as enthusiastic about it as the other. I can’t remember what we were told the moral of that story was, or whether there indeed was one.
Another scenario was about a promiscuous young lady, who admitted to having sex very frequently indeed and with many different partners, and dressing in a revealing fashion. I say “promiscuous”, but the very use of this word was frowned upon in the Workshop, despite the most appropriate OED definition of the word being “having or characterised by many transient sexual relationships.” In any case, in the scenario, the young lady drinks too much alcohol and goes to bed with a man. I believe the moral of the story was that nobody is promiscuous, or should ever be recognised as such, especially if the person in question says (and I quote the handout) “I loved to feel men and women touch my body, caress my breasts. I love alcohol. I love sex. That’s me!” Later in the handout, the young lady describes the drunken sexual encounter with the man as “amazing”, though admits her memory of it is a bit hazy. We were encouraged to believe that she had probably been raped.
This was the sort of thing we had to listen to and discuss for an hour and a half. It wasn’t all discussion. Much of the Workshop consisted of the academic and the Welfare Officer reading from a pre-prepared script. Part of this involved some “myth-debunking.” A more plain-spoken person than myself would either call this portion deeply offensive or simply an insult to the intelligence of the listeners. The academic would read out a statement which would then be dealt with by the Welfare Officer. One statement was something like “if a woman is dressed in a certain way, she is asking for it.” Presumably, the organisers of the Workshop, and everyone else who believed it was a good idea to make the session compulsory, think that without the Welfare Officer to tell us that “consent is never assumed” (which was the answer to all of the myths, incidentally), a worryingly high proportion of the freshers would believe the statement to be true. At some point during the talk we were told where to get free condoms and the like. I could go on…
I understand that student political bodies are becoming more authoritarian once again, and are keen to, from the outset, “collaboratively set the culture in College” as the Women’s Officer at Clare College put it. I also understand that the topic of sexual assault, with the Jimmy Savile et al. scandal rumbling on, and with an increasingly assertive and growing feminist movement, is still a hot one. Furthermore, I have no objections whatever to institutions such as the University of Cambridge setting their own policies on how best to deal with the thorny issue of sexual assault.
What I find regrettable, however, is the way in which it was sprung on largely unsuspecting students (without their consent, as it were). Perhaps I did not read the small print in one of the letters sent to me earlier this year by the University, or I did not read carefully enough one of the documents I was recently asked to sign, but I do not remember a Consent Workshop being mentioned as forming part of my Historical Tripos course, or part of my Financial Undertaking, or my Data Protection agreement, and this is not at all a facetious comment. As someone with firmly held religious convictions, you can imagine my own extreme discomfort as I sat through a discussion of how people like to have sex, how best to have it, and how to acquire contraception.
This issue goes to the heart of the role of the university today. It is worth reminding ourselves that the university is concerned with the education of adults and not children. That reminder is necessary because the university seems to have ceased to understand this distinction. Adults are criminally responsible; if they commit rape, they answer for that crime and not the university. There is no vicarious legal responsibility upon the university in the event that a person in statu pupillari is the victim of burglary or assault on its premises; nor should there be if such a person is the victim of sexual assault or rape. By acting as if the contrary was the case, the university in fact invites precisely such a responsibility to devolve upon itself. If it sees it as its role to prevent students from committing sexual offences, and provides compulsory guidance designed to achieve this aim, it can hardly wash its hands when one of its supposed charges transgresses against this instruction. Indeed, it could easily be that such official guidance on how to remain within the law on sexual offences might be interpreted as legal advice, with unfortunate consequences were that advice to be found inaccurate or wanting in other respects.
The popular view of undergraduate life at university as one continuous bacchanal in which academic work is a mere incidental has no foundation in the reality of university life today. At an academically highly selective university, students are there to both to work hard and make productive use of their leisure time given the many sporting, dramatic and musical opportunities available. Whatever anyone’s personal beliefs, this concept of purpose and mission should reflect itself in the attitude of the hierarchy.
That hierarchy should not be telling people how to have sex, nor should it indeed be telling them to have sex at all. Cambridge includes among its student bodies members of all the major faiths, most of which proscribe sexual activity outside marriage. It also contains many whose restraint in sexual matters is not due to religious belief but instead to character and choice. The freedom not to have sex, and not to be confronted by sexually explicit material should one not wish to be exposed to it, is as important as the supposed liberation of others to swing from the chandeliers. There is a valid choice to say no to sex without being regarded as somehow eccentric for so doing. That personal choice should be respected by the University authorities.
As I have said, I am hardly alone in being keen to see rates of sexual assault decline. If next year, considerably fewer such assaults take place, then these compulsory sessions may have been a success – although we would have no way of knowing whether the rates of sexual assault fell as a result of the Workshops. However, I do not think that – apart from making those holding conservative beliefs on matters of sexual morality deeply uncomfortable – the Good Relationships Workshop will have any effect at all beyond the negligible. Either way, and with all due respect, I do humbly implore the Colleges of the University, and the Cambridge University Students’ Union, to reconsider their policy on compulsory Consent Workshops.
Keir Martland is an undergraduate reading History at Selwyn College, Cambridge University and has been a speaker at the Property & Freedom Society in Bodrum, alongside Theodore Dalrymple and others. His opinions are his own and do not reflect those of his College or the University of Cambridge.
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