It's time to normalise discussions around consent

November 12, 2014
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Sexual harassment and assault are not issues to be taken lightly. Students at Sydney University have again proven how invested they are in the issue by staging a protest against the university after its questionable response to an incident of sexual harassment on campus earlier in the year. In this case, a male student shared an explicit photograph of a female student with his peers.

Let’s think about this reasonably, if that’d happened today in Victoria, the individual would be facing serious charges. New laws passed make the distribution of intimate images of another person a serious offence in the case where consent was not given. Consent. Now that’s the word I’ve been looking for.

If you think about it, all issues pertaining to sexual assault or sexual harassment come back to the notion of consent. A cheeky bum pat with consent? Good, even great. Without consent it’s sexual harassment. Gettin’ down with the get down with consent. Phenomenal. Without consent it’s sexual assault. There are clear lines drawn in the sand as to what is appropriate and what is not. Unfortunately, its evident some people’s interpretation isn’t kosher.  

A recent report looking at Australians attitudes towards sexual violence had some pretty confronting results. Of the 17,500 people surveyed, 6 per cent believed that women often said “no” when they meant “yes”. One in five people thought if a woman is drunk or drug affected, she is partly responsible for her own assault. 12 per cent believe if a woman goes into a room alone with a man at a party it is her fault she is raped.

This speaks for the percentage of people out there that hold inappropriate views on consent. It’s not hard to link attitudes like this to the rate of assault on campus, especially with popularised content like Redfoo et al.'s latest hit Literally I Can't, which tells girls uninterested in partaking in his various party activities to "shut the fuck up". 

A 2011 National Union of Students survey found one in ten uni students experienced sexual assault on campus and a further one in three experienced sexual harassment. It’s obviously an issue that needs to be taken seriously by lawmakers, the general population and more importantly by institutions like the university who wield power to influence attitudes and practices around sexual assault.

Let’s jump internationally for a moment, where consent has become the topic of contentious debate since California introduced new legislation obliging universities to take on a model of “affirmative consent”. What this means is the burden of proof now lies with the accused in proving they did in fact get consent, as opposed to the current model where the victim must prove they did not.

This gets a little confusing, as verbal and non-verbal cues are both considered acceptable. Some say this could lead to further ambiguity around obtaining consent. What would one have to do ‘in the moment’ to ascertain consent that can be proven? And, what does this then say for the presumption of innocence? Some say there are fundamental problems of government interfering in the sexual choices of consenting adults; others argue there is no “practical, fair or consistent” way to adhere to the affirmative consent model.

Obviously, however well intentioned, the application of this standard is problematic. Though, what I can say is, it’s undeniably opened up widespread conversation about consent, its definition and its practice in our everyday lives. If you look a beyond the surface of the ‘no means no’ and ‘yes means yes’ debate, you can see a lot of people invested in the success of a sexual assault model that would support students who find themselves in this unfortunate situation.

There’s a lot of focus on how universities can better support students who become victim of sexual assault. I think if we focus some of that energy into normalising discussions around consent, we could potentially revolutionise the way we approach. Who knows? If we all start to look at sex and consent a little differently, maybe attitudes and in turn the number of assaults will reduce.

Belinda Grant-Geary

Belinda Grant-Geary studies BA Communications (Journalism) at UTS.