TW: sexual assault, spiking, consent, sexual violence
Recently, we dedicated an edition of The Mancunion to spiking, so you’ve seen the spiking reports and the campaign effort students have taken. Now, we turn to the role of universities. With countrywide increases in drink spiking, and continued sexual violence against women, the consent discussion has returned to focus on universities. Is this enough to truly educate students on the nuances of consent?
Many universities across the country have tried to tackle the topic of consent through the adoption of online modules. They educate students on what consent means and how it plays out in sexual relationships. Modules are a move in the right direction, but the topic of consent is simply too pressing to address in this format only, and it is difficult to enforce that students take part. In-person compulsory modules and workshops would increase students’ chances of truly understanding consent beyond surface level. Investment in these measures would enable a more nuanced education that focuses on consent and boundaries within romantic relationships. After all, around 30% of women are sexually assaulted by intimate partners, rather than strangers on the street.
We also need to call into question whether these modules are too little, too late. One study by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that only 25% of students believe their pre-university education prepared them for sex and relationships. 58% of these students felt that all students should have to pass a consent test before even attending university.
The adoption of such measures would certainly pave the way for a safer university environment. This would in turn enable women to feel more comfortable on campus grounds. But, for this to happen, universities have to start recognising the value of consent by acknowledging that they are complicit in high levels of sexual assault. Only then can universities begin to take measures that match the severity of the crime.
An established complaints procedure and an easily accessible reporting system would help universities identify and minimise sexual assault. But these systems have to actually carry out justice whilst simultaneously supporting victims mental health. One investigation by the BBC discovered that complaints procedures can take up to 9 months, meaning that victims have to relive their trauma, often knowing that they remain on campus with their abuser.
These findings reveal shocking inadequacies within the UK-wide university system on the topic of consent. A safe environment is the bare minimum of university standards, yet many institutions fail to reach this goal.
Lack of safety measures on campus teaches victims to be vigilant, and to take matters into their own hands in order to feel comfortable. However, this notion places the onus of sexual assault onto the victims, and fails to recognise that abusers’ behaviour needs to be corrected rather than victims trying to prevent abuse. Safety measures should not be placed in the hands of students.
The University of Manchester has taken some measures to educate students. For example, the ‘Understanding Consent’ training module and the #isthisconsent? movement. However, this education must expand to encompass dynamics within relationships and setting healthy boundaries. Unhealthy or ‘toxic’ relationships sometimes exhibit similar behaviours to behaviour within certain instances of sexual assault. An understanding of both elements will allow students to feel safe and comfortable in their knowledge of consent.
Arguably, University of Manchester students are becoming more successful in educating the student body, than the university itself. The campaign Resist Rape Culture has taken significant steps. It has improved the reporting system at the University of Manchester whilst also trying to increase support for survivors. Through their use of protest, hosting regular meetings, and maintaining a significant social media presence, the campaign is arguably reaching more students than the University. They recently released a report on rape culture in Manchester, which you can read more about here.
However, the burden on students to achieve results themselves indicates the lack of urgency that universities place upon tackling sexual assault.
This lack of urgency is highly detrimental to remedying the crisis universities are undergoing – a crisis that has been going on for some time now. Instances of sexual assault and harassment need to be viewed as they are: violent crimes that violate young people on a daily basis. The very act of sexual assault entails direct harm onto individuals and impacts their mental health significantly, even after the crime is over. So why aren’t universities valuing students’ fundamental human rights to safety and autonomy?
Why aren’t universities valuing students’ fundamental human rights to safety and autonomy?
Sexual assault cases remain extremely high within universities and instances seem to be rising every year. Universities – including the University of Manchester – need to place this issue at the front of their agenda. They can do this by acknowledging their complicity whilst also investing more time and money into educating students on consent. Only then can universities advance towards creating a safe and comfortable campus environment- one that acknowledges the fundamental human rights of the students that fund their existence.
In response to our request for a comment, the University’s Advice and Response Manager, Samantha Stewart, said:
“We introduced our online consent module this year and it has been received positively by those who have used it. The University is now looking at plans to extend its roll out.
“We are absolutely committed to tackling harassment and sexual misconduct in all forms, ensuring students are a part of that process. This involves close conversation with the Students’ Union and student groups such as Resist Rape Culture. We also work with local group Odd Arts to deliver several interactive workshops a year on the issue of Consent.
“Our procedure for handling allegations of sexual misconduct ensures they are investigated thoroughly, fairly, and referred through the discipline processes when necessary, but we are examining how to make the process as transparent as possible so students can have the utmost confidence in it.”