Remember when ‘no’ meant ‘no’? Yes, it was that patronising campaign from late last century when we were all informed that our own judgement was insufficient to grasp whether or not a sexual act was consensual. Well, if you are a new student at Wadham College, Oxford, it is now compulsory to attend workshops on the issue as part of freshers’ week.
Wadham student facilitator Lucy Delaney, balked at the idea that some students may not want to attend: ‘certain people may see it as mundane or silly or “not for them” or even too authoritarian’. What she seems so shocked by is the idea that her students just might have too much sense or self respect to feel that they need to be told how they should behave in the most intimate areas of their lives. This certainly looks to be the case. One third-year engineering student said that the workshop seemed ‘patronising and ultimately pointless… Everybody knows what consent means.’
Unfortunately, to the university authorities it is no longer enough to presume that students can gauge each others’ feelings even by asking straightforward questions. Student guidelines insist that consent must not only be ‘clear’ but ‘enthusiastic’. It is not only ‘no’ that means ‘no’ these days, but any response short of ‘yippee! Yes please!’ complete with appropriately effusive body language.
The student advice website Safer Campus explains it as follows: ‘Policies should not simply “condone” healthy sexuality and “prohibit” assault, but actively encourage the community to engage in the practice of affirmative, enthusiastic consent… If we all share a deeper understanding of what it means to consciously engage in the sex you want to be having, than we will effectively eliminate victim blaming that comes along with so-called “grey rape”.’
The idea that there are ‘grey areas’ in terms of any crime is, of course, nonsense. You have either been burgled, or you haven’t. No one goes to the police station and says, ‘I think I might have been beaten up, but I’m not sure’. These days, however, such common-sense certainties are being brought into question. If you hear someone laughing behind your back, it might be because of your sexual, ethnic or gender difference: you might be an unwitting victim of hate crime. But in general the legal system is still based upon the assumption that both victims and perpetrators know and understand what is happening around them. This is why the concept of consent has an age attached to it. After this age is reached, it is presumed that you can understand what consent means.