In the residence halls of St Andrews, each consent workshop begins with a statement that mimics the University policy on sexual assault, that “the University is committed to providing a safe environment that allows the confidence to work, study, innovate and excel without fear of sexual misconduct being used against you.”
As groups of uncomfortable, mildly reluctant students file into their respective common rooms, they are made to understand that the next hour is not merely a lecture, but an interactive safe space, a place to talk about the intricacies and difficulties of consent: alcohol, the safety of friends, the bystander problem. However, are the workshops themselves the perfect medium to explore such a complex topic?
To “excel without fear of sexual misconduct being used against you.” It is a powerful assurance, and a necessary one. One in three women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at university. 90 per cent of these women will at least know of their attacker. It’s a social issue that we’re all acquainted with — many of us will have read the Stanford victim statement that went viral last year, heard stories from friends or family, or even, most painfully, have had personal experience with sexual violence.
It is epidemic, a terrifying risk, not only for yourself, but for the friends you come to know and love and worry for in your university years. St Andrews, therefore, is enormously justified in ensuring that we attend these workshops — as our leaders pointed out, we’re not there because we’re perpetrators, but because it is our moral responsibility to become part of the solution. No one is denying that reiterating the necessity of consent is key to dismantling a nationwide issue (and is simply a basic understanding of what is acceptable). At points, however, this message of strict “crack-down” on sexual assault at St Andrews can ring curiously hollow.
As someone pointed out to me, the University makes your matriculation contingent on a course in Good Academic Practise, a scored and underscored set of rules that become, through reams of multiple choice questions, memorable knowledge. I’m certainly not suggesting that moodle courses are a good way to convey issues of consent, but there seems to be a more careful focus on account ability regarding academic practise. We should, as functioning, informed individuals, be prepared to concretely demonstrate our understanding of issues surrounding consent. How that might be achieved is open to interpretation, but an unfortunate element of the lecture hall style is that if you have a question that you feel, for any reason, too shy to ask, it simply cannot be answered.
To “prove our knowledge” may seem unnecessary, even overzealous, and I would agree. It is overzealous for the vast majority of the student population of St Andrews — but sexual assault is still an on-campus issue. We don’t have to discuss issues surrounding “not murdering others,” for example, because it isn’t an on-campus issue. There have been 28 recorded incidents of “sexual misconduct” in St Andrews since 2011. If there had been 28 incidents of “homicidal misconduct” instead, we’d probably feel quite differently about the safety of the town. Does that seem a dramatic comparison? Both carry similar sentencing in a court of law — life imprisonment is possible outcome for both crimes. We should take the legal implications seriously.
Additionally, the breadth of the workshop is a little limited. Can you truly create an effective programme without acknowledging the different demographics in the room? As a young woman, I’m most interested in keeping myself and my friends safe, and the workshop does focus on the threat of violence towards young women. However, for young men, specific issues, such as the Scottish law which makes it legally impossible for a man to be raped, for example, was not discussed. There are complex and uncomfortable issues from all perspectives, and there needs to be a space to ask questions relating to personal situations – sexual assault is situational, questions of alcohol and inhibitions are situational, questions surrounding consent are situational. Give groups the opportunity to wrestle with the difficult aspects of a prevalent statistic, give them time. It might seem like more effort, but isn’t that a commitment that should be made?
St Andrews itself is a wonderful town to exist in — a safe, thriving community, with a low crime rate. Its relaxed rhythm has changed my behaviour. When I’m out with friends, I don’t feel the need to watch my drink as strictly as I would elsewhere, if I want to go to Tesco at eleven at night, I’ll go alone, if I’m out after dark, I don’t hold my keys in my hand, I’ll text a friend, but I don’t need them to walk me back. This might be a fantasy— the vista and views lulling me into a sense of security that isn’t truly there.
Yet coming from a big city, sexual assault no longer feels like a ghoul that stalked my steps after dark, a looming “what if” that limited my hours of independence to those of daylight. It’s a good place, with wonderful people. The threat seems absent.
And yet, and yet. The potential for attack, as those statistics at the beginning of this article demonstrate, is ever present, and without true and evident commitment, university-wide and beyond, the risk does not necessarily lower, but transform. Let us acknowledge the danger with stringent measures, so that if a devastating incident were to happen, we can reassure ourselves that, when it came to support and prevention, we did enough.