A Lot Of Talk, No Action – Sexual Consent at the University of Nottingham

University has traditionally been seen as the perfect arena to explore sexuality, notoriously a melting pot of brief relationships, casual sex, and experimentation. In light of growing national media attention and a call from various groups and the government, Impact News investigates the darker side of sexual experiences, if students themselves feel this space has been made unsafe by a growing prevalence of “lad culture”, and a perceived lack of understanding about sexual consent.

In a survey of over 200 students, Impact found that 49.5% felt that students do not understand what is meant by the term ‘consent’. Furthermore, when asked if they have ever felt ‘threatened by sexual advances’, 45% of students said yes. It is clear from the response and attention the issue has received that this is a key concern for Nottingham students.

The SU and the University have prompted discussion on the subject by launching the recent HeForShe campaign on campus. This initiative builds on the movement started by the United Nations with the support of high profile media figures such as Emma Watson and Tom Hiddleston.

As a result of ongoing HeForShe meetings at the university, three working groups were established to address “lad culture” education, transgender awareness and gender fluidity, and sexual harassment, violence and consent. Sarah Pickup, SU Welfare Officer, has expressed her excitement about working closely with group members to “facilitate these campaigns”.

“We believe that opening a dialogue about consent is a vital part in educating a generation”

In response to questions about the extent to which the Students’ Union plans to implement policies around sexual consent, Angharad Smith, SU President, and Sarah Pickup, stated that the SU and the University are in “conversation” about formulating a policy as a result of growing pressure.

Claire Thompson, Head of Student Welfare, told Impact: “The University is reviewing its procedures and advice around sexual consent and reporting. The outcome of this review will include an awareness raising campaign in conjunction with the Students’ Union”.

Despite these efforts to encourage discussions about sexual consent, 60% of University of Nottingham students questioned by Impact felt that a lack of understanding regarding consent continues to be a problem at university.

When asked if they had ever received sexual consent education, 69% of Nottingham students revealed that they had not, compared to only 30% stating that they had. Moreover, 75% of the participants stated that more education about the rules of sexual consent would be “helpful for students”.

“Trying to educate those who will force themselves upon another aren’t the type to be receptive to education. Consent is an easy concept to understand”

Rachel Hoskins, Communications Manager for UoN Feminists, told Impact: “We believe that opening a dialogue about consent is a vital part in educating a generation and will make a start on the lack of education which is the root of many cases at university”.

However, there is a minority of students who do not support the implementation of sexual consent education:  “I don’t think it’s necessary at uni. If you don’t know what consent is by the time you’re at uni then your previous educators and parents should be ashamed. If you don’t care about consent at uni you are cunt”, commented Owen Morris, a second year Business Management student.

Furthermore, some have also argued that sexual consent education would be ineffective as it would be unlikely to reach those who are most likely to go beyond what is considered appropriate behaviour.

Jenna Peevor, a second year English student, told Impact: “I would say the issue is more cultural than educational. Trying to educate those who will force themselves upon another aren’t the type to be receptive to education. Consent is an easy concept to understand. If someone says no or is unable to say yes then is it not consent”.

However, in practice what is considered consent is less clear cut. Under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, “causing a person to engage in sexual activity without consent” is defined as person (A) “intentionally caus[ing] another person (B) to engage in an activity” that is “sexual in nature” and in which person (B) “does not consent to engaging in the activity and (A) does not reasonably believe that (B) consents”.

544 such incidents were reported in England and Wales between July 2014 and June 2015, according to the Home Office and Office for National Statistics. These statistics show an 86% increase from the previous year, in which 292 incidents were reported.

Speaking to Impact, Ginny Moore, a second year English student, said: “I think generally people are aware of the issue of consent, it’s very simple, no means no. The problem is putting this into practice”.

“I think Nottingham should make more of an effort to hold workshops and produce leaflets. Other universities have, and sexual consent is clearly an issue that is affecting people our age”

On the back of these findings, revealed in October 2015, many UK universities have launched their own sexual consent campaigns. The University of Cambridge has made sexual consent workshops compulsory for all of their first year students, and The University of Sheffield is among several institutions to hold consent workshops during their Freshers’ Week.

On a national level, the UK government has recognised the persistence of this problem and ordered an enquiry into the issue of sexual consent and ‘lad culture’ at UK universities. Under the proposed scheme, the task force will rate universities with a stamp of approval based on how well they handle complaints of sexual violence and sexism. They are expected to work alongside crime prevention officers to improve the complaint systems at universities.

Speaking to Impact about what the University of Nottingham’s Students’ Union plans to do to address sexual consent, Angharad Smith and Sarah Pickup stated that any potential education would be gender inclusive, but they did not specify whether this would be obligatory or optional. Information regarding the classes and any future policies was limited at best to hypothetical promises for the future.

They did although highlight the University’s Dignity Policy, stating that it is the SU’s responsibility to have a simple, well publicised guidance document with regards to harassment, which “would include an incident of no sexual consent”. This policy provides protection for students under the Equality Act 2010 and by directing students to official institutions such as the police, but by nature, limits the University’s role to that of a mere facilitator on the issue.  

However, students speaking to Impact stated that they did not know the Dignity Policy exists, revealing that it is not as well publicised as it ought to be. Some argue that this forms part of a more general problem that there has been a lack of tangible progress on both the issue of educating as well as helping those that have experienced a case of no sexual consent.

“If you don’t care about consent at uni you are cunt”

Second year English student David Beamer told Impact: “I don’t know the SU’s stance on incidents of ‘no consent’ and to be honest didn’t know they had a specific policy relating to this”.

He added: “I also think the SU needs to be careful that they aren’t seen as merely wanting nothing to do with these situations by referring them to other institutions. The SU is the primary source for some students and therefore they should offer counselling at the very least. Some vulnerable students may feel uneasy to approach more formal institutions, especially in the very ‘grey’ areas of consent”.

Madeleine Green, a second year Zoology student at Nottingham, also suggested that the University needed to do more to clarify its position on sexual consent. “I think Nottingham should make more of an effort to hold workshops and produce leaflets. Other universities have, and sexual consent is clearly an issue that is affecting people our age. It’s a shame really.”

Considering these responses, Impact has discovered an overwhelming consensus among students that sexual education at the University of Nottingham is seriously lacking. Whilst the SU is taking steps in the right direction, most students interviewed feel that current policies do not go far enough, that action now has to take precedence over words.

Marco Dall’Antonia, Hannah Eves, Tamsin Parnell

Research by: Kayleigh Fletcher, Steven Green, Amy Wilcockson

Survey conducted in November 2015, 216 respondents

Image: Ginny Moore

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4 Comments on this post.
  • Freya
    9 February 2016 at 16:51
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    1. It is not within the universities remit to investigate sexual assault. Doing so could well jeopardise any future police investigation. The university can sign-post (police, The Topaz Centre). That is not the same as not caring.

    2. The SU is not trained to give counselling, the Student Advice Centre (SU owned) can signpost but why would there be a university counselling service and a Student Union counselling service? There are many self-referral options- the most specialised in sexual assault and issues surrounding that is the Topaz Centre, rape crisis, there is also Let’s Talk Wellbeing and Trent PTS. None of these require you to report to the police.

    3. Why have you neglected to mention the changes made last year to how consent is viewed. Since then the onus has been on the perpetrator to prove consent not the prosecution to prove a lack of consent.

    4. When you post about these issues you never provide any signposting. Last year you wrote about the university not caring about Sexual Assault, you mis quoted staff and perpetuated the myth that the university and SU and police don’t care and ‘won’t take it seriously’. That is NOT the case and perpetuating that is damaging to those going through this experience.

  • Impact Magazine
    9 February 2016 at 18:11
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    Hi, Freya. Thank you for your comment. In response to your points, in order,

    1) This was acknowledged in the above piece. The article concerns issues around the notion and education of sexual consent, not any of the resultant issues around sexual assault. Any expressed concerns about a perceived lack of caring on the part of the university or SU is explicitly within the context of individual quotes, and therefore do not necessarily reflect the views of the magazine or the articles writers.

    2) Again, the only time the suggestion of the SU providing counselling is raised is in the context of a quote of one person’s opinion.

    3) While admittedly significant and related to the topic of sexual consent, as this article is concerned with the relevance and importance of sexual consent education rather than the specifics of consent the choice was made not to include.

    4) The article from last year that you refer to did include signposting to the relevant appropriate organisations and services. No member of staff was misquoted; there was an incident where the right-to-reply of one person referred to by name was accidentally omitted – this error was promptly corrected. The intention of the article in question was to highlight specific failings on the university and the SU’s part in that particular instance, not in general. It is not the aim of Impact to imply or contend that the university or SU won’t take incidences seriously, but when on an individual case basis there are failings or mistakes made then it is important to call attention to this.

  • Cameron
    12 March 2016 at 01:20
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    Totally agree with Freya in the comments section.

    This is nothing more than feminists using the issue of consent to push their hatred of men. ‘Lad culture’? The reason men are retreating to lad culture is because to be with women is too dangerous given the rise in false allegations. I think all men know that rape is wrong and the idea that men need ‘consent classes’ is deeply insulting. Do we start holding courses teaching women not to drown their own children in the bath because some women have post partum depression?

  • Freya
    14 March 2016 at 22:55
    Leave a Reply

    Pretty offended you agree with me Cameron, I do not want to be associated with your opinions. There has been an increase in reporting which our judicial system has failed to adapt to, not a rise in false allegations.
    We feminists may well be dangerous in your opinion, but only if you fear equality.

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