Eden Tanner: Conversations about Consent

Last year, we witnessed a cultural tide turning in Oxford. With every Junior Common Room and 8 Graduate Common Rooms in Oxford offering sexual consent workshops, where over 70% of the undergraduate common rooms made theirs compulsory, the conversation about the importance of great consent practice is growing louder. And louder it needs to grow: according to the NUS Hidden Marks Report 1 in 7 university age women in UK institutions experience serious physical or sexual assault during their time as a student (‘Hidden Marks’, NUS, 2010).

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) Sexual Consent Workshops were developed in 2011 by the then Vice President (Women), Yuan Yang. The workshops were then transferred in 2012 to It Happens Here, an OUSU campaign that brings awareness to sexual violence in Oxford under the watch of Yuan’s successor, Suzanne Hosolmback, with support from the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC). Since then, the workshops have once again become the domain of the full-time Vice President (Women), and it was under the leadership of this year’s VP (Women), Anna Bradshaw, that saw interest in the workshops reach critical mass.  As Graduate Women’s Officer for 2014 I worked with Anna and Lucy Delaney, then Women’s Campaign Officer, to train hundreds of students to facilitate workshops across common rooms in Freshers’ Week 2014.

The workshops, featured in The Guardian, begin by going through some sobering statistics, to reinforce for the participants the scale of the problem. The groups then talk through three different, challenging scenarios and discuss as a group where they think consent was actively given and where it wasn’t. The workshops finish by having the group define what they think constitutes consent and how they know when someone else is consenting. This process enables a nuanced and developed understanding of consent in a non-confrontational setting and prepares participants to continue the conversation outside of the workshop. I have led a great number of consent workshops since being trained as a facilitator and what always amazes me is how different, and important, each conversation manages to be. Each group of people that come together to engage with the workshop materials find something different to unravel – and every single person leaves with a more nuanced understanding of consent and ways to further improve their consent practice. They learn that consent is (to name a few attributes that have come out of my most recent workshops) affirmative, communicated, continuous, mutual, sober, and mandatory – and that consent is not just the absence of a ‘no’.

These workshops are critical. The focus on beginning a community-wide conversation around consent – to be continued long after the workshop has finished – gives the Oxford community the opportunity to break the silence around sexual violence and be clear that sexual violence is not tolerated here. Importantly, the workshops also serve to validate and uplift the stories of survivors and to question myths around rape that enable perpetrators to act unchallenged. The workshops are compulsory, which requires students to come initially but allows them to leave at any time, for any reason. The workshops need to be compulsory because without the involvement of a large percentage of the community, conversations about consent cannot flourish.

It’s absolutely vital that this momentum continues and swells to include more graduate students. With 45% of postgraduates being international students, there is a huge variability in what (if any) consent education we have as we arrive in Oxford. Holding the workshops during Freshers' Week makes it very clear that our community will not allow perpetrators to hide behind illogical myths and that we will believe and protect survivors, a large majority of whom are women.

If you’re a current member of the Oxford community – get involved! Bring the workshops into your common room, if they are not there already. Get trained as a facilitator to be a leader in this discussion. Email Anna at women@ousu.ox.ac.uk or It Happens Here at ithappenshere@ousu.ox.ac.uk to find out what you can do in your college and common room – whether that’s improving your college’s harassment policy, running consent workshops or electing a women’s officer if you don’t already have one.

It’s time to rise to the challenge as a community; sexual violence happens here, but here is where we can come together to end it.

Eden Tanner is a current Co-Chair of It Happens Here, the OUSU campaign to bring awareness to sexual violence, former Graduate Women’s Officer at OUSU, Clarendon Scholar in Chemistry, and devoted partner of James Bonifacio, a 2013 New Zealand Rhodes Scholar.