Oxford University Student Union has announced that its sexual consent workshops will be run this freshers’ week at all thirty Oxford colleges which admit undergraduates, and will be compulsory in all but eight of them.
OUSU’s consent workshops consist of small facilitator-led discussion groups centring on issues of sexual consent. OUSU states that the workshops are intended to “stimulate community-wide conversations about sexual consent,” thereby creating a “culture of enthusiastic and informed consent.”
Since they were launched in 2011, the sexual consent workshops have been expanded by successive OUSU Vice Presidents (Women) in collaboration with and OSARCC (Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre). Current VP (Women) Anna Bradshaw was elected last year on a platform which pledged to expand the program and ensure that the workshops would be compulsory in at least one third of colleges by the beginning of this academic year.
The expansion of the workshops comes after an academic year in which issues of consent have been frequently discussed both at Oxford and in the national media. In a poll conducted by Cambridge’s Varsity student newspaper last May, 77 per cent of students said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, while Oxford’s news cycle was dominated last year by allegations of rape against former Oxford Union President Ben Sullivan. Charges against him were never brought.
OUSU said it hoped that the workshops “may also help to reduce harmful attitudes towards sexual violence,” and a statement issued by VP (Women) Anna Bradshaw argues that the workshops are “desperately needed” in order to “send a clear message that sexual violence is not tolerated within the community.”
One student, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Oxford Student that “it seems more than a little hypocritical for consent workshops to be compulsory and non-consensual,” asking “what sort of message does that send to freshers about how seriously we take consent at Oxford?”
This view was echoed last month by Cambridge academic Mary Beard, who noted in a
Guardian piece that it “remains to be seen” whether compulsory workshops are an effective way of raising awareness of consent.
In her statement Bradshaw stresses OUSU’s preference for compulsory workshops over non-compulsory ones, stating that “workshops are about starting community-wide conversations, and the best way to do this is to get as much of the community involved as possible.” One trained workshop facilitator also emphasised that “any attendee is free to leave at any time once the workshops have started; this is to ensure that survivors of sexual abuse are not forced to sit through potentially upsetting or triggering conversations.”
Oscar Barber, JCR Equalities Rep at Queen’s, commented that “the new compulsory workshops are a great step forward for gender equality within college life,” noting that consent is a “more complex and sensitive subject than often made out.” Queen’s is one of the twenty-two colleges holding compulsory workshops for undergraduate freshers, while all undergraduate colleges and Regent’s Park College (a Permanent Private Hall) are holding the workshops in one form or another.