In light of the news that Bristol University is getting rid of sexual consent workshops in favour of e-learning programs, it is becoming increasingly evident that the University holds survivors in complete disregard.
Were survivors consulted about this? Were people with learning disabilities even asked about whether they could access this content? These questions have yet to be answered. But what is clear is that e-learning is too simplistic for a complex issue like consent.
The consent workshops should not be scrapped for a number of reasons. The most glaringly obvious one is this: we have thousands of new students coming to Bristol in September. Any one of them could be a survivor. Any one of them could be a potential perpetrator of sexual violence. Indeed, the University has a long and checkered history of leaving cases of sexual violence unaddressed. The very least that they can provide is rigorous education around consent for all students.
We should not have to point out that, rather than getting rid of what little consent education exists, the University ought to be building on it and seeking to dispell the common (and erroneous) ideas about what it means to experience and survive sexual violence. Because, if one believes popular narratives and indeed the University’s current e-learning program, most survivors are white, cis, heterosexual women. Yet this is obviously not the case, and the University has the chance to break away from these narratives with comprehensive workshops. However, knowing how poor the university is on inclusion and diversity at the best of times, and judging from past e-learning exercises, getting LGBT+ representation (in all likelihood limited to cis gay men) on the program might be the best representation of the diversity surrounding consent that students can expect. If students are lucky, the University might be progressive enough to include gender-neutral language in the course. But this will not be enough. There needs to be representation for all survivors. It is not, nor has it ever been, sufficient to include, in a vague and tokenistic manner, a small cross-section of marginalised survivors.
A curated, targeted and active workshop would allow for greater representation of the student body. Survivors of color, LGBT+ survivors, survivors who are also sex workers, disabled survivors, survivors of faith, migrant survivors and many others have been left out of the University’s previous e-learning consent programs. Students of marginalised identities need content which reflects the diversity of survivorship so that they can see themselves represented and feel able to come forward to tell their stories. Will the university provide this in short online course? Probably not.
What we are trying to say is that the University needs to broaden conversations about sexual violence. For instance, it should talk about the intersection of hate crimes and sexual violence, which is often ignored in consent education and within educational content around hate crimes. This affects society’s most marginalised groups and is detrimental to the quality of consent education. Students at the University have not been spared the trauma of experiencing hate crimes, not least those which have been perpetrated by fellow students. Education around this area is imperative. Or, as another point of note, there is a serious lack of support for survivors of child sexual abuse and people who came to the University as survivors. Where is the consideration for their accessibility in this? There will be many survivors who may experience symptoms of PTSD when reading the material. How does the University intend to accommodate this?
The way in which the University should cater to survivors is by making education about sex and sexual violence survivor-led and survivor-centered.
Consent is complex – teaching it, learning it, and understanding how people’s individual circumstances might change the way in which it is communicated and revoked. Enabling students to get to grips with ideas beyond the statement ‘no means no’ requires that multiple conversations about consent are had. Much like the nature of consent itself, holistic consent education needs those engaged in it to unlearn certain pervasive ideas about sex, communicate consistently, and be willing to evolve their thinking and, indeed, . It is no secret that, all over the country, sex education is taught poorly and excludes the narratives of marginalised groups. Stopping the workshop at a time when students continue to arrive at the University with scant education on these issues is not only concerning, it is reckless.
However, as per usual, it will most likely fall to student groups to take up the mantle due to the University of Bristol’s clear disregard for survivors. If the University would like to pay for this labour, that would be much appreciated. If the institution’s recent economic activity is anything to go by, there is no doubt that it can pay for the damage caused by its lack of adequate consideration for the students who will be left to pick up the pieces.