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HomeNewsEmily Watson: Consent classes are the rotten fruit of the sexual revolution

Emily Watson: Consent classes are the rotten fruit of the sexual revolution


In those heady early days of the sexual revolution, women could finally tear off the apron, wave goodbye to the kitchen sink, escape Mr Nice but Boring and leap joyfully into the fray of no strings attached sex.

Free from the worry that intercourse might lead to an unwanted pregnancy, women could finally have sex like men—as often as they liked, with as many people as they liked and having imbibed as much alcohol and drugs as they liked. This was the glorious new dawn hailed by feminists like Gloria Steinem, who said “A liberated woman is a woman who has sex before marriage and a job after”.

Fifty years later, the joy seems to be somewhat lacking, with reports from the New York Times and the Telegraph showing that as many as one in three women experience sexual assault at university. In response to this state of affairs, Stalinist-sounding “consent classes” are now mandatory on some campuses in Britain, and we seem to be fast approaching the point where two people (or three, or four, or ten) will have to sit down and complete a lengthy questionnaire about boundaries before so much as touching the other participant’s hand.

It’s important to acknowledge that there is a real problem that these classes are trying to address. There is no denying that hook-up culture has resulted in numerous tragic incidents which can scar the victims for the rest of their lives. Now that there is no longer any consensus on when someone should have sex (as was the case with saving sex for marriage where two people freely committed to each other for the rest of their lives), the boundaries have become blurred, especially when alcohol and drugs are thrown into the mix.

But are consent classes, imposed from above, really the answer? Or are they merely part of the larger problem? How have we ended up in a position where young men worry that their life might be ruined after a drunken one-night stand? Why are universities trying to respond to the problems caused by campus hook-up culture with cartoons and patronising workshops explaining that “yes means yes” and “no means no”, as if addressing rebellious toddlers?

In actual fact, consent classes are not that far removed from sixties radical feminism, which is based on a premise that men are the enemy. The sentiments of famous feminist writers and activists of this period are very clear on the subject. Steinem’s most famous quote is “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and her close friend, author Marilyn French wrote in The Women’s Room “all men are rapists and that’s all they are”.

Andrea Dworkin said “I want to see a man beaten to a bloody pulp with a high-heel shoved in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a pig” and in her book Intercourse writes “Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” In her book Against Our Will, American feminist Susan Brownmiller defines rape as “nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

So there seems to be some confusion in messages here. According to 1960s doctrine, on the one hand women can enjoy their bodies and have as much sex with as many partners as they wish, but on the other hand, the (male) partners that they choose are all potential rapists, who will use sex as a way of demeaning and oppressing women. Faced with this dilemma, does one eschew sex altogether or go ahead anyway and blindly face the consequences?

It is this convoluted logic that has led to the introduction of consent classes to some campuses across the UK. Some colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge now hold compulsory sexual consent workshops for Freshers, and Thames Valley Police have now launched a video with stick figures called “Consent: It’s as simple as Tea”—presumably to save them the trouble of catching actual rapists. A year ago, the NUS launched a campaign called “I Heart Consent”, which “aims to facilitate positive, informed and inclusive conversations and campaigns about sexual consent in universities and colleges across the UK.”

It’s not all that positive and inclusive if you object to the premise, however, as Warwick second-year student George Lawlor found to his cost. The nineteen-year-old wrote a blogpost for The Tab explaining why he declined to attend an optional consent workshop, because he objected to being treated as a potential rapist. To illustrate his point, he posted a photograph of himself holding a sign saying “this is not what a rapist looks like”. This articulate, softly spoken teenage boy was instantly vilified on social media as a “misogynist” and has been the victim of incessant trolling. He told journalist Martin Daubney “In a bar, six guys just crowded round me and started shouting at me, calling me a rapist, a misogynist, and threatening me. I had to get out of there. I don’t want to play the victim card, but afterwards I cried. I wouldn’t change what I did, but I’m incredibly worried that it has utterly destroyed any chances I have of getting a good job.”

There’s a deep irony in forcing people to attend a class which claims to promote consent and free will without their consent. The tragic way in which Lawlor has been hounded for merely speaking his mind will serve as a deterrent to other decent young men thinking about applying to university. They may decide it’s not worth paying £9,000 a year for the privilege of undergoing Orwellian “re-education” workshops where they are told they mustn’t rape women.

Even the authors of this Big Brother approach to sex are themselves falling prey to the monster they’ve created, as Oxford student activist Annie Teriba found. Teriba was one of Oxford University’s most tireless activists: among her many causes, she was involved with Rhodes Must Fall, which she joined in response to a cocktail called “The Colonial Comeback”, she was editor of NoHeterOx (the university’s space for LGBTQ+ students), and she was Wadham’s People of Colour and Racial Equality Officer. After being called out for sexual assault towards another woman, she issued a grovelling apology which was reposted by OUSU’s Women’s Campaign. This was her main offence (my italics):

“At this year’s NUS Black Students’ Conference, I had sex with someone. The other party later informed me that the sex was not consensual. I failed to properly establish consent before every act. I apologise sincerely and profoundly for my actions. I should have taken sufficient steps to ensure that everything I did was consensual. I should have been more attentive to the person’s body language. In failing to clarify that the person consented to our entire encounter, I have caused serious irreparable harm.”

Teriba’s actions were indeed very short-sighted. What was she thinking, going to bed with someone before signing a comprehensive pre-intercourse agreement and asking for permission at every single stage of the process?

At the heart of the problem of sexual assault on campus is the refusal of our leaders to expose the ideology of the 1960s as a lie. Sex is still the most important thing in life, and relentless sex education, which is increasingly aimed at lower and lower ages in schools with ever more explicit material, constantly hammers this message home. There is no small irony in this: at school you’re told you should explore your body and have sex as soon as you feel ready; at university you’re told you must only have sex when a number of conditions have been met, otherwise you’ll be branded a rapist and sex offender for the rest of your life.

It’s telling that in much of the sex education material pushed in schools, no mention is made of the words “love” and “marriage”. The idea that sex should be saved for a lifelong loving relationship seems prehistoric to many. But the alternative, that sex is best enjoyed with as many people as possible and from as early an age as possible, has led to a deep rooted fear between the sexes: a woman fears that she will be raped; a man fears that a woman will accuse him of rape. Precious little joy in such a situation. In reality, nothing has changed since the sixties – author and journalist Virginia Ironside has spoken of the hollowness that her generation of women experienced in the wake of the sexual revolution, and the lie that was sold to them.

Trying to solve the problem of hook-up culture with consent classes is like trying to put out a forest fire with a damp napkin. There is only one solution—and it is one that has already stood the test of time. In order to restore mutual respect, trust and affection between the sexes, we need to return to a culture where sex is seen as something precious and private, reserved for one special person. If asked in an NUS survey whether they would rather have a hundred one night stands or be cherished by one person for the rest of their life, I suspect most students would opt for the latter. So let’s ditch the lazy band-aid approach of consent classes and seek to build a society where men and women are allies, not enemies.

This article was first published on Quadrapheme.

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Emily Watson
Emily Watson
Emily Watson is the co-editor of Quadrapheme (, a classically proportioned arts, culture and politics blog.

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