Content Warning: Mentions sexual assault.
Despite receiving increased publicity in recent years and the emergence of the #MeToo movement, the issues of sexual assault and harassment are far from improving. Per the campaign group Revolt Sexual Assault, 62 per cent of respondents to an online questionnaire reported that during their time at university they had experienced some form of sexual assault or harassment, ranging from catcalling to rape. It is an issue that is often overlooked or brushed to the side because of the ‘uncomfortable’ conversations it raises, and many survivors feel unable to report their experience.
The Consent Collective describes itself as a not-for-profit organisation that helps people understand and talk about sexual harassment, consent, relationships, gender, sexual violence, and domestic abuse. Founded two years ago, The Consent Collective has travelled to universities and workplaces across the country and offers to “help (them) educate others, start conversations, and support people living with the impact of sexual violence and domestic abuse.” It was set up by Dr Nina Burrowes, a psychologist who has written and illustrated several books on sexual abuse, as well as creating videos and live events. The aim of The Collective was to open up the conversation on sex and consent and allow it to be explored in a way that is educational rather than awkward.
A couple of weeks ago they ran a series of events at the University of Edinburgh. Two workshops entitled ‘Finding pleasure after pain’ and ‘#MeToo Surviving University’ sought to support survivors of sexual or domestic abuse at the university, and provide a space to talk about sex and relationships. They also ran a separate event open to all at the university. A far cry from the Sex-Ed lessons you received at school, the playfully titled ‘How to be good in bed’ event was set up as a gameshow, with activists and experts acting as the guests on the panel. The event explored issues around sex and consent in a candid, honest, and light-hearted way, with the guests sharing their own genuine anecdotes.
The Collective’s focus is ultimately on consent, and two out of the three workshops were for survivors of sexual and domestic abuse. My friend Kitty* is a survivor of sexual assault and attended ‘Finding pleasure after pain,’ as she recently has started seeing someone new and struggled to talk to them about her experiences. I spoke to her about the workshop and what she has gained from attending it.
What she particularly liked was its focus on moving on, rather than rehashing past trauma. This was covered by the other survivors’ workshop, ‘#MeToo Surviving University’. Separating these events allows for the needs of survivors, who are at different places in the healing process, to be better met. ‘Finding pleasure after pain’ tried to help survivors to return to a sense of normalcy – whatever normalcy may mean for each individual. The Collective were keen to emphasise that survivors should not feel like they should deprive themselves of experiences their peers are having at university due to previous trauma. For example, Kitty* told me she has avoided casual relationships as she did not want to have to go through the stressful process of explaining what happened to her more than was necessary. The workshop has helped her to have these conversations without overwhelming herself.
The needs of survivors primarily drove the session, it had a group-based format with organisers responding to what direction the conversation went in. For those who did not feel confident expressing themselves verbally, other exercises were used (such as drawing a word cloud) to include everyone. Given this was a one-off event, access was given to resources for future use. Recommendations for specialist counselling, books and leaflets, as well as videos on Netflix and YouTube were given to help survivors to build on the progress they had made in the workshop. Phone numbers for helplines were also given for future emergencies.
I also spoke to Kitty* about how she believes the university itself is handling this. By inviting the Consent Collective to run workshops in the first place, it shows they are responding to the needs of students and the Students’ Association’s #NoExcuse campaign. However, on the level of individual departments and staff members, it is far patchier. On the one hand, Kitty* was given permission to skip a lecture that clashed with the workshop, however, her personal tutor sent her a strongly worded email for missing a lecture regardless of the reason and she was told to not do it again. Similarly, I received notifications from two out of my three classes on Learn about these events, however, when discussing it with people on other courses I discovered this was not universal across all subjects.
The Consent Collective events are evidently important to students’ wellbeing – including survivors. Their plan to host more events in 2019 shows the ongoing nature of the conversations on sex, relationships, and the abuse that can occur in both. However, these efforts need to be supported universally to have the greatest impact.
Image: Brian Stansburry via Wikimedia Commons