Consent Classes

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Category :Thoughts

With the news that Trinity College is to introduce mandatory sexual consent lessons for students staying in on campus accommodation, The Irish Times seems to be under the misapprehension that this is in some way patronising.

In fact, using standardised education for the inculcation of norms is a practice that has  existed as long as standardised education. Post-revolutionary France saw the benefit of standardisation while building the nascent French Republic and since then, the use of consistent temporal milestones – and the explicit teaching of state values – has been a feature of all modern nations. The national myths that allow bureaucratic rational-legal democracies to  function require official imprimatur.

In the Irish context, education has long been a way in which we express norms. The time devoted to milestones such as confirmation and communion in state schools belies the important nation building effect that such milestones have. In a situation where class solidarity is smothered and bourgeois individualism is encouraged, such commonality is the glue that creates a feeling of a stable interconnected Us that allows the smooth functioning of the official organs of state.

In a more particular example, in my secondary school we were often given specific classes by teachers or local Gardai on the importance of not thieving or starting fights. Every Halloween we would have to sit through mandatory lectures from local guards about locker searches for fireworks or how to conduct yourself on Halloween night. Anti-drugs classes were also prevalent. All of these are classes in which state and social norms are taught. Should I have felt patronised to have had to endure them? Perhaps. But the point of their existence was understood. After a concerned parent heard of some teens drinking in a field by the school and starting fights, we had one particular lecture from the Gardai about the ‘intelligence’ they had gathered about an illegal fighting ring known as the ‘Octagon’ and how anyone who was caught organising it would be prosecuted. These kinds of lectures and lessons were commonplace.

Now perhaps the experience in a rural CBS differs from that of the leafy private schools that Irish Times writers went to – though perhaps in the aftermath of widespread banking criminality, some lessons on why thieving is bad would not be a bad idea for the Irish middle class – but even in third level, the lessons on social morality did not cease.

I was in college accommodation in my first year in the University of Limerick and we had two mandatory classes in that year. The second was before RAG week and it was to outline the Foucaultian security procedures we would be subjected to in order to prevent house parties, but the first class is of particular interest.

The first class was an orientation class, outlining rules like ‘Chip pans are banned’ or ‘You’re not allowed have more than three guests in your house or it will be classed as a house party’. However, the girls were also warned about the lighting situation on the campus in Limerick and the dangers of walking home. ‘University of Limerick is an open campus,’ they explained. ‘Therefore you should be careful walking home at night, especially by the river.’

Women were advised to use the SU provided night bus to avoid attacks or sexual assault. Surely that is patronising. It’s stark that the girls are advised to alter their behaviour in a mandatory class and there’s no breathless op-eds in the Irish Times. But we must protect masculinity against the accusation of rape. Why is that.

I’m not even sure if the nightbus is still running, under threat of funding cuts as it was during my entire time in UL. But I’m sure the advice is still being given, with updated crime rates and more horror stories of serial rapists prowling. As I know from my many friends who were victims of sexual assaults in college, stranger danger is a small problem compared to the entitlement of men you know. Is it patronising to acknowledge that and to run a class to try and fight it. I don’t think so.

When we weigh the cost of patronising a few men against the harm of even one sex attack, it’s childish in the extreme to care more about a man’s feelings. The Irish Times should do better.