Creating a Culture of Consent

According to the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, 1 in 5 women in Ireland have experience of sexual assault but only 1 in 4 report it. There is a 5% conviction rate for those that are reported.

An excellent article by Donal O’Keefe on the Avondhu website discussing rape culture in Ireland cites the definition of rape culture as being “a society… whose prevailing social attitudes have the effect of normalising or trivialising sexual assault and abuse”, elaborating that “Behaviours commonly associated… include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivialising rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.”

The article goes on to list a number of illustrative cases where even when there was video footage, numerous witnesses, or admission by the rapist of the crime, the sentences handed down were still suspended to pitiful amounts. For instance, one offender received only six months jail time for rugby tackling and then sexually assaulting a woman on Griffith Avenue until onlookers intervened.

Another case involving a bouncer who was caught on camera carrying an unconscious woman out to an alley and sexually assaulting her, resulted in the awful sight of over 50 locals, including the parish priest, lining up to shake his hand at the criminal court, as a show of support. As the priest put it, ‘so he (the assailant) knew he wasn’t alone’.

Despite disturbing examples like these, the #MeToo and #IStandWithHer campaigns have shown that many people have had enough and won’t stand for the kind of ‘boys will be boys’, lad culture rubbish that has been taken for granted for too long.

It’s encouraging to see consent courses being introduced into schools. These transition year classes will be rolled out across 60 schools and comprise 12 hours class time, but the fact that they are being called an ‘early intervention’ course may demonstrate an underestimation of the problem. Most statistics on porn use say that 11 is the average age for children to first encounter pornography, while Bitdefender found that 1 in 10 visitors to porn sites are under 10 years old. So, it is hard to see how intervening at the age of 16 could be considered early, if the majority of young people have already been exposed to pornographic content that is potentially violent or glorifies degrading women during sex.

That aside, these courses will be an important first step, and it’s good to see that internet activity and LGBTQA issues have also been included in the course. Nevertheless, in a country where, from around age five, children are routinely asked to hug people goodbye or sit on Santa’s lap whether they want to or not, people may have long since learned to disregard their own bodily autonomy by age 16.

Last year, Wicklow Sudbury held two consent workshops, one for under 12s and one for the older students, and we plan to have another set of consent workshops in May. The sexual consent workshop for the older students was designed collaboratively between students and staff, based on a template from some UK universities and tweaked accordingly. We covered various different myths around consent, such as the idea that if a person is in a relationship, their consent is implied. We discussed examples from pop culture, like the song Blurred Lines which was popular at the time, and examined the kind of messages these types of songs normalise.

We also did some of Augusto Boales’ forum theatre, where students role played situations, such as being cat-called or approached persistently by a stranger at a bus stop, and brainstormed how people could navigate those situations before playing them out again with those solutions in mind. This was a particular highlight for the students, and is highlighted in the video below. Watch to learn more about how our consent workshop has helped establish a culture of consent at Wicklow Sudbury.

Discussing and learning about consent is crucial for young people or anyone to navigate today’s culture which routinely glorifies a lack of consent, or respect, and promotes objectification. Are we so foolish as to think that celebrating songs like Blurred Lines, which makes a mockery of the idea of consent yet sat pretty at the top of the charts, or artists like Eminem, making slick rhymes about grotesque violence towards women, doesn’t send a message to young people?

From an early age, we socialize boys and girls based on preconceived notions of how they should be. Boys don’t cry, pink for girls and blue for boys. If girls play rough, we’re alarmed, but boys when do it then they’re just being boys. Of course, there are many more examples, which are constantly reflected in the media young people consume. Boys see a range of different heroic models who excel at many things but have an equally limited emotional range. Girls, on the other hand, see a hundred variations on the damsel in distress trope and little else besides. Although Hollywood has started to realize the demand for more complex, strong female characters since the success of The Hunger Games, there is a long way to go.

There are some models out there for how to begin to remedy this situation. In Sweden, there are schools that seek to deconstruct these artificial gender roles in order to allow children to become whatever type of person they want.

At one point, the teachers in one of these schools videoed their interactions with the children and found that, even though they were trying to avoid reinforcing gender roles, they were still subconsciously treating the students differently based on gender. One teacher saw that when the children were getting ready to go out and play in the snow, she helped all the boys, one by one, to bundle into their warm clothes and boots. The girls however were just ushered past, expected to be able to dress themselves. Similarly, they used longer and more complex sentences when speaking to the girls compared to the boys.

The point is that repairing the damage of gender stereotypes is a process, and the important part is that people are engaging with this process. This is especially important for people like teachers, parents, and guardians, who have such a significant influence on children’s identity formation.

Only last year did we get a legal definition of what constitutes consent here in Ireland.

As O’Keefe mentions in his article, this is unsurprising given the fact that legally, rape was not possible within a marriage until after 1990.

If we are serious about changing the harrowing statistics around rape and sexual assault in our society, if we want to raise a generation of confidant and assertive young women who have no need to fear for their safety every time they walk home alone at night, go to a party or are alone with a man, then we need to get serious about challenging the mosaic of little beliefs that contribute to maintaining a society in which these situation are dangerous.

Why is it okay that we so often compliment girls for being pretty at the expense of other compliments, or that girls always play with dolls and dresses but it’s weird if boys do? It might be harmless enough if these were isolated incidents, or if there wasn’t such a saturation of these ideas in cartoons and music videos. If girls couldn’t walk into any shop or newsagent and see naked women splashed across the top shelf.

Some people might say this is making mountains out of mole hills, that those of us criticizing these cultural trends need to lighten up. But surely after sweeping the abuses of the Catholic Church under the rug for so long, we here in Ireland should now know that a see no evil, hear no evil ‘it’ll be grand’ attitude is just the easy way out.

It’s too easy to say rapists are just a minority of perverts. To say #NotAllMen. It’s too easy to say the Whatsapp messages between Olding, Jackson and their friends were just tongue in cheek messing around. If one in five women were murdered, we would be calling it a national crisis. Or maybe we wouldn’t. Maybe nothing really gains significance until it starts to affect men on a mass scale.

For those of us who don’t want to take the easy way out any more, we need to question the way we were brought up and the gendered attitudes we take for granted. Let’s allow our boys to cry and play with dolls, dresses and make up, let’s encourage them be affectionate, gentle and empathetic with each other.

And let’s encourage our girls to stand up for themselves and say no. To play in the mud and to dream big. To question authority and to see through all the pretty princess rubbish that plagues the entertainment aimed at them.

Yes, we need changes to the legal system, and yes, we need consent classes. But there is no quick fix for a culture where people line up to shake the hands of rapists, where colleges routinely have parties for freshmen where the theme for girls is slutty schoolgirls and where number one songs can glorify violence against women or spread the idea that no means yes.

To destroy something like that and build something better, we need to take the hard, uncomfortable road of looking inward, challenging ourselves, our friends and our families to reconsider social norms we’ve taken for granted in the past in order to give today’s young people a safer and freer future.

Written by Khalil Moran
Editing by Rachel Kuhn

Please share this article if you think Ireland should have a culture of consent!

One thought on “Creating a Culture of Consent

  1. Fantastic writing! I totally agree. It is the same here in America. Our approach to ending rape culture needs to be deliberate and multi-pronged. Go Wicklow Sudbury! You’ve got this.

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