CW: references sexual violence
As a bisexual female student living in a hall of residence at the Australian National University, I have a statistically higher chance of being sexually assaulted almost any other university student in Australia (I checked).
When I arrived at college for first-year induction in February this year, we were taken through, in detail, how seriously the university takes sexual assault and harassment. We were also told that we were required to complete the online Consent Matters Module through Wattle.
The reputation of the ANU and of other Australian universities such as the University of Sydney, with regards to sexual assault and harassment, hardly needs an introduction. In 2016, at least 52 students were sexually assaulted on ANU’s campus. In 2016, the Human Rights Commission also reported that students living on campus were seven times more likely to be raped at university.
The Consent Matters Module has been branded as a tokenistic, ‘band-aid’-style approach to what is actually a much broader and more serious issue: rape culture. The argument is that this issue cannot miraculously be solved through watching stories acted out by cartoon figures and checking boxes on a screen.
Understandably, when my concerned family asked me if I felt safe at college, they seemingly expected that unisex toilets, boys in general, and a dominant rape culture would spring to my mind. To their surprise, I answered that I feel safe, comfortable and have never been put in a situation where I lacked autonomy or control. I love my college, its accepting culture, and its prioritisation of student safety and wellbeing. I personally do not feel at risk, despite the statistics. But, of course, that’s just me; I can’t speak for every other individual who may feel threatened, traumatised or abused at university. The number of women dealing with sexual violence cannot be understated, particularly in a university setting.
For me, it feels like a question of the chicken or the egg. Have I been randomly blessed with people who understand consent, who understand how rape culture is perpetuated, and who respect other people, especially women? Or has this new-found conception of consent been a result of the Consent Matters Module?
I decided to ask this question in a college Facebook group chat to vibe it out. I asked if the Consent Matters Module had “actually had an impact on sexual assault and everyone’s understanding of consent”. Out of 36 group-chat members, the 20 responses I received were all a strong “yes”.
Obviously, my microcosmic survey can’t encapsulate or represent the attitudes of everyone at ANU, and Australian universities, more generally. The reality is that people who want to learn about consent and safe sex will learn. This may not necessarily take place through the Consent Matters Module, but perhaps through simply talking to others, or educating themselves independently. Ultimately, however, I was struck by how many people at college felt that the Module did teach them something about consent.
The flip-side of these outcomes, of course, is the boy with his headphones in during the college talk on sexual assault, or the kid who swipes through the Module like it’s stick-figure Tinder and attempts the quiz nine times before they correctly complete the 10 questions. These people won’t learn.
The biggest problem with the Module is simply that the people who do not want to learn about consent, or who feel like it doesn’t matter, will not learn. People like this will always exist. The Module helps people who want to learn about consent, but it doesn’t alter the reality that some people simply refuse to listen.