Consent Matters

5 March 2019

Content warning for sexual assault and harassment

“The story so far: in the beginning the University of Melbourne was one of many institutions that introduced the Consent Matters program as part of their response to the 2017 Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) inquiry into university sexual harassment and assault.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

– Douglas Adams, probably

If you read the AHRC report, you can see the advice it gives universities on how to tackle sexual violence on campus. Among other things, it recommends targeted education programs – and it stresses that these programs should be evidence-based and ongoing.

This last part is where a lot of the public concern seems to stem from. One year on, many people are still baffled that Consent Matters was chosen when the AHRC report outright states that “education programs which are one-off or which are just a ‘tick a box’ exercise are not effective”. If you’ve done the Consent Matters quiz, you’ll know just how tick-the-box the program is. Furthermore, a review by Women’s Health West found that, beyond being ineffective, one-off programs can actually be counterproductive and result in a “backlash in attitudes”.

There are also problems within the course itself. The modules use scenario-based learning; each is a sort of choose-your-own-adventure task, with every decision moving the story forward in a different way. But even if you make all of the right choices, the module will still send you to the page with the worst-case ending. It’s not graphic, but for some people it could be very triggering. Other universities give students the option to complete a different task if needed, but if UoM has that option, it’s not advertised. Instead, there is a slide at the end of the module listing support services for students who find its contents distressing.

It’s things like this that make me wonder if enough thought went into who would be using the program. For many students, both local and international, this program may be the first sexuality education that they receive. The course is very comprehensive, but to get the most out of it you really need to be comfortable with its frank descriptions and language.

It reminds me a bit of the girl I worked with once at a TAFE open day. She dealt with students who were uncomfortable with the topic of sexual health – whether for social, cultural, personal, or religious reasons – by chasing them down with a condom and metaphorically whacking them over the head with it.

To be fair, I don’t know how to go about reconciling sensitivity with the very real need to destigmatise discussions surrounding sex and sexual health. But I do think that people are at their most receptive when they are not made to feel upset or unsafe by what they are reading.

None of this means that the program is useless – especially for many of our generation who received their primary sexuality education from pornography. As a 2016 paper by White Ribbon New Zealand indicates, there is a strong link between porn consumption and increased sexual coercion and aggression. People’s “sexual expectations, practices, and
repertoires” are shaped by what they watch, and this can have serious real-world consequences for their partners (if we’re being honest, the paper points to men as the main consumers of porn, and therefore the main perpetrators). But as the report also states, the best way to combat this is with alternative education that encourages mature and ethical
decision making in relationships. The Consent Matters course is as good a place to start as any; it explores some of the ambiguities that can pop up in relationships, whether casual or committed, and could potentially be a bit of a wake-up call for some of the people who don’t think that their behaviours are wrong or harmful.

The University is doing a lot of other work on this issue, such as boosting their student support services. It’s just in the area of education, ironically, where they seem to be falling short.

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