Why consent workshops should be part of every college Freshers’ Week

By Lewis Martins, Van Mildert JCR President

I’m a bit bored of the ‘consent workshop’ backlash of recent months, and so I am grateful for It Happens Here for allowing me to put together a few quick thoughts on the issue; especially within the context of Freshers’ Week and the experience of new university students.

When planning this year’s Freshers’ Week, it became abundantly clear to me as Van Mildert JCR President, the Senior Freshers’ Rep, and the Welfare Officer that there was a serious gap in the welcome we were providing as a College. New students were briefed on all manner of things – college fire regulations, mental health services, protection against theft, the environment. Yet any mention of sexual violence – and what we can do as a community to fight it – was almost non-existent. A side note to other more ‘worthwhile’ precautions. Whilst not actively perpetuating the problem, this lack of attention made it seem unimportant and irrelevant to new students, relegating it to the nasty, unspoken reality it can often become.

Similarly, whilst our Fresher Reps were coached on active listening – a fantastic life skill, particularly for Freshers’ Week – there was little on the important role we can play with regard to creating zero tolerance for sexual violence, nor how to deal with a disclosure of sexual violence: critical knowledge for someone in a position of care.

Including It Happens Here in our Freshers’ Week was, therefore, an obvious and easy choice to make. Having seen the effort they put into raising awareness of sexual violence at Durham, it was very important for us to show how seriously we take the issue at Van Mildert.

The IHH Frep training workshop was eye-opening and empowered our team to utilise their positions of responsibility to create a safe atmosphere at Mildert, opening an important dialogue on sexual violence on campus that they engaged with really positively. It encouraged all members of the team, regardless of gender, to facilitate a consent-led (yet sex-positive) environment that new students could appreciate and grow into.

On a similar note, I have heard nothing but praise for the IHH talk on consent during Freshers’ Week; Freshers were incredibly receptive to such a significant topic and many commented that they felt better educated on a subject that hadn’t been properly addressed at school. No longer swept under the carpet, it is now discussed at length by new students to the extent that many, if not all, are able to call out inappropriate sexual conduct or instances of sexual violence themselves, well past Freshers’ Week itself. I know for a fact that it has contributed to a zero-tolerance culture in college that will make all students feel safer and better supported.

That’s why I cannot understand this unnecessary criticism of consent workshops. They exist not only for educational and informative purposes, but to shed light on a topic oft-deemed uncomfortable or taboo. They let us discuss openly what consent means: a discussion that we must ensure becomes ingrained in our culture.

If a university or college doesn’t mention sexual violence in the first week of a new student’s academic career, when will they mention it? If a precedent of zero tolerance isn’t set early on, when will it ever be set? If we are not seen to be treating it as a serious issue in Freshers’ Week, then how can we claim to truly look out for every aspect of our students’ wellbeing?

If these consent workshops and talks made even one survivor feel safer and more supported; empowered even one frep to promote a more positive, more respectful atmosphere; stopped even one person from tolerating rape jokes; educated even one fresher on the myths around sexual violence, then it was all worth it. But I personally believe they have done all this and more.

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