This is the first year of the YIF programme where sexual harassment training and workshops are mandatory. Considering myself to be as woke a feminist as they come, I thought that I was well aware of the sexual harassment and consent terminology and didn’t think that there was anything else I could learn. So what is the point of having these sessions? Led by Dr Madhavi Menon, all students were briefed on the Ashoka sexual harassment policy; what constitutes as sexual harassment, how to make a complaint to the Committee on Sexual Harassment (or ‘CASH’ for short), what the procedure would be and what the penalties are if a student is found guilty. She kick-started the session with a short video from AIB which challenged some of the pre-conceived ideas of courting/stalking and other themes that are propagated in Bollywood films. The batch was then divided in to groups and each watched a series of short films, produced by Ashoka students which mimicked real-life scenarios of incidents of sexual harassment and establishing consent. These videos were designed to spark discussion on these topics and the discussion continued long after the workshops ended.
Having studied in two prior institutions, in Dublin and Paris respectively, I am ashamed to say that I have not attended as comprehensive a workshop where the college’s policy on sexual harassment was clearly presented. The closest thing that I could liken it to would be the annual SHAG week (Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance), held in University College Dublin where some conversation was held around consent and safe sex. Apart from this, there was no clear policy brought to our attention of how to report sexual harassment or what came in to the remit of sexual harassment. This is worrying and this lack of understanding has been addressed by the Irish young adult writer, Louise O’ Neill. Louise O’ Neill made waves in bringing Ireland’s rape culture to the fore in her novel, Asking for It, which deconstructs the issues of victim blaming, slut shaming and consent when a young girl is gang raped by some students who she knows from school. Further to the success of her book, she campaigned to have consent classes introduced for all incoming college students as part of the #Notaskingforit campaign. However, when Trinity College Dublin announced that it may hold mandatory consent classes, it caused major controversy with commentators saying that it was “treating all students like potential sex offenders”. UCD had to cancel its consent classes due to poor turn out at a cost to the Student Union itself. Students either did not feel they needed or would benefit from these classes or were simply disinterested. Unfortunately, the necessity of these workshops is not felt until it is too late, linked to the legal principle: ignorantia juris non excusat; that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. It is not a defense to say that you did not know that what you were doing was sexual harassment, nor it is it a defense to say that you thought your actions were appropriate or that the person was giving you ‘signals’.
Why do we get so indignant at the mention of sexual harassment workshops and consent classes? With reports of sexual harassment on the rise on college campuses, I do not only think that these workshops should be mandatory for all incoming first year students, but made to be a compulsory as an ongoing part of the curriculum in secondary schooling and beyond. This is also not just a generational thing, reflected in the recent comments of a well-known Irish radio host, George Hook, who apportioned a part of the blame on a woman who had consensual sex in a hotel room with a man she had met, when another man entered the room and raped her. He commented: “Why does a girl who just meets a fella in a bar go back to a hotel room? She’s only just barely met him. She has no idea of his health conditions; she has no idea who he is; she has no idea of what dangers he might pose. But modern day social activity means that she goes back with him, then is surprised when somebody else comes into the room and rapes her.” Thankfully, he was forced to issue an apology and there has been widespread condemnation of these comments. Clearly, this shows that rape culture and other views on consent are pervasive in all generations and that people need education to challenge these prejudices.
We need to become better at understanding what sexual harassment is, how to report it and how to establish consent. I, myself, am guilty of not reporting things that have made me feel uncomfortable as I think they are not ‘severe enough’ to warrant reporting – meanwhile allowing the offender to continue perpetrating the same behaviour, sometimes escalating it further. By standing idly by, we also become complicit in the sexual harassment itself. We act like seeking consent is not ‘sexy’ and kills the mood, when it must become a vital part of our sexual relationships. We need to start realizing that there is nothing sexier than ongoing and enthusiastic consent from a willing partner.
So what have I learned? I learned that sexual harassment covers a multitude of things – but that the underlying factor is that it is conduct which is unwanted, unwelcome and makes another person feel uncomfortable. I learned that we need to be aware of this in all our interactions to provide a safe and comfortable space for everyone and that the policy governs all relations involving Ashoka students, be it on, or external to, campus. I learned that we need to interrogate our own assumptions of what are normal sexual advances to us and to never impose this on others who may not be on the same page.
But the most important revelation that I gained from these workshops is the need to utilize the existing avenues for the reporting of sexual harassment, so that the complaint can be processed and tried accordingly and that both parties have the right to represent themselves, to have their voices heard, for the merits of the case to be weighed in the presence of the committee and for a punishment to be served, as the case may be. Non-reporting or indeed, making allegations without further follow-up has the effect of irreparably tarnishing a person’s reputation and forcing them to serve a penalty of unknown length, without the error of their actions having been pointed out to them for redress. This does nothing to rehabilitate a perpetrator, nor does it serve the potential future victims of the perpetrator. Justice needs to be done and to be seen to be done to act as a public deterrent to others. I understand that many survivors of sexual harassment are unwilling or unable to speak out against their harasser but we need to break the silence. We need to break the stigma. We need to start reporting even the smaller grievances as it is only when we address harassment at a root level that we will be able to weed it out.
Let’s say it together:
Consent is necessary.
Consent is sexy.
Consent is bae.