A ‘Dangerous Marxist Agenda’: Responding to criticism about proposed compulsory consent education

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Words || Jasmine Noud

Over 30 student groups have co-signed a list of demands proposed by the Women’s Collective that includes the implementation of a compulsory online module regarding consent and respectful relationships.

Despite the fact that there has been little progress on the creation of this program, the module and its intentions have been outlined by a vocal opponent of the module: “mandatory programs seek to install all Macquarie students with the ability to understand consent and harassment, as well as training in trigger warnings, micro aggressions, and respectful conduct between students.”

For a description being offered up by someone opposed to this module, it sure is a pretty winning description. What problems could someone possibly find with understanding consent, or respectful conduct? Well according to critics of the proposed program, implementing a compulsory program constitutes ‘cultural Marxism’ and ‘brainwashing’. That’s right, teaching people about sexual ethics and consent is a form of socio-political Marxist brainwashing.

The concept of compulsory education is not new at Macquarie; currently, all new students must undertake a module on academic misconduct which defines it, outlines why it’s unacceptable at Macquarie, explains your responsibilities under the Student Code of Conduct in relation to academic dishonesty and the potential consequences for those caught partaking in dishonest conduct. Funnily enough, there’s hasn’t been outcry about how forcing students to sit through this constitutes political brainwashing, or ‘cultural Marxism.’

That might just be because a single program educating people on their rights and responsibilities under the Code of Conduct that they adhere to by being a student of Macquarie University is far from the university imposing ideological control. Putting aside the fact that the proposed module will literally be teaching people how to treat other people with basic human respect and decency (god what a horrifying ideology!!), it will be educating students about their rights and responsibilities under both criminal law and the Code of Conduct they have signed on to (most likely without even reading). That seems like a pretty responsible move on the part of the university; you wouldn’t let people sign a contract without reading it, so you shouldn’t let people be held to a student code of conduct without educating them on what is expected of them.

In a vast number of criticisms of the proposed module, somehow the idea of trigger warning education and safe spaces have all been lumped together. Apparently, in combination with a consent and relationships module, educating people on safe spaces and trigger warnings reduces freedom of speech and stunts political expansion.

Wow, what a misunderstanding of literally all of those things.

Trigger warnings are a way for students who have suffered trauma to prepare themselves for a topic area to be discussed, or excuse themselves if the discussion of a topic will be re-traumatising for them. Think of it like the movie rating system; if you’re not a fan of blood, you will know to avoid that film rated ‘MA15+ Graphic Violence’, or at least be prepared for what you’ll see.

In the case of sexual harassment and assault, having trigger warnings (in addition to safe spaces allowing students to take a break from traumatising and distressing discussion areas) allows these discussions to go ahead – and your speech to remain as free as ever – without negatively impacting others in the room for whom the topic at hand is deeply personal. Teaching people about the importance of these and encouraging their use actually allows for people to engage further with potentially traumatising ideas without sacrificing their own emotional and mental wellbeing. If anything, education on trigger warnings allows more people to embrace their freedom of speech.

Also, safe spaces have literally nothing to do with a consent module.

A point that’s at least a little more relevant has been raised, though, that perhaps this proposed module is itself useless, according to the (apparently) age-old saying that ‘rapists will be rapists’; those evil people who intend to commit assault cannot be educated out of that mindset.

To start with, the proposed program is not simply a ‘how to not rape’ handbook. It is intended to encompass various aspects of respectful relationships, from peer and friend relationships to sexual and consent ethics. This does include training on the notion of affirmative consent; the idea that ‘Yes means Yes’ and that the lack of a no cannot be taken for consent.

There is a bounty of evidence to show that modules like this are successful in reducing the amount of sexual violence between young people. The ‘Safe Dates’ educational program in the US successfully reduced not only the rates of sexual violence among those who had completed the program, but also the mentality of victim-blaming and acceptance of myths around assault and perpetrators.

The idea that perpetrators of assault and harassment can’t be educated on respectful relationships seems to perpetuate the idea that rapists are seedy dudes hanging out in the bushes, ready to assault someone at any given moment. This overlooks every single piece of evidence that shows that a person is most likely to be assaulted by somebody they know.

According to the AHRC results, 85% of students who had been sexually harassed named the perpetrator as somebody from Macquarie University, or someone from their uni residence.

Yes, it can’t be denied that some perpetrators will be repeat offenders, and yes, some people simply cannot learn to be respectful of the autonomy of others, but for the vast majority of people who simply haven’t been educated on what consent looks like, or how to respect people’s boundaries, or haven’t been taught that they are allowed to communicate when they aren’t comfortable, there is no question that an educational module on this will reduce the rates of assault and harassment.

Interestingly, many have raised the idea that perhaps a more suitable solution to rates of assault and harassment would be to focus on legalising pepper spray as a defence, or increasing lighting on campus, or having tighter security.

To say that any of those are the single, ultimate solution to the problem of rape culture and sexual assault at university is laughable. Yes, lighting and security certainly make people feel safer, but those as standalone measures are simply not going to reduce assault; especially given that assault is not the man-in-the-bushes scenario but perpetrated most often by friends, or acquaintances, or partners who have not received adequate consent and respect training. As for pepper spray, to imply that it’s better for people to constantly be on edge and ready to defend themselves against an attacker, instead of attempting to minimise the risk of that situation occurring through education, is frankly ridiculous.

Certainly, some might feel comfortable having safety measures like pepper spray on hand but to focus on self-defence instead of crime reduction seems like a fantastic way to keep everyone feeling paranoid, on edge and unsafe, and to place the burden of preventing assault onto the victims themselves.

It is particularly interesting to note that the majority of people who suggest these alternate solutions are generally not from the groups that are most likely to be affected by assault and harassment; that is, women, trans and gender diverse people and LGBTQIA+ people. It’s a little condescending (if not downright uninformed) to have supposedly ‘better ideas’ pitched by those with little understanding of the issue in opposition to measures suggested by those who are in fact disproportionately affected by assault and harassment, and have been involved in assault and harassment strategy.

A compulsory module on consent, respectful relationships and sexual ethics won’t brainwash you into a leftist neo-Marxist ideology, but it might just teach you a bit about how to approach sex, sexuality, and relationships in general a little more ethically. Frankly if you’re not a fan of learning about consent, you’re probably one of the people who need the module the most.

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