Initially published online at The Tab Cambridge
“The FemiNazis are getting us to do consent workshops now!” Said some anonymous face in the Union bar last week. He was talking about the news that CUSU are trying to introduce compulsory consent workshops for freshers next year, and he hadn’t thought to monitor his volume.
Or maybe he hadn’t thought it necessary. Hostility to feminism seems unfortunately fashionable in Cambridge at the moment. And criticising the Women’s Campaign is hardly unheard of. But terms like FemiNazi miss the point, because in reality consent workshops are as little a female imperative as they are a Nazi one. Rape needs to be reassessed as a societal issue: not men, not women, but the purview of us all.
Let’s keep the analogy, however, but switch it on its head. What if we were to think ofLadNazis. Bear with me.
In Stanley Milgram’s famous social experiment he demonstrated that Nazi officers were not warped people: they were normal people who committed evil because of the urge in every human being to follow social convention.
With this in mind, a perspective needs to be shared. Lad culture is partly responsible for blurring the lines between consent and assault. Is this so different from those deplorable conventions that become accepted in other societies? I don’t know.
I do know that these workshops aren’t about people believing all men are lecherous perverts. No, the aims of CUSU are to tackle the ‘dangers of lad culture’ as well as to stop victim blaming. And these are legitimate goals with legitimate reasons for pursuit. Let me explain.
Victim blaming is widespread. Remarks such as, ‘People drink themselves into these situations’, and ‘It sounds like she was definitely kissing back’, are not uncommon, especially in The Tab’s comment section. Even if these viewpoints were somehow valid, they’re not going to help us deal with sexual violence in our society. That much should be obvious.
Remarks such as ‘Why did he do that?’, ‘Why do so many men think this is acceptable behaviour?’, ‘Why do men keep abusing women?’. These are the questions that will get us somewhere.
And it needs to be men asking other men. We need men to challenge their friends when they say something misogynistic. Instead of laughing along, shouldn’t we oppose it? Shouldn’t we say, “Hey that could be my sister you’re talking about. I don’t appreciate it.”? Only when men lose social status amongst their friends for being misogynistic will we start to see meaningful progress.
And let’s be clear: lad culture is pernicious because it has arisen out of a desire for social status. It plays on men’s insecurities and doubts about relationships and popularity. It is not the intrinsically sexist ideology of Robin Thicke. It is the logical conclusion of an increasingly pervasive (and quite wrong) belief that girls are not interested in meek, accommodating, ‘nice’ men. That lacking sexual experience is tantamount to being a social outcast. That in order to be sexually successful you have to be a ‘dick’.
What happens to men under this social pressure? How are they going to react when consent is not so straightforward.
Past articles on The Tab about lad culture and assault have illustrated that these situations are rarely clear-cut. Questions such as ‘If she’s coming home with me, does she want me to make a move?’ and ‘How drunk is too drunk?’ have no one-word answer. To some people, being forward is a great and attractive quality. But for others who do not give their consent, it can be unacceptable and traumatic to even try.
This highlights that a judgement call is needed. In that grey area, lad culture encourages men to make their decisions based on the likelihood of sexual and social gain instead of the wishes of the people involved. When men get these decisions wrong, that’s when assault happens. I think part of the point of these workshops must be to make men consider, in that moment of choice, to be just as conscious of consent as they are of social status.
But you might still be wondering why these workshops are to be compulsory. I believe the answer is simple.
This is not an issue about being sensitive to the ‘plight of women’, stuck between the oppression of a male-dominated society and the patronising goodwill of some sympathetic male protectors. This is a leadership issue.
When a public figure is found guilty of sexual assault, they didn’t need to be more sympathetic to women. They needed to be a good leader. Cambridge University, through these workshops, is trying to make sure the future leaders have an appreciation of the social impact of their decisions.
To return to the initial quote, challenging social convention is vital to ensuring that harmful cultures change. In Cambridge of all places, the leaders of tomorrow should understand that consent is the foundation of a very un-Nazi society. I do not know whether these consent classes will be any good, but I do think I understand something about why they’re needed. As members of this society, as future leaders, and as men, it is our responsibility to support them.