Following the controversy over Warwick University student George Lawlor's criticisms of sexual consent classes, one young man argues that if we want to engage men in discussions about consent, we need to have genuine empathy for how this might make them feel.
Anyone who follows discussions about “gender issues” in the news will probably have heard the story of how a student at Warwick University named George Lawlor recently caused an uproar with an article that he wrote for an online student newspaper about his negative reaction to being invited to attend a workshop on sexual consent. His piece provoked a negative and often mean-spirited response from many people on social media and in the press, although he also received plenty of support.
Watching all of this unfold was a thought-provoking experience for me. I asked myself how I would have responded if I had been invited to attend a consent workshop when I was at university, just over 10 years ago. I would not have responded like George did although I can see why he took offense to the invitation – he described the invitation as “loathsome”, “the biggest insult that he had received in a good few years” and “incredibly hurtful” because it implied that he “needed to be taught how to not be a rapist”. I am aware that I am coming to this subject quite late and that much has already been written about it. But as a straight man who has been through a process of overcoming a great sense of shame about my sexuality and who also supports teaching about sexual consent in schools and at universities, I feel that I have something to add to the subject.
I want to begin by explaining to you why I can empathise with George’s reaction. In teaching young men about sexual consent, it seems inevitable that we would need to ask them to consider whether they could potentially carry out an act of non-consensual sex – a crime that would hurt another human being, which in our society carries more shame than almost any other crime. There is no reason to believe that this should be an easy subject to talk to young men about. Most people want to believe that they are fundamentally good people who would not be capable of harming anyone and are likely to react negatively and become defensive when asked to consider the possibility that this might not be the case. Whatever your opinion on the necessity and effectiveness of consent workshops, I hope that you can see that many young men will feel that these workshops implicitly place their sexuality under suspicion and as a result it is an understandable human response to take offence at the suggestion that they should go to one.
'Don't assume I might harm someone because I'm a man'
If we want to have constructive conversations with young men about sexual consent then we surely need to accept and engage with them when they react negatively to being asked to talk about it. Sadly, much of the negative response to George’s article took a shaming and derisive tone which will only serve to make it more difficult to engage young men in the conversations about sex that they need to have.
Much of the negative response focused on the picture that accompanied Gorge’s article – of himself holding a card reading “this is not what a rapist looks like”, which many people took to be a ridiculous statement that potential rapists can be identified by their appearance. I think that his inclusion of the picture was very misguided but given the context of his article, I found it clear that he was saying “don’t assume that I have the potential to harm women just because I am a man”. I can imagine many people who feel they are being negatively stereotyped feeling the need to say something along the lines “this is not what a [negative stereotype about the group to which I belong] looks like” and for the message to be broadly understood, but when it comes to a subject as highly emotive as rape, this message was obviously never going to get across. It was an open goal that people on social media weren’t going to miss and so a lot of the responses to his article took the form of commenting on how “rapey” he looked.
The fact that a potential rapist cannot be identified by their appearance or broad demographic group also formed the basis for some of the responses in the press. Bridget Christie wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled “What does a rapist look like anyway?” and Rebecca Reid wrote an article for The Telegraph entitled “Breaking news: rapists can be nice university educated boys”. These articles express many reasonable ideas that most people will have heard many times before and could not rationally disagree with. However, I think that both articles also indicate that we are still missing a key aspect of this discussion – the emotional reaction of young men when they are asked to talk about and be educated about sexual consent. If we fail to address this, then writers like Bridget Christie and Rebecca Reid will have to continue making these same points over and over again.
Are sexual consent classes really 'simple and benign'?
Sadly, both authors seem to be almost wilfully tone deaf about this aspect of the discussion. The authors of these articles, being women, will never have been asked to consider the possibility that they might rape someone yet they presume to understand what it is like to be young man who is asked to do that. The summary of Christie’s article stated: “If anyone has a right to be offended, it probably isn’t George Lawlor for being invited along to a sexual-consent workshop” and describes Lawlor’s response as an “extreme reaction to a simple, benign request which shows how far we have to go in terms of how we tackle, and even discuss, the issue of rape”. There is nothing “simple and benign” about being asked to consider the possibility that you might seriously hurt another person and she does a disservice to everyone by referring to it as such.
Reid writes: “If you don’t start consent education in childhood then you end up with young men, like Lawlor, who whether they understand consent or not, believe themselves to be above even having the conversation at all.” Reid’s article is the more measured of the two and I agree with her that consent education should be started earlier in schools but her tone is unhelpful. As a woman, she can already consider herself “above” being invited to consider whether or not she might rape someone, and therefore has no reason to consider how deeply uncomfortable and emotionally painful it might be for young men to go through the process of assessing their attitudes to sex and to women and considering whether they might be harmful.
The worst thing about both these articles is the tone of mockery and judgement that they take towards what George wrote, something that they have in common with much of the negative response on social media. If young men feel that their understandable resistance to talking about sexual consent will be met with this kind of mockery and judgement, then they are likely to disengage with the process altogether and potentially seek out less healthy places to discuss how they are feeling.
'Young men increasingly feel they are being judged'
The Telegraph also published a far more constructive article by Radhika Sanghani entitled “Calling this naive student a 'rapist' ain't helping anyone”. In it, she writes “it is a sad indictment of our society that people have reacted to Lawlor’s views with hatred and anger” and “the only way to educate more people about the complex reality of rape is by talking about it and creating an environment where questions can be asked.” She quotes an expert who says about the response to George, “it would be better if people challenged him productively, without judgement and with respect”. I am in agreement with much of what she wrote, although she doesn’t seem to acknowledge how difficult it has become for young men to feel like they won’t be judged and will be respected, especially when discussing highly-politicised and challenging issues such as sexual assault.
Men of my generation grew up in an environment where we were bombarded with negative messages about men and there seemed to be no understanding from society that this might be affecting us. We were constantly being asked by society to assess our thoughts, feelings and sexual urges for anything that might be harmful to women yet there was no consideration of how this was making us feel about ourselves – it was just seen as something that we had to do, otherwise we would potentially become the kind of monstrous men that we heard about on the news who harmed women.
As a young man I found the messages I received about my sexuality frightening and alienating and they certainly did not create an environment where I felt like I would not be judged and would be respected. Moreover, the nature of the public discussions about these issues made me feel like my emotional and sexual development simply did not matter other than in terms of how it might affect girls and women.
I am not suggesting that we stop talking about difficult and important subjects just to spare the feelings of boys, but we need to make sure that boys don't feel overwhelmed by negative messages about being male. We need to meet their defensiveness about certain subjects with compassion rather than contempt. As a society we also need to do more to support the emotional development of boys – and to make sure boys know that we are doing this because we value their well-being rather than just because we want to reduce the chances of them becoming harmful to women
Things need to change if we are to have constructive conversations with boys and men about sexual consent. Many of the same things need to change if we are to support boys in growing into healthy confident men in their own right, and this should be seen as no less important a goal.