Consent Talks

By Dom Smithies (Community & Well-being Officer)

I took over as YUSU’s Community and Well-being Officer back in June this year. In the months since I’ve been getting to grips with the role, figuring out how best to put my manifesto into place and learning about the Union.  One of the things we talk a lot about in YUSU, and pride ourselves on, is our values; brave, inclusive and for, with and by students. It wasn’t until events this week that I was given an opportunity to really have a think what they mean and why they’re so important.

On Tuesday, Lucy and Mia, the Women’s Officers, delivered consent talks to new students as part of a ground-breaking initiative, backed by the University, to improve education and understanding about consent.  When they stood for election back in February, this was their key manifesto pledge and in the months since they’ve worked hard to develop talks that work well for the students here at York, and taken on board feedback from other students, the liberation groups, the University, Union staff and health specialists.    

The talks featured as a voluntary part of a compulsory safety talk covering fire safety and river safety amongst other things.  Around 5,000 students attended the talks.  It has been widely and falsely reported that huge numbers walked out in protest.  I was on the stage throughout all of the talks and I can tell you categorically that this was not the case.  Fewer than 250 people chose not to stay in the first talk.  In the remaining three, just a handful of students out of the thousands that attended left.  I wasn’t able to find out why the students were leaving but I didn’t sense it was in disdain, but I do know that one of them left to deal with his hangover in the toilets… poor guy.

But why do we even need consent talks? Consent is an issue that impacts everyone.

  • We need to open up a conversation about consent and sexual health.
  • We need to highlight what support is out there for students, should they need it.
  • We need our students to be fully informed about consent to ensure that campus is a safe and welcoming as possible.     

Students attending universities come from a huge range of backgrounds, it’s naïve to assume everyone is fully clued up about consent. The statistics are speak for themselves: a third of female students and one in eight male students in Britain have endured a sexual assault or unwanted advances at university, according to research published last year by the Daily Telegraph. If people were better clued up on what consent was, what their legal rights are, and what consent really looks like in practice, the statistics wouldn’t be as staggering.

So how does this fit with the Union’s values?  Mia & Lucy, our Women’s Officers, really brought those values to life for me this week through the consent talks. I and the rest of the officer team could not be more proud of what they achieved and the dialogue they’ve opened to prioritise the education, safety and support of our students.

  • They were brave in tackling a very serious and difficult issue head on. Thousands of new students have arrived on campus and we have a duty to make sure that campus is as safe and welcoming as possible.
  • They were inclusive in highlighting that anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment or assault. The talks were gender-neutral and covered a large range of issues including personal safety, alcohol and sexual health. The talks focused on highlighting the support that is available to students that might need it and were co-delivered with a Survive, a York based charity providing support to adults that have survived child sexual abuse, rape or sexual assault. 
  • They were run for students, in response to growing demand from students, by elected student officers. 

The talks were designed to complement other initiatives across campus including:

  • University led training for support services
  • Joint outreach between the Union’s Advice & Support team and Survive, to make it as easy as possible for students seeking specialist support
  • Training for STYCs (Second and Third Year Contacts) on a range of well-being and liberation issues so they can be empowered to support and signpost new arrivals.

The feedback that was received has been overwhelmingly positive. Students were grateful to be more informed of support that exists, to know their legal rights and to see this issue being tackled and the dialogue being opened.

This talks are one aspect of the larger #WeAreYork campaign that you’ll be hearing more about this term.  I’m launching it with the sabbatical team because as students we leave York with more than just a degree and we all want to be proud of the community that we’re building here.  For me, that community needs to be safe, welcoming and inclusive for our student body. 

It needs to take a lead from our fantastic women’s officers and not shy away from talking about tricky and big issues like consent.  I’m proud of our Women’s Officers and I hope you are too. Be sure to keep updated with what they’re doing at:

Let’s get the message out there: #WeAreYork   

Peace & Love,

Dom xoxo