Cw: discussion of sex, consent, sexual assault, alcohol, mention of an acephobic slur.
Just over a year ago, I was the stereotypical nervous fresher waiting to begin university. I heard all the usual rumours of aggressive drinking societies and their drunken debauchery, the stories of lad culture and one night stands, the statistics of sexual harassment and assault. As far as I could tell, at university you don’t choose whether or not to have sex; you just choose how and when and with whom.
I was coming to the realisation that I dreaded having sex, dreaded getting into relationships, and even talking to guys because of the sex I thought I was expected to have with them. I had never heard the term ‘asexual’, except as something to do with plants, and I assumed that sex (like romance, marriage and pregnancy) was something that would just happen to me at some point. Everything from children’s movies to school sex-ed taught me that these were essential parts of life, rites of passage into the hallowed shrine of ‘womanhood’. If I didn’t want them to happen, it was because I was immature, and I just needed to grit my teeth and get on with it.
When my college announced that they would be putting on consent workshops in freshers’ week, I wasn’t particularly bothered. As a feminist, I supported them, but I doubted whether they would teach me anything I didn’t know already.
We spent about 45 minutes sitting around a table, eating Sainsbury’s Basics biscuits and trying not to be awkward or giggle – and failing at both. At some point in the proceedings, someone running the workshop mentioned asexuality and rattled off a quick definition. The conversation moved on, but my attention did not. I went straight back to my room afterwards, did some adrenaline-fuelled googling, and then some happy crying.
But my consent workshop didn’t just introduce me to the term ‘asexual’. It also introduced me to the fundamental idea that it was possible not to want to have sex, full stop. That consent wasn’t just about having your ‘no’ respected, but about always having the right to say no – not for any particular reason, not temporarily, just ‘no’. I was crying in relief, because at 18 years old I finally realized that I didn’t owe anyone sex, that I didn’t have to ‘grit my teeth and get on with it’. If I didn’t want it, I could just say no.
In retrospect, I find it fairly disappointing that nobody had told me this sooner. I had had no shortage of sex-ed at school. Perhaps it just wasn’t enough to counterbalance the impression that society and the media made. Either way, if teenagers still need to be told at university level that they don’t have to have sex, and consent workshops will provide that, then I shall forever support them.
So far, university had made a promising impact on me: (a)sexual liberation in my first week of term – what more could I ask? What more, indeed. As I have learned more about the asexual community and its place in the LGBT+ community, I have become aware of numerous issues, but I have also been given a new perspective on other aspects of university life.
On the one hand, I have been impressed by the awareness and inclusivity of the LGBT+ community towards me. The internet told me that I might not be welcome in some communities, but I’ve never found that to be the case here. Many LGBT+ events and groups specify that they’re open to asexuals, as well as to other minorities, and I really appreciate it. It means I can participate and feel I have a right to, rather than worrying that I’m not actually welcome.
On the other hand, despite the emphasis on consent workshops in freshers’ week, I think that the wider university community still has a long way to go as far as consent is concerned. As yet, I personally have not had an issue with consent in sexual situations, but I am alarmed by the sheer number of people who don’t respect consent in other scenarios.
Take drinking. I don’t drink, in general; like sex, it holds no appeal for me. The reactions I get to this are very revealing. Most people want to know why I don’t drink. Sometimes I get astonishment, sometimes contempt. Sometimes they try to insist on me drinking. I’ve also experienced this with other things I’m not prepared to do. I had more than one person call me a ‘prude’ when I refused to take part in a particularly unhygienic game at formal hall.
The people who called me by this traditional acephobic slur had no idea about my sexuality, and at the time I ignored it, but in retrospect it makes me deeply uncomfortable. It’s a word designed to shame someone into doing something they have already refused to do. It’s a classic example of not taking ‘no’ for an answer. I don’t care what I get called, but I do care about people respecting my consent. As an asexual, as a woman, and as a human being, it scares me. This is just about a drink. How are you going to respond if I say no to something else?
This isn’t just a problem for asexuals, or for women. Everyone has boundaries and the right to choose, even about the most seemingly trivial of things. Someone doesn’t want a hug? Don’t hug them. They don’t want to put the silly hat on? Don’t ask why. Just accept it.
I’m aware that most people probably don’t realise just how discomforting their actions can be, and have no ill intentions whatsoever. They might be very careful in asking and respecting consent in sexual situations. But I don’t know that. I have to judge how much I trust people by their actions in other situations, and ultimately their actions are their responsibility.
Consent workshops are a good start at reminding us all of the importance of consent. But creating a safe space also requires every individual to put this into practice in their everyday life, in both sexual and non-sexual situations. If we want a university – and a world – where everyone, regardless of orientation, gender or past experiences, feels comfortable and confident in their right to say no, we need action as well as education.
Anonymous Get Real. contributor