Consent Matters, But Do Powerful Institutions Really Believe This?

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Yesterday saw a damning ABC 7.30 report on the Greens’ institutional response to sexual violence within their own party. To get ahead of the story, the Greens this week have announced their new approach to tackling sexual violence: the Consent Matters module, which is an hour long, online course involving stick figures and pleasant platitudes.

Consent Matters has already been trialed at universities around Australia and has been slammed by academics and students alike as a quick-fix, tick-the-box solution which has been implemented because it is cheaper than evidence-based programs. Participants don’t need to tick any answers – let alone the correct answers – to proceed through the module. So perhaps it’s overly generous to call it a ‘tick-the-box’ approach.

To date, there is no evidence that the ‘awareness raising’ module reduces sexual violence whatsoever, let alone that it addresses the cultural conditions that underscore sexual violence. In fact there are concerns that the Consent Matters module has a ‘boomerang’ effect on those at risk of offending – further entrenching misogynistic attitudes- while having a neutral effect on most others. Survivors of sexual assault who have been required to undergo the module as part of their university degree have also complained that they found the content alienating and distressing, particularly when scenarios replicated their own experiences.

So if political or educational institutions are serious about tackling sexual violence in their communities, why are they investing in a tokenistic online course that academics and activists have widely condemned?

Research shows that for consent education to work most effectively, it must be delivered in a face-to-face interactive setting, where participants explore the underpinnings of sexual violence, and the expression of rape culture in society in the form of rape myths. Participants must also critically engage with the social, cultural and economic structures which perpetuate harmful beliefs and practices.

That the Greens would be short-sighted enough to implement such an inadequate knee-jerk ‘solution’ to sexual violence shows how far the party has strayed from its social movement roots. If the party had maintained its former strong ties to the student movement, this misstep would simply not have occurred. If they held a genuine connection with, and integration in, broader feminist and anti-rape movements, it would have been immediately apparent what an embarrassment it is for the party to embrace Consent Matters.

People expect to be safe in institutions that publicly and proudly claim to be doing much good work on tackling sexual violence.

There is a central irony here that the very institutions which like to imagine themselves as virtuous are often the most anxious to deny wrongdoing because of the cognitive dissonance produced when their behaviour sits at odds with their brand. The result, inevitably, is either cover up, spin or tokenistic reform.

When someone experiences sexual violence within an institution which purports to be progressive, their trauma can be exacerbated precisely because those who cling to the reputation and image of the institution are more likely to minimise or deny the claims, or accuse them of betraying the organisation.

This form of institutional betrayal and gaslighting doesn’t simply re-traumatise the victim, it also sends a powerful message to other victims within the institution about what will happen if they speak up.

The women who spoke out on 7.30 this week have displayed great courage.  Not simply because they are speaking out as survivors, but because they are speaking out in the knowledge that the institution they have devoted so much to in the past, will likely turn on them. It is paradoxical that for having the courage to uphold the very values which the Greens claim they subscribe to – and which likely attracted those women to the Greens in the first place – they may well be punished.

  • If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, help is available. Call the 1800 RESPECT hotline on 1800 737 732 and ask to speak to a specialist trauma counsellor.
Imogen Grant, Holly Brooke & Nina Funnell

Imogen Grant is the President of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council and member of the Greens NSW. Holly Brooke is a postgraduate student at Sydney University, and works in research and communications. She is the former Convenor of the NSW Young Greens, and co-created with Imogen Grant and Alysha Hardy an interactive face-to-face, evidence-based consent workshop for the Greens in 2017 prior to resigning from the party. Holly was one of the women who has spoken out on 7.30. Nina Funnell is a Walkley award winning journalist and anti-sexual assault activist.

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