Freshers' Guide to... Sexual Consent

September 8, 2017

All universities work hard to provide a safe and enjoyable environment for students, especially during freshers’ week. After all, we want you to have a great time! You will probably be partying, meeting new people, and perhaps even enjoying a drink or two.

In all the excitement, there can be occasions when it’s wise to step back and take a moment to think. There’s a difference between lighthearted banter and abusive behaviour: don’t let any situation escalate to the latter. If someone in a group you’re with crosses the line, speak up.

If you’re lucky enough to get intimately acquainted with someone, please take consent seriously. Make sure you understand what is and what isn’t acceptable and legal behaviour. Getting this wrong would have serious consequences for everyone involved.

We recommend the BBC Documentary Is this rape: sex on trial (registration required) linked to from this article – please do take an hour to watch it.


Legally, a person consents if the person “agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice.”

Public debates about high-profile cases have revealed that some people of both sexes are not fully aware of the legal definition of consent, and there are some common misconceptions.

  • Verbal sexual harassment (such as catcalling) is illegal in certain defined circumstances (e.g. in the workplace). However, even in situation where it isn’t a crime, it is a form of bullying and any student engaging in such behavior risks getting in trouble with the University.
  • Any unwanted, sexually motivated touch is considered a sexual assault, a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison
  • The most serious sex crimes, such as rape and sexual assaults involving penetration, have a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The police use the following definitions when deciding how to respond to a complaint: “A person commits sexual assault if they intentionally touch another person, the touching is sexual and the person does not consent.”

Without consent, touching, kissing, groping and similar behavior are serious crimes which can lead to prison sentences and an entry in the sex offenders register.

Alcohol and Consent

The Crown Prosecution Service specifically addresses “voluntary intoxication” as one of the factors that can diminish the capacity to make choices – and therefore, make consent impossible.

The capacity to consent can evaporate well before someone is drunk enough to lose consciousness.

'Is this rape? Sex on trial’ – a BBC Documentary

To find out what young people understand about sexual consent, the BBC have shown a short video about a sexual encounter to 24 teenagers and asked for their interpretation whether it was consensual sex or if a crime had been committed. The resulting documentary is outstanding – please do watch it.

Is this rape? on BoB (use if you don’t have a TV Licence, but are an enrolled student)

Due to the subject matter, the Is this rape? documentary can be challenging to watch. It contains some upsetting scenes.

Less Challenging Videos

A funny video about consent:

A more serious video about consent:

Neither video should be taken as legal advice: both videos oversimplify things.

One approach being tried in some US universities and states is a Yes means Yes definition of consent. This is reflected in the more serious of the two videos embedded above.

More Information

For more information, please visit the Consent, Alcohol, Sex and Sex Crimes page on the Student Safety UniLife Channel.

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