Why the University’s existing consent module fails students 

Consent Matters does very little to address attitudes stemming from rape culture.

Content Warning: This article deals with issues relating to sexual assault.

At the beginning of first year, I lay on the Law Lawns and finally completed what I’d been putting off. Busy traipsing around Welcome Week stalls, listening to powerful pitches by Club Presidents and stressing about my back-to-back classes, I recalled that I had to complete the Consent Matters and Academic Integrity modules. I wasn’t entirely sure when, or what would happen if I didn’t complete them, but I had received some advice from a friend. “Just click through it and get it over and done with,” they said. “Hover your hand over the arrow button, and constant clicking gets through most of it.”

Sexual assaults on campus cannot be described by a word other than epidemic — and management should be treating this crisis with an adequate emergency response. Welcome Week is notoriously the most dangerous week for students, a week in which 1 in 8 annual incidents of sexual violence on campus will occur. It is also the week where most first years will be exposed to their only mandatory training about sexual violence for the rest of their degree.

USyd’s Consent Matters module is a distant memory for most university students, buried in the haze of a first year Welcome Week, replete with freebies and frightening deadlines. It was introduced in 2018 in response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s damning report on sexual assault on campus. The course was developed by Epigeum, a course-creating business based in Oxford University. 

After its introduction, Consent Matters faced significant backlash, which the former Vice Chancellor Michael Spence rebuffed with a statement. It opens with, “The University makes no apology for opening up discussion on consent and trying to help our students navigate this difficult area.” Of course, this was not the rationale criticised by the media. Rather, Consent Matters is viewed as an archaic bandaid that makes very few strides towards addressing the underlying issue.

Iggy Boyd, 2023 SRC Women’s Officer, added: 

“In so far as there is no evidence that USyd Management’s Consent Module project has done anything at all to prevent sexual violence on campus, one could make quite a strong argument indeed that the introduction of mandatory Consent Modules by the USyd brass has done functionally nothing for sexual violence prevention.”

USyd’s Consent Matters module fails to correctly address its audience, provide comprehensive content, and employ methodology that optimises long-term memory retention.

1. Audience

Educating a pool of first year students on sexual assault prevention and management is inevitably difficult. One of the reasons for this is the varied experiences and knowledge of each student. Some students will arrive at university having faced sexual assault, others will have perpetrated it; some will have been exposed to nuanced discussion about sexual assault in high school, others patriarchal “locker-room banter”.

How can a one-hour course standardise knowledge across the horde of students, ensuring it is not over-explaining well-known concepts whilst also not omitting key laws and rules?

It’s a near-impossible balance to strike, and Consent Matters misses the mark on many levels. Its acronym about consent, FRIES (Freely Given, Reversible, Informed, Enthusiastic, Specific) is condescending and unhelpful, and it fails to give practical tips on topics such as identifying drunkenness, and understanding both verbal and non-verbal clues of vitiated consent.

The module’s content also appears tone deaf to its audience, presenting various sexual assault analogies — such as those of tea and bikes — with an excited tone. Considering the widespread rejection of such oversimplified and re-traumatising analogies by young people, the inclusions seem careless.

2. Content

USyd’s Consent Matters succeeds in expanding the definition of consent beyond sex, encouraging students to seek consent in more aspects of human interaction, such as non-sexual touching and interfering with personal property.

However, even where its content is ideal, the scenarios used to illustrate it are painfully simplified in both tone and content. 

One scenario begins as follows:

“Fred wants to have sex with Ted. 

Fred asks Ted, shall we go to bed?”

The rhyming scenario feels more Seussical than serious, where conversations about consent are communicated in a childish tone. This does a disservice to all. 

The scenario’s last line reminds me of a language-learning program for primary schoolers:

“Good job, Fred!”

The scenario does communicate the importance of respecting a partner’s desires, but the four-line conversation lacks the ecological validity of a real life situation. This renders these scenarios largely unhelpful, as they are unlikely to crop up in similar form in the student’s life. 

The content also assumes that all sexual assaults occur due to misinterpretation of consent being given or vitiated. This is true in some circumstances, but certainly not many — sexual violence is often driven by a masculine desire for power and domination, with the tangible knowledge of a lack of consent in mind. For those individuals, who believe that people do not have the right to consent, or that consent is unnecessary, the Consent Matters module does very little to address these attitudes stemming from rape culture. The content on bystanderism similarly places a significant burden on students to prevent incidents — whilst community support can be helpful, this neglects the University’s obligations to ensure a safer campus and events. 

Additionally, the Consent Matters module omits content that could work to rectify a patriarchal sexual culture, such as content on pleasure and forming healthy relationships in realms other than sexual.

3. Methodology

A significant issue with Consent Matters’ methodology is its occurrence on a one-off basis — much like the readings of a first year course, its content is relegated to the deep crevices of the mind. Considering consent remains continuously relevant in a university student’s quotidian interactions, and any lessons the module teaches are unlikely to be remembered or implemented by a student. 

Another factor that prevents long-term retention is its flawed quizzing system. Pedagogical research unanimously agrees on the importance of quizzing students on content to consolidate it in their memory. Not only do quiz questions force students to appraise the nuances in what they have learnt, they also prevent students from hammering their trackpad with their mouse posed over the ‘next page’ arrow. There are quizzes and scenarios to engage with throughout the course, but these do not actually need to be clicked or read in order to proceed to the next page. This stands out from other consent modules I have taken, such as Monash University’s consent module equivalent where the arrow does not appear until the page’s activity is complete, or the more detailed module for USU club executives which does not flick to the next page until adequate reading time has passed. Although these measures can seem irritating, they increase the likelihood of students interacting with the content by eliminating an ‘easy way out.’

The one-hour course is also painfully dry. USyd student Holly* said the design was “sterile”, which “undermined the seriousness of the topic.” The black and white, stick-figure design lacks the intrigue to hold the audience’s attention for an hour, and also feels as divorced from reality as possible. As the design is embedded into a Canvas page, USYD student Liz* remarks that it feels like “a bland Canvas module,” which further encourages students to click through it rather than critically engage with any material.

Instructional design research also points to face-to-face learning as more effective than online learning, particularly for the undergraduate demographic. Regular face-to-face sessions are more likely to open peer-to-peer dialogue in a safe, regulated space. They also allow students to tailor their learning by asking questions, rather than all completing a standardised module. Face-to-face conversations also allow the minimisation of distress, whereas students who feel distressed during the online module may be isolated and struggle more to reach out from behind their screen.

4. Inadequate content warnings

Psychological research on the effectiveness and utility of content warnings to prevent distress produces mixed results. However, the topic of sexual assault is highly triggering for many students who have experienced it or know someone who experienced it — a pool of people that is unfortunately very large. As explained by the philosopher Kate Manne, the point of content warnings is to allow people to mentally prepare before commencing a reading that will be upsetting or distressing. Before the University of Sydney’s Consent Matters module, Canvas provides the bareboned warning:

This module covers some sensitive topics that may cause you distress. The course does not include explicit graphics or images, but it does include hypothetical scenarios exploring what consent and lack of consent can look like.”

The vague content warning dances around the issue itself, which is problematic as it does not concretely lay out what the module involves and what students will be exposed to — this withholds students’ ability to prepare themselves or apply for exemptions if required.

5. Lack of alternatives

Considering the highly distressing nature of content on sexual assault, particularly scenarios that may simulate a student’s own trauma, it is remiss not to provide a comprehensive range of alternatives, tailored to each student’s potential needs. Sexual trauma does not affect students equally, and therefore pointing all students in one direction is harmful.

Not only are there inadequate alternatives for students distressed by the course’s content, the University of Sydney acts punitively towards students who do not complete the module. If a student does not complete the module by the census date, often the punishment is delayed and revealed when they open their marks, only to see they have failed their courses. Once they are shocked by this and probe further, they realise that this is due to the non-completion of the Consent Matters module. Bella*, a former USYD student, failed to complete the module purely because she was not aware of its existence nor the strict deadline — and was only made aware on results day. She was astounded, sharing: “I didn’t have any clue that it was due, or what it even was,” as there was little communication, unfairly relying on students mastering navigation of Canvas depths in their embryonic university days.

Students can apply for an exemption, but this involves navigating the University of Sydney’s notoriously slow-moving and labyrinthine bureaucratic maze. Considering the severe consequences of non-completion, survivors are likely to complete the module regardless, feeling forced to tolerate any levels of distress raised. 

6. Moving forward

The truth is that consent education has to begin years before students arrive onto a university campus. When students enter with at least 18 years of preconceived notions about the patriarchy, rape culture and power, it is impossible for these beliefs that drive and perpetuate sexual assault to dissipate. 

However, this does not dismiss the University’s obligation to facilitate a safe environment for students. A mandatory consent training system is one stride towards a safer campus — but its content and methodology must be tailored to support students, particularly vulnerable survivors. Nevertheless, one stick-figured slideshow does discharge the University’s obligation to prevent sexual violence and survivors: an improved Consent Matters module should be only one paving in a long road of measures to improve student safety.

*Names have been changed to protect the interviewees’ identities.

If this article raises any issues for you, there are support resources available within the University and externally. For more information, please visit https://www.sydney.edu.au/students/sexual-misconduct/support.html