The “Take It Off! Stripping Back Societal and Legal Perceptions of Consent” panel occurred on Wednesday 12th August, as part of ANUSA’s Sex and Consent Week 2015. Its aim was to examine and discuss the social and legal structures around the idea of consent.

The panelists brought a wide range of experience and knowledge in the various aspects of the field, This included Margaret Jones, Deputy Director of the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions; Detective Sergeant David Crowe, who leads the Child Abuse section of the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Team of the ACT Police; Nina Funnell, a journalist, author and advocate for gender equality; and Penny Pestano, the Acting Clinical Services Manager at the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. ANU student Ellie Greenwood moderated the discussion.

Discussion covered a broad variety of topics related to sexual assault and issues of consent, from questions surrounding the procedure of reporting a sexual assault, as well as legal reformation and victim blaming. A strong message that came through in the panelists’ discussion was that sexual assault is a serious crime, is a human rights violation, and is a deeply traumatic experience for those that have survived through it.

Ms Funnell expressed that a dialogue about what “ethical consent” includes needs to established. Ms Pestano agreed, stating that “[consent] comes down to communication”.

The question of intoxication and consent highlighted the complexity that surrounds these issues. Ms Jones pointed out that from a legal perspective, intoxication can negate consent entirely for the victim, however it may also lead to an acquittal of the accused. Ultimately it becomes a question of fact for the jury. Alcohol’s role in sexual assault may also be as a tool for grooming or drink spiking, as discussed by both Ms Pestano and Ms Funnell.

The panel however, failed to directly address what consent meant when both parties were equally intoxicated, with a distinct emphasis from the panelists that it is difficult to discern where the line is drawn between good consent and intoxicated consent.

The panel opened conversation about barriers to reporting sexual assault. Barriers may include knowing, living and/or studying with the offender, a sense of loyalty to their college, a fear that no one would believe the accusation, and wider societal barriers to simply reporting a sexual assault. Ms Funnell emphasised that “[these] barriers cannot be underestimated”.

There has been no survey conducted by Australian universities into sexual assault on campus, although the ANU did lead an attempt to conduct one with the Group of Eight (Go8) institutions, which failed to gain traction. The National Union of Students (NUS) also conducted a survey in 2011, but the discussion panel showed that much more needed to be done across the board in order to effectively engage with these issues.

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: 6247 2525

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