Opinion | Shouting about SHAG week isn't enough


Ryan Grant-Khailani, History, Second Year

From the 2-9 December, the Bristol Student Union is running Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance week, which ‘Aims to promote healthy relationships and sex, alongside educating on key issues such as consent and safety’.

It is astounding that these workshops are optional and barely advertised. Given UK universities’ recent experience with sexual misconduct – such as the recent GirlsNightIn movement - these classes should be mandatory.

A recent survey from the University of Kent revealed that 63 of 554 UK male students have committed some kind of ‘Aggressive and forcible’ sexual act. There is a glaring need for students to be educated.

Equally, a Times Higher Education Survey revealed that only 51 per cent of students felt safe the first time they had sex at university. It also showed that ‘Over half’ of sexually active students have never had an STI test. A 2020 study found that over one in ten of UK students had contracted an STI during their studies.

There is clearly a chunk missing from students’ education. And it is causing serious problems.

It is incumbent upon students to educate themselves

The SU’s events range from HIV testing stalls to ‘Bystander Intervention Training’. The former seems like a sure-fire way to tackle the clearly widespread ignorance of STI’s on campus.

The latter – held on 9 December, at Senate House – aims to teach students appropriate and effective techniques to manage inappropriate behaviours.

This sounds like an incredible opportunity to tackle an enabler of sexual misconduct - a lack of education. It is incumbent upon students to educate themselves about this. The sad fact is that the optional nature of these classes mean that many will miss out.

But surely, with the UK’s school sex education programme, Bristol students should already know all that SHAG week has to offer?

Well, the short answer is no. Not every student has the same experience with sexual health education, for a number of reasons.

The story of the birds and the bees is not as common as we would have thought

Regional differences mean that some students have received a more thorough education than others. For example, between 2018 and 2020, Scottish students were offered lessons involving LBGTQ+ issues, whereas their English counterparts were not.

These differences are even more pronounced between international students from countries where sex education is not mandatory, such as Poland. Think of how critical individuals are about the model for sexual health education in America alone.

Students from around the country, and the world, have not benefitted from the same system of education that you may have had. The story of the birds and the bees is not as common as we would have thought.

It is therefore up to universities to take responsibility for creating a safer environment on campus. And this starts with education and awareness – sexual health classes should be mandatory for freshers.

Otherwise, the inequality of access to sexual education on campus will continue to manifest itself in the form of sexual violence, misconduct and ignorance of the like that we have become accustomed to in Bristol.

Unequal access to sexual education is endemic and problematic

And it is important to remember that this is not just a university problem, or even a student union problem: it is a public health problem.

Arming students with the knowledge required to have safe and happy sexual encounters will therefore benefit them for life, not just while they are attending University.

SHAG week – as progressive and well intentioned as it is – is an example of how the University is not engaging enough with students to fulfil its obligation to educate students.

At the time of writing, workshops have not been advertised on the SU’s Instagram account, arguably where they would get the most of their engagement.

The University has an obligation to educate

Google searches for ‘sexual health awareness and guidance Bristol univeristy’ yielded few results. Only page two of searches reveals that that University of West England held the same SHAG week in February of 2018.

The only reason I know SHAG week exists is because I am in a private Facebook group chat for opinion writers of a humanities magazine, not quite prime advertising real estate. This does not take away from the great work that the SU has aimed for, but should serve to recognise that this is simply not doing enough.

Unequal access to sexual education is endemic and problematic. The University needs to combat this by making participation in workshops – like SHAG week – mandatory. A compulsory social and cultural skills workshop for freshers would also make a marked improvement from the current model.

English civility and the attempt to protect ‘traditional’ moral values are no longer valid excuses for sweeping this conversation under the carpet. The University has an obligation to educate.

Featured image: Johannes Steuding

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