This year, the University of Manchester broke the record for the highest turn out for a Student’s Union election in the UK ever. Inspired by how political the University community seems to have become, I sat down with a few of the candidates who were running in the election to ask them what they think about the state of student life and general Manchester politics.
The first candidate I have had the pleasure of sitting down with was Becky Fox, who ran for Wellbeing Officer and came second overall. I asked each of the politicians to describe themselves in a small paragraph and here is Fox’s:
‘I’m a third year pharmacology student from South Manchester with a passion for women’s issues and consent education. I’m a founding member of Manchester Sexual Representation Network (MSRN) who do all sorts of wonderful things, with a lot of our focus going on consent education at the moment. I’m currently running workshops at local schools to teach 16-18 year olds about consent and planned to use the platform of Wellbeing Officer to have these workshops for every student. I also love thistle tea, cats, being queer, sewing and singing’.
It is clear from this that consent is an issue close to Fox’s heart, and so it should be for everyone. The overall conclusion we made from our time together was that everything, in any kind of relationship, is more fun and rewarding when you have consent. The importance of consent education was a driving force behind Fox running for Wellbeing candidate but she was also inspired by the twice-elected Women’s Officer, Jess Lishak. It is clear that women’s issues and issues with wellbeing are closely linked, especially with the horrendous rise in sexual assault and rape happening in student areas this academic year. When I asked Fox how she would define consent she explained that ‘it isn’t just having permission to have sex, it revolves around having sex, kissing or even holding hands when both people are comfortable’.
The importance of teaching consent was clear when I heard about Fox’s encounter with a 26 year old man, sexually active since 16, who did not know what consent was. That is ten years without knowing what it means to make sure your partner wants what you want. It is ten years too many and it is integral that this changes. Consent is finally being added into the sex education programme but, before this, it was up to society to teach people about consent. Unfortunately, evident from the attacks in Fallowfield this year that is not always going to happen. By not teaching consent we are creating a situation where people see having sex with someone as a right, not a privilege.
This need for consent education is the main reason why we are so lucky to have MSRN in our city. They look to teach people about consent, being safe and having a mutual respect for people around you. For MSRN, if we can educate people on safe behaviour the problem will become easier to deal with – knowing about the need for consent and the risk you put someone at by not asking for it is undeniably a major factor in stopping attacks and horrendous, life-changing experiences. When I asked Fox what MSRN thought about Manchester’s safety, specifically their sexual safety, she said that it is not to do with the city, it’s the people in it. If someone decides to sexually assault, attack or harass someone you cannot pin it on the city. This was a refreshing perspective as this year has seen Manchester deemed a threat to females, and understandably so. The way to counter this, as Fox has said, is educating the people as there is nothing we can do to the city to stop this. The closest we could get is demanding more police patrols in Fallowfield. Although, considering some responses when the problem first arose () this may take longer than it should. It is the police’s responsibility to do everything they can to reduce the risk that Fallowfield residents are under. However, it seems that noise pollution (a genuine problem that should be solved) is more of a priority than the mental health and well being of innocent people. You can decide if you agree with the police’s decision, Fox and I do not.It is also important to note that whilst many people see rape as being dragged down an alley at night, 50% of rapes actually happen by someone the victim knows and 60% of women who were raped, were raped inside a building. A third of this figure were raped in their own home – rape is not just anonymous and we need to know how to limit the risk that rapists pose by educating EVERYONE.
Directly related to issues with consent, is the need for accurate, realistic and healthy depictions of sex in the media. Stirred poetry, a fantastic Manchester-based poetry group, and MSRN have taken stands against this, with Fox amongst them, by boycotting Fifty Shades of Grey and offering education on safe BDSM behaviour. It is important to acknowledge that those who enjoy BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism) safely hold consent and their partner’s wellbeing as their main concern. It is fun having someone’s consent! It isn’t fun making someone feel uncomfortable and trapped – this is why Fifty Shades of Grey is such a poisonous film in our society, Christian Grey does not see consent as a priority and this spreads a dangerous message. It is media like this that MSRN and Stirred Poetry are looking to tackle head on by making their concerns heard.
Besides BDSM, sexual wellbeing also comes down to something as simple as contraception, STI testing and education around it. To go and have an STI test you need to know how to get it, why to get it and the risks of not getting one. In my years at school I was never taught about STI testing just the risks that STIs present. The education needed to go one step further and I would not have gone two years of being sexually active without being tested. I felt ridiculous when I found out how important it was and I am sure I am not alone. Find your local clinic here: http://www.sexualhealthnetwork.co.uk/clinic/. If you need contraception, the Rusholme Children’s Centre on Great Western Street gives free condoms out, you just need to give the gender you identify with, your age and your race. Do not miss out on centres like this! There are also free safe-sex packs in every gay club in Manchester’s Gay Village so it is easy to get hold of, don’t put yourself at risk of contracting an STI as they can cause all kinds of damage. It is also important to let anyone you are sexually active with know your status and to be checked regularly to make sure this is as up to date as possible. I get tested every time I have a different sexual partner and every time I enter into an exclusive relationship with someone. The bottom line is that if you have an STI it is your moral duty to ensure that anyone you have sex with is aware of this to prevent the infections being spread further. There is no shame in having an STI, it happens to most people in their life time! It is just important to deal with them in the most responsible way possible.
On top of consent and sexual wellbeing, ensuring that mental health problems and emotional support are improved and easily available for students was a key policy Fox had. This was one of the main reasons I voted for her in the elections – she is aware of the stigma surrounding mental health, she has experienced it herself as I’m sure many of us have, and she wants to actively try and change how we perceive mental illness. It needs to be treated with respect not scepticism.
At the end of the interview I asked Fox to sum up what she is fighting for in a few words she said ‘better support, consent, happiness and well-being’. I think we can all agree that more of this is never a bad thing and I am hopeful that Becky Fox and the MSRN can help improve Manchester’s wellbeing. In their hands we can hope for a more secure and safe future in the city.