The Teal Ribbon Campaign must continue beyond Caesarian Sunday

Elsa Maishman 1 May 2015

Cambridge for Consent is aiming to change Caesarian Sunday this year with its Teal Ribbon Campaign, encouraging students and particularly drinking societies to pledge that “We [the undersigned] are committed to the promotion, recognition and celebration of sexual consent” and wear a teal ribbon as a show of solidarity.

For a start, I commend the initiative of the campaign members for appropriating the publicity which surrounds Caesarian Sunday, which normally extends no further than a few derogatory Daily Mail articles and a round-robin ‘warning’ email from the Senior Tutor. The Cambridge for Consent campaign is turning this negative spin into something far more productive, introducing the idea that this day, traditionally one which encompasses all the worst aspects of student life, can be used to drive positive change.

Targeting the drinking societies as an audience for the campaign is also a pragmatic tactic. I don’t need to enumerate the scandals of misogyny, rape culture and assault which have dogged several societies in recent years to illustrate that engaging them as an audience is a useful and practical way of spreading the message of consent.

However, if this contact with the drinking societies is not sustained – the ribbon and pledge runs the risk of being a double-edged sword. After all, no society is going to reject the pledge on the grounds that they disagree with its message. Yet signing a pledge is one thing; engaging in discussion about the complex, difficult issues surrounding consent, engaging with survivors of sexual violence, understanding and responding to their demands for change, actively changing behaviour so that our university is a safer space for women and people of all genders – that is quite a different matter altogether.

If despite the best efforts of Cambridge for Consent, drinking societies’ involvement with the campaign ends as soon as everybody leaves Jesus Green this Sunday, will they have merely gone through the motions of signing the pledge, or will they reconsider the issue of consent and sexual assault more seriously? Or possibly – and this is the largest potential risk here – will some feel as though by signing the pledge and wearing the ribbon, they have done enough, and consequently actually feel more reluctant to pursue the campaign further?

It is imperative, therefore, that everybody engaging in the campaign this weekend thinks of the ribbon and the pledge as the first step in a long and arduous process; a means to an end, rather than the end itself. The connection forged between drinking societies and activists needs to be sustained and dialogue needs to be ongoing – so more people understand the complexities of consent and our fellow students can be less at risk of the devastating effects of sexual assault.

The recent Emmanuel Speaks Out Against Sexual Violence campaign provides a good illustrative example for how such a sustained campaign might work. The photographs that have recently surfaced on social media of students and staff waving banners and placards are, like the teal ribbon, a technique of raising awareness of the issue of sexual harassment. Yet it is also more than this: the pictures are a celebration of the new college sexual harassment and assault policy which students have been tirelessly campaigning to introduce, and a prelude to a week-long series of events currently being staged at Emma.

If, and only if, a continuous process like the one underway at Emma is kickstarted on Sunday, and the ribbon and pledge are not left at the wayside, then Cambridge for Consent will be able to make real and lasting change.