Consent is one of the most fundamental aspects of sexual health. So why do so little people know about it?
Sexual Violence & Consent
In September of 2021, over 900 students at Western University walked out of class to protest a “culture of misogyny” on campus, a move later followed by numerous other universities and colleges across Canada. The walk-out was in response to social media reports indicating at least 30 students had been drugged and/or assaulted during orientation week festivities. Unfortunately for students like me, the reports of sexual harassment that stunned the media offered a realistic glimpse into the reality of university life as a female student in particular.
What is sexual violence?
Sexual violence is a broad term used to refer to any form of unwanted sexual contact, with the two primary examples being sexual assault and sexual harassment. Sexual assault refers to any unwanted sexual activity (i.e., unwanted touching, rape). Sexual harassment refers to harassment on the basis of sex, sexual identity, gender identity or gender expression. This can include unwelcome behavior or comments in the form of jokes, threats or discriminatory remarks regarding one’s gender or sexuality.
Misconception #1: Sexual violence is not common
What surprised most people when the stories at Western University went viral was the sheer volume of students who came forward sharing similar accounts of sexual violence on and off campus. This is the first misconception surrounding gender-based sexual violence. The sobering reality is that one in three women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behavior in a public setting over the past 12 months. Moreover, 3 in 10 women have been sexually assaulted at least once since the age of 15. The most vulnerable groups are younger women, and women belonging to a racial or sexual minority.
Misconception #2: Sexual Violence is not a health issue.
Sexual violence affects nearly every aspect of women’s health. In fact, 96% of women who experienced sexual assault over the past 12 months stated they were emotionally impacted in some way. Moreover, 52% of women who experienced unwanted sexual behavior made at least one change to their routine or behavior, such as avoiding certain people, situations, or locations. A US study assessing experiences of sexual assault during the first trimester of college determined the experience of sexual assault was associated with elevated rates of clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression. Other studies have demonstrated survivors of sexual assault have an increased likelihood of developing substance use or eating disorders, which are often begun as a coping strategy for their trauma. The health consequences of sexual violence can persist for years following the initial assault/harassment. A study of roughly 300 middle-aged women found a history of sexual harassment in the workplace was associated with insomnia and an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, which can further predispose survivors to other chronic diseases.
Yet despite its vast prevalence and threat to women’s health, the issue of sexual violence remains underdiscussed and under resourced. In fact, a 2018 survey assessing sexual violence amongst first-year Canadian university students found 59.7% of respondents strongly disagreed/disagreed with statements suggesting they were aware of sexual violence supports, services and report procedures.
What is Consent?
In discussions surrounding sexual violence, a term that comes up most frequently is that of consent. So, what is it? Consent is essentially a verbal and affirmative expression of agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity that must be clearly and freely communicated.
Two of the most important principles surrounding consent are:
1) Consenting to one activity does not mean someone gives consent for other activities or the same activity on a different occasion.
2) Consent can be withdrawn at any point if you are feeling uncomfortable.
Who Can Give Consent?
Consent is required by everyone engaging in sexual activity however, it CANNOT be given by everyone.
Individuals who are underage, intoxicated/incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, asleep or unconscious, under intimidation/threats or within a relationship with an unequal power dynamic cannot give consent.
Even if a supposed expression of consent is provided by any of the aforementioned individuals, it should not be taken as “valid consent” and further pursued.
What is Enthusiastic Consent?
Advocates against sexual violence have recently begun favoring a new form of consent - termed “enthusiastic consent”. This definition of consent encourages looking for the presence of a “yes” versus the absence of a “no”. Moreover, while past definitions of consent have included positive body language, like smiling or nodding, there has also been a recent push for seeking direct verbal confirmation itself. Enthusiastic can take many forms including explicitly agreeing to certain activities by saying “yes” or asking permission before pursuing or changing the type of sexual activity using phrases like “Is this, Ok?”.
Despite being one of the most simple yet effective strategies for combatting sexual violence, only 1 in 3 Canadians know what sexual consent means. This statistic is a product of the continued social stigmatization towards issues concerning sexual violence and a lack of adequate resources being directed towards sexual violence education and prevention. Thus, the education system has two intersecting roles in creating this “culture of misogyny” which enables perpetrators and isolates survivors:
- It has enabled an immediate environment which has continually dismissed the experiences of survivors
- It facilitates a future environment by failing to prioritize sexual education focused on consent and healthy boundaries, amongst other topics
Overall, consent is a good first step towards creating a climate on campus, or elsewhere, that is safe and responsive to incidents or concerns of sexual violence. It can be broken down into 2 goals:
1) The goal of educating individuals on what consent is and how it works
2) The goal of creating a climate in which consent is actively sought and upheld