Campus groups create conversation around consent

Community efforts include discussions, dances, memorials.

The Mount hosts the Clothes Line Project, using homemade T-shirts to raise awareness of violence against women. (Photo courtesy: MSVU Wellness Centre)

Consent culture is a major topic of conversation on campuses this year. University student unions, women’s groups, wellness centres, and gender-related faculties are raising consent awareness to combat harm done by sexually offensive humour and attitudes that enable or excuse rape.

Following a frosh week rape chant that was posted on YouTube, the Saint Mary’s University community is working together to make change on their campus.

The Saint Mary’s women’s centre recently hosted a talk by Venus Envy titled “Consent is Sexy.”

Janna MacDonald, a board member and volunteer at the SMU Women’s Centre, says, “We want women to know there is always a choice. A lot of girls don’t really understand what consent is. Promoting it will give them a better idea.”

Saint Mary’s professor Alexandra Dobrowolsky teaches women’s studies and political science. She says gender equality has to be taught throughout university courses, not just in women’s studies departments.

“It’s woven into everything I teach,” says Dobrowolsky.

The problem is widespread, Dobrowolsky says. Universities are vulnerable to it, due to the high concentration of young people, along with alcohol and drug abuse and a hypersexual popular culture.

Consent all week long

The King’s Students’ Union and the NSCAD Student Union are collaborating to put together their own week of events related to the theme of consent for Feb. 10-14. Their goal is to celebrate, explore and discuss sexual consent.

In the fall, King’s students responded to initial scandal and hype with this video during their orientation week.

NSCAD Student Union president Sarah Trower brought the idea of consent week to Halifax last year. The union had a movie night, a workshop by the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre on the legalities of consent and a dance titled “Consensual Healing,” where organizers gave away pillow cases reading “consent is sexy.” This year they’ll be adding a panel on rape culture.

“Rape culture is really prevalent on university campuses,” says Trower. She says promoting consent will help students know how to respond to and avoid unsafe situations.

Still, Trower believes the point is to promote respect, not just to protect.

“We’re framing the conversation of how to combat rape culture, as opposed to how to keep yourself safe,” says Trower.

Rising concern has other schools looking to implement consent awareness programs.

Consent catching on

The University of Prince Edward Island’s Student Union hosts a week of sex-related events in February. It hosts speed dating and sex trivia at the student bar.

Kelsey Marr, vice-president of communication for the UPEI student union says the week has always been about approaching sex in an open and fun way. Marr says while the union has a lot of support and awareness on campus for sexual diversity and mental health, it hasn’t done much in the way of sexual health or consent awareness.

“Students wanted to see something more in that direction taken, because we are of an age-set where these things are important,” says Marr. “This year we’re hoping to have an educational take that’s been lacking in the past,” says Marr.

They are still in early planning stages.

Acknowledging the past

Mount Saint Vincent University is also having a sexual health awareness week Feb. 10-14 through its Wellness Centre. Also, Student Union President Zach Gallant and Academic Residence Adviser Amber Rethman received certification in a sexual violence prevention program called “Bringing in the Bystander.” They are now qualified to teach groups of up to 30 people. The MSVU athletics director is looking to have them train campus athletes.

Gallant says the student union is looking to see “how we can better our policies and practices on campus,” as far as rising consent awareness.

“Despite everything that’s going on,” says Gallant, consent awareness is “something that we have been doing for years. It’s important to make sure that our students are protected in the communities they are a part of.”

Last year Nicholas Phillips of the Mount’s Wellness Centre started a memorial project to recognize and respect women who were victims of sexual violence. Organizers collected information about murdered women in Canada since 1970 and posted it in a main tunnel hallway. The memorial was titled “The Highway of Missing and Murdered Women.”

This year they put the names and photographs of RCMP missing women files dating back to 1970. This past memorial was called “Forgotten women.”

“It’s not a pretty picture,” says Phillips. “We don’t intend to sum it up with ‘everything’s going to be OK.’ It’s about conversation.”