Consent courses, training about campus sexual violence exist, but students and experts say more is needed
'It is important to keep these conversations going,' says student leader
It's quieter this week on the Western University campus in the aftermath of four formal sexual assault complaints during the school's September orientation week, a dizzying storm of allegations shared on social media followed by a massive walkout during which thousands of students decried sexual violence, misogyny and rape culture on campus.
"It's definitely been a tough couple of weeks," said student leader Eunice Oladejo.
Still, the recent political science graduate, who is also vice-president of external affairs of Western's University Students' Council, is pushing to keep the difficult conversation going at her London, Ont., school and beyond.
"This isn't just something that is happening on Western's campus, it's something that's happening on a lot of different campuses."
Western has launched a task force on sexual violence and new measures such as a mandatory training course for students and hiring more security guards. What happened has also revived talk elsewhere about the ongoing problem of sexual violence on post-secondary campuses and what institutions are doing to educate students, faculty and staff about the issue.
Post-secondary policies about campus sexual violence vary across provinces and individual schools. While some institutions have mandatory courses about consent for staff and students, others host voluntary workshops and events. From campus to campus, resources devoted to sexual violence can range from multi-person teams amplified by student volunteers to single-person operations.
According to a 2020 Statistics Canada report, 71 per cent of students witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in the previous year. That number includes on-campus and off-campus situations that involved students or others associated with the school.
One in 10 women who participated in the research said they had experienced a sexual assault. But just eight per cent of women and six per cent of men who experienced a sexual assault reported it to someone associated with the school. Some said they believed the situation was not serious enough to report; others said they didn't know what to do or didn't trust the school to handle it.
"It is important to keep these conversations going because we don't want this to be something that just passes by," said Oladejo, who in her additional role as president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance advocates for stronger policies from the Ontario government regarding campus sexual violence.
"We definitely want to keep the pressure on."
Compulsory course sends 'a strong message'
Since 2015, Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Quebec have all passed legislation mandating that colleges and universities implement standalone sexual violence policies; Nova Scotia has also introduced the idea.
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At McGill University, the process to develop a policy spawned the adoption of a mandatory online course about consent called It Takes All of Us: Creating a Campus Community Free of Sexual Violence (based on a similar course at fellow Montreal school Concordia University).
Everyone must take it — new students, faculty and staff — by a specific date each fall. Incoming students must complete it before they can dive into frosh week activities and, furthermore, cannot register for their subsequent winter term classes until they have, said Angela Campbell, McGill's associate provost for equity and academic policies.
Making the course compulsory sends "a very strong message to our community about how seriously we take this issue and how important it is for us, for all members of our community to have at least a shared understanding of what sexual violence is, what consent is and how to respond effectively and with compassion to disclosures of sexual violence," she said.
Campbell described It Takes All of Us as "an integral piece" of a larger suite of initiatives, which includes events hosted in residence buildings and targeted in-person training for student advisors, student services staffers and others.
McGill student Christine Wang found the course — which shares statistics, presents different scenarios and ends with support and resources — quite sobering, despite having prior knowledge about the topic and which groups are most at risk to experience sexual violence, she says.
"It's a good start to changing the culture on campus," said Wang, who is pursuing a master's degree in physiotherapy.
"There is more work that needs to be done in terms of having support … especially for students that are from marginalized communities, like trans students, racialized students and [students with] disabilities."
'Sexual violence affects all facets of life'
St. Mary's University in Halifax introduced a campus "Consent Week" in 2017 that now comes near the start of both the fall and winter term. The weeks usually feature a range of events both "fun and exciting" as well as those serious in tone, says Lyndsay Anderson, the school's assistant director of student culture and experience.
"Sexual violence affects all facets of life, not just university life, but I think the university can take part in ensuring that our students are aware and understanding of that," she said.
One of this week's sessions, which were voluntary, was specifically aimed at men and male-identifying students to discuss consent and masculinity.
It's a topic that can be challenging for some, especially first-year students starting to "move away from their parents' moral codes and developing their own," said Brian MacAulay, manager of the school's counselling centre and co-facilitator of the talk.
"A lot of society tells men or male-identifying people how to act and how we're not supposed to act. And so to ask somebody to drop their barriers and be vulnerable … it's really important to create a space that is open, caring and basically allowing people to express viewpoints and have a real discussion."
Multi-pronged approach, including 'joyful' learning
School officials and experts researching sexual violence agree that a multitude of measures are needed to educate campus communities.
For every province and territory to mandate that institutions have sexual violence policies, schools having well-funded and well-staffed sexual assault offices, monitoring how investigation and adjudication is happening, as well as explicit training for staffers involved are all importance pieces of the puzzle, says Farrah Khan, manager of the Consent Comes First office at Ryerson University.
Also serving as co-director of Courage to Act, a national project working to prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses, Khan is calling on provinces to improve consent learning at the elementary and secondary levels to reach students "before they even step foot on a university or college campus."
She supports mandatory consent training (something Western University is now instituting for everyone in residence) and recommends annual refresher sessions for those in student-facing positions. But she also wants to see such concepts woven into the fabric of campus life.
"We're having a DJ [during orientation]. Are we talking about the music that they're playing? Are we having speakers in between sets talk about consent, talk about relationships? Are we having safety teams … roaming around the space?" said Khan.
The downtown Toronto school regularly hosts activities like "Sexy Sexual Health Trivia" nights with sexual health educator Samantha Bitty that allow students to ask questions and learn about consent in a positive way, she said.
Another ongoing and popular initiative is Curiosity Labs, a partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University that offers a fun, interactive space for students to chat about topics such as pleasure, relationship skills, break-ups and flirting.
The overall goal is to build up consciousness about and a common language to discuss consent, Khan said.
"We need to have those conversations and talk about not only the world of what we don't want to have, which is a world full of sexual violence, but the world that we do want to have, which is a world full of pleasure, consent and good sex that is communicated."
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nigel Hunt