Helping students put consent into practice

October 1, 2018 | Campus Life
Tens of thousands of post-secondary students returned to school this fall, and as they navigate the busy hallways between classes, they sometimes find themselves navigating far more complex issues.

During the first six to eight weeks of the semester, many universities across Canada report a spike in incidents of sexual violence on campus. Sexual violence can be verbal or physical, and can include everything from persistent, unwanted romantic attention to assault.

That’s why universities across the city, province and country are starting the academic year with a number of efforts designed to address the issue. MacEwan University is hosting its second annual Sexual Violence Awareness Week from Oct. 1 to 5, providing opportunities for students, faculty and staff to engage in education and discussion.

Taking the lead

Karen B.K. Chan, a sex and emotional-literacy educator from Toronto, is the keynote speaker at this year’s Sexual Violence Awareness Week. B.K. has been speaking to students about consent for nearly a decade, and while sexual violence is an issue for many campuses, she says that’s not the sole reason she presents at post-secondary institutions.

“College and university campuses are places of learning, change, evolution and growth. They’re uniquely positioned to lead the way in these conversations,” she explains.

MacEwan has worked to do exactly that. In 2015, the university was one of the first in the province to create a standalone sexual violence policy, which the school launched alongside an institution-wide education campaign.

The university has hosted many training and awareness events, and works to continually improve the institution’s response to reports of sexual violence.

“It’s a critical priority for the university to encourage reporting and ensure we fully support those who come forward,” says Michelle Plouffe, MacEwan’s general counsel and vice-president, Governance, Diversity and Inclusion.

To address this priority, MacEwan added a new position to its Office of Sexual Violence Prevention, Education and Response this fall – a sexual violence response coordinator who serves as an accessible, front-line contact for the entire university.

Students are also playing a significant role in educating and responding to sexual violence on campus. MacEwan’s MAVEN peer education program provides training for students on subjects like consent and healthy relationships, equipping them to share their ideas through class presentations and outreach activities.

From perception to practice

While B.K. says that students are becoming increasingly familiar with the idea of consent, she sees a disconnect between acknowledging it in theory, and knowing how to actually move forward.

“Consent is not so much a problem of information and understanding, it’s a problem with practice,” she explains.

Consent education is not just for young people – according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the majority of Canadians believe all sexual activities should be consensual, but only one in three understands what consent actually looks like.

That’s where B.K. comes in. She says she strives to be approachable, relatable and practical in her conversations, because people often fear admitting that they don’t know where to start.

“People feel like it’s new or awkward or scary – it is! And that’s okay. I tell students that we get to be a part of change – it’s possible, and we have a role to play,” says B.K.

Karen B.K. Chan is the keynote speaker at Sexual Violence Awareness Week. Her presentation, Rejection and Guilt Resilience on Monday, Oct. 1 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. is free and open to the public. (Photo credit: Genni Askin)

B.K.’s keynote presentation at MacEwan will address rejection and guilt resilience – embracing resilience as a key skill in actually practicing consent.

When someone asks for consent, they are immediately putting themselves in a position where they could be rejected, explains B.K. If they’re afraid of that, they will be more hesitant to communicate desires, needs and boundaries.

“In first aid, you learn how to bind an ankle or dress a wound, but so few of us have actually been taught how to deal with emotional pain,” she says. “Here we are, asking people to practice consent when it involves rejection, insecurity, disappointment and guilt, and they aren’t being offered the tools to deal with it.”

Rejection is an inevitable part of life, she adds. “That’s why I’m interested in resilience – I want people to feel supported in seeking consent and dealing with potential rejection. We, as human beings, need to be buildings that bend, not buildings that break.”

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