Report offers hope for moving the needle of consent culture

Half of Alberta’s post-secondary students have been sexually harassed or assaulted at their college or university, says a new study titled Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Alberta Post-Secondary Education.

Conducted by the Montreal, Quebec-based company Léger, a marketing and analytics company, the study surveyed 12,948 students in Alberta’s 26 public colleges and universities, and found that only 6% of students who have suffered sexual and gender-based violence (SG-BV) bring it to the attention of school authorities.

The main reasons victims gave for not accessing on-campus support are shame (9%), fear of retaliation by the perpetrator (7%), and not being believed, taken seriously or being ‘gaslighted’ (14%).

At 74% the rate of SG-BV is highest among queer students who account for 638 of the students surveyed, which means that 472 of them have been victims of SG-BV since arriving on Alberta’s campuses. Around 93% of these students had been victimised before entering higher education.

Queer students also have the highest rates of sexual harassment: 71%. Two-thirds of students who identify as bisexual (1,380) or pansexual (265) are also survivors of SG-BV; between 59% and 65% of gay, lesbian, pansexual, two-spirited or questioning students, or 2,256 (14.4% of the 1,2948 students surveyed) also report being victims of SG-BV.

10% of all students, or 1,295, are victims of intimate partner violence; the percentage rises to 14% of lesbians and 15% of queer, pansexual and two-spirited people.

‘Awful, but not surprising’

“Generations of student leaders have been fighting for the provincial government to confront the pervasive impact of sexual violence within the post-secondary education system,” says Chris Beasley, vice-president external of the University of Alberta’s Student Union.

“So, when the results came out, they sickened me. They are awful, horrible. But they weren’t surprising. The data is reflective of the surveys we’ve run internally [at the University of Alberta in Edmonton], surveys that have been run in Ontario and other parts of Canada,” he said.

According to Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, the statistics in the report align not only with those from the University of Alberta (U of A) but also with international studies.

At first glance, it might appear that the study’s finding that 86% of respondents agreed that consent was necessary before beginning sexual activity and 80% believed that you have to “check in with sexual partners during sex” to determine if they remain enthusiastic suggests that the existing consent training programmes run in Alberta’s colleges and universities are largely successful.

However, Beasley noted, it is important to look at what he called the “negative”.

“The figures seem good. The report presents it as though 86% of people believe that consent during sexual activity is a good thing. But there’s also the negative side. 14% do not agree with this and 20% do not agree with stopping to check in with their sexual partners if they’re physically or mentally unenthusiastic. These numbers are too high,” said Beasley.

In Canadian law consent has a number of parameters, which are taught in the universities’ consent education programmes.

Consent cannot be given when intoxicated; it must be voluntary; it cannot be coerced. Consent is specific, that is, for specific acts and people; it cannot be given ahead of time. Consent is not the absence of ‘no’.

Rather, in the words of “Consent 101: The (Sexual) Basics” prepared by the Saskatoon (Saskatchewan) Sexual Assault and Information Centre and provided to University World News by Alexandra Ages, executive director of the Council of Alberta University Students: “Consent must be enthusiastic. Consent is someone communicating ‘yes’ with their words, tone and actions.”

No easy answers

Beasley, James and Deborah Eerkes, the sexual violence response coordinator in the Office of the Provost at U of A and chair of the university’s working group responsible for the survey, told University Wolrd News just how difficult it is to explain how consent works to the last 14%-20% of 18- to 24-year-olds.

“We have people at the university doing consent education. We have people at the sexual assault centre in Edmonton doing consent education. And the real struggle we have is that we have people coming to the training who already know consent is important, right? We’re singing to the choir. We need to figure out how you bring in that other 14%. How do you get them interested, first of all, and second, convinced?

“I don’t have a good answer for you. I don’t think we have one,” before drawing attention to one of the key parts of what goes under the name of “emotional intelligence,” said Eerkes.

“Consent is about making sure the other person is good with what’s happening. If you have no empathy, if you can’t muster that sort of care for another person, if you are more self-focused than ‘other focused’, then we are going to continue to have this problem,” said Eerkes.

Campaigns against sexual harassment and sexual violence differ, Eerkes further explained, from the campaigns against smoking or drunk driving, which have pushed the percentage of Canadians who smoke down to 10% and drive impaired to 8%. These behaviours are easily detectable by people, which made making them socially unacceptable much easier.

“But the social pressure that we get for the public type of bad behaviour doesn’t exist with intimate partner violence and other forms of sexual violence that are very, very private. One of the things out of the playbook [of sexual assault] is to isolate the person and get them away from everyone else,” said Eerkes.

Beasley, who is 24 and remembers what was taught in his high school, says, in theory, Alberta has a decent amount of sex education in its high schools. But it can be hit or miss between different school boards or even within a school, he said, before adding that this is why Alberta needs a provincially run programme that leads to the prevention campaigns in colleges and universities.

“You have students from all over Alberta, who may or may not have had good sex ed, that may or may not have focused on consent culture. Then you layer in students that come from out of the province, who, again, have different sex ed curriculums and different understandings of consent that may or may not have been taught,” Beasley told University World News.

“Then you layer in international students that will come from all over the world with different understandings of consent. And, so again, ensuring that we create a broad-based culture of consent here on campus starts day one.”

One option Beasley was keen on is used at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta) where, before you can even sign up for class, you need to complete a module on consent and healthy relationships.

“Having a programme like that can help move the needle on consent culture,” he said.

A survivor-centered approach

Beasley, James and Eerkes stressed the importance of both campus police and sexual assault centres taking a ‘victim’ (or ‘survivor’)-centered approach”. This approach begins with the police or sexual assault centre crisis worker believing the report.

“After a victim comes forward,” said Beasley, “you can take different routes. You can be more punitive [that is, press charges] or … if, say, it was sexual assault by a classmate, you can be separated from that classmate … or stay in the same class with them. Or, you can say, ‘I want this noted on their record or I want something else to happen from a spectrum of consequences.’ Or you can come forward to the sexual assault centre and decide to do nothing or have counselling.”

“We are not to judge whether that particular act of harm is something that the person should be concerned about,” said James.

Cultural change

The responses in the part of the survey on beliefs about sexual or gender-based violence underscore the depth of the problem facing sexual consent educators. Almost 30% are uncertain about whether “False reports of sexual assaults are rare”. One half disagrees with the statement that “If an individual is drunk, they might sexually assault someone”, even though Canadian courts do not accept that intoxication is a defence in a sexual assault case.

61% of respondents are unsure of whether “People are too easily offended by sexual jokes or comments” (in other words, depending on the situation, they might think offence was perfectly alright). Even more striking is the fact that 14% – three out of every 20 students – believe that there is nothing wrong with a sexual joke that makes someone feel uncomfortable.

The high tolerance of sexual jokes indicated to James that little has changed from when she started working in the late 1970s, when she and her female peers endured a range of inappropriate behaviour including being leered at and being subjected to sexual jokes.

“We still have a certain demographic that says, ‘It was just a joke. We’re just having fun. Why do you have to be such a prude? Why are you taking it so seriously?’ But it is serious. It’s very serious. We have to recognise that that kind of behaviour is not okay. We don’t have to accept it and just ‘move on’,” said James

When discussing the survey’s question about jokes Beasley was quick to shut the door on right-wing ideologues like Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson.

“To oppose this is not ‘Cultural Marxism’ or ‘ideological purity’. That 14% of postsecondary students across Alberta think that others have to accept being uncomfortable or taking offence is one more indication of why we need more cultural change and prevention of sexual harassment on our campuses,” said Beasley.

Possible understatement

According to Statistics Canada approximately 4% of the population or 1 million people are LGBTQ2+. Canadian law forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation or expression. Same sex marriage has been legal in some provinces since 2003 and nationwide two years later. There have been a number of openly gay or lesbian politicians, including Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s premier from 2013–2018, who is married to a woman.

The high rates of sexual harassment and violence against the LGBTQ2+ community stand out. But, as high as they are, Beasley told University World News, the study may be understating them because the survey was self-reporting.

“My guess is that the numbers are quite a bit higher. What we’re seeing is people who self-identify or self-report as having experienced sexual- or gender-based violence. When we look at questions of stigma, obviously that stigma applies quite heavily for folks that are femme (that is, present as feminine), but for different reasons, it also applies quite heavily for folks that are masc.,” said Beasley.

Queer men are subject to the “generalised machismo culture and internalised sexism or ‘strongman’ ideals that pervade our culture” and, thus, Beasley said, like straight men, socialised in a way that would depress reporting.

Eerkes also warned that while the study is a good indicator of the sexual health of Alberta’s campuses, the fact that it was voluntary creates an important weakness seen when comparing the percent of students who were victims of gender or sexual violence (50%) and those who admit to committing these acts (4%).

“There’s a pretty serious mismatch here. My assumption is that those students who may have committed some forms of sexual violence would be less interested in responding to this survey,” said Eerkes.

It’s not about sex

The high rates of SG-BV, including 40% of straight students who reported having been sexually harassed, the 60% of questioning students who reported the same, or the 54% of asexual students who were victims of SG-BV, the 25% of bisexual and queer students who reported being stalked or the 15% of straight students who reported having been stalked, are not dealing with sexual situations, James emphasised. Rather, the harassers are asserting power.

“At the end of the day sexual violence, sexual assault, rape is not about sex. It’s about power and control; it’s about someone having power over another person,” said James.

Sexual violence, perpetrated against straight students or members of marginalised sexual communities, as well as intimate partner violence in any community, has nothing to do with sexual gratification.

“It’s about someone who feels they have the right and the power to take advantage of someone else. This is a very hard thing to get people to understand because they want to think, ‘It’s just, you know, I got a little carried away with that person. I really didn’t mean any harm. I just . . . I was just really needing to have sex.’ Well, what you really needed was to have power over a person you felt you could control. The sooner we can get our heads around that the better,” said James.

A template to use elsewhere

Although the study focuses only on Alberta post-secondary students, Ages believes it can be a useful template internationally.

“Sexual and gender-based violence is a global issue. Someone living elsewhere might very well have a different context of violence. But, they can look at this and say: ‘Oh, yes. There is this community in Canada, and they conducted a survey which is going to help create a statistical picture of what the issue is, so that they can then work on solutions. Perhaps we can enact something similar and create a survey of our home to find out what are the areas that we need to work on to create policy solutions’,” said Ages.

“There are a lot of different solutions to gender-based violence. We should all take the time to learn from one another and learn best practices so that we can find ways to end the crisis of sexual and gender-based violence.”