Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault.
School’s back in session! With most colleges and universities offering in-person classes again, many students will be on campus for the very first time, or for the first time in a few years. The first few weeks of school are meant to be exciting, with new faces, schedules, and a whole lot of learning. But one thing students shouldn’t ever have to worry about on a new campus is sexual violence, which statistically, is more likely to occur in the first 8 weeks of school.
Sexual violence is a systemic issue. It’s our collective responsibility to make campuses safe(r) with community action—always rooted in an intersectional approach that considers how sexual violence impacts folks differently based on the oppressions they face.
Here are five ways that our communities can work together to build a culture of consent—because the scariest thing about September should be early midterms.
- Practice everyday consent.
First and foremost, we need to recognize that rape culture is rampant on our campuses, communities, and society as a whole. With this context, we can build a culture of consent that works to prevent sexual violence from happening in the first place.
In 2022, we might be surprised that many folks don’t fully understand what consent actually means. In Ontario, only 90.5 per cent of students said that consent must be given at each step in a sexual encounter. Yikes! So for the people in the back, consent is affirmative consent, meaning that “yes means yes!” and it applies at every point of a sexual encounter. If it’s not crystal clear that all parties are 100% on board—and in the state of mind to grant consent— it’s assault. Plain and simple. Learn more about it here.
So what’s our first step? We need to normalise consent as a community. Talk about it with our friends, in our classes, with the administration (how about mandatory consent education for all incoming students?). And not only in sexual situations, but in every aspects of our lives. Practising consent is an ongoing commitment to asking the people around us what they need. We’re all responsible when it comes to building a culture of consent.
- Know what supports exist.
Early in the year, it’s important to carve out time to know what support services are available on and off campus. Does your campus have a policy for sexual misconduct? How accessible is it? This ensures that survivors—and supporters of survivors—are able to navigate which resources are best for them if and when they need to be accessed. What’s always central is the survivor’s comfort—they must determine which support is best for them.
- Showing up and building community.
Last fall, Western University faced major scrutiny after a string of sexual assaults took place during orientation week. In response, thousands of students walked out of class to protest misogyny and rape culture on campus. Sexual violence isn’t an individual issue, it affects us all. The more we step up for one another, the more effective we will be in creating structures that keep each other safe.
During your first weeks of school try attending campus-hosted programming and events to support the eradication of sexual violence, such as a Take Back the Night march. Most institutions have sexual violence support offices who offer ongoing programming and community events. Try getting involved and make some rad new friends!
- Rethink what safety looks like.
Our cultural perception of safety has shifted wildly over the past few years. What feels safe for one person is not necessarily the same for someone else. We know that those who are already marginalized face sexual violence at disproportionate rates.
While 1 in 7 women have been sexually assaulted at Canadian colleges and universities, “these experiences are more frequent and more violent for women and gender-diverse students, sexual minorities, Indigenous, Black, students of colour, and students with disabilities.”
We should be listening to the folks most impacted when we talk about the steps we can take to create safe(r) spaces. Remember, most of our physical and digital spaces were not designed with intersectionality in mind. Talk to student leaders about lobbying for safe(r) and more accessible campus structures, including alternatives to surveillance and police-like security teams.
- Use your voice.
Post-secondary education is about learning, both in and outside the classroom. If your friend says something harmful, let them know. It might feel awkward in the moment, but it’s actually an act of care. Let’s hold each other accountable by challenging slut-shaming and victim blaming, which perpetuate rape culture.
Trust your gut. When witnessing unwanted sexualized behaviour as bystanders, 91 per cent of women and 92 per cent of men do not intervene, with reasonings varying from the bystanders feeling uncomfortable to intervene (48 per cent), fearing negative consequences (28 per cent), or fearing for their safety (18 per cent). If you feel like something is wrong, it probably is. Social pressure is a very real thing, but you are never overreacting if you voice a concern or feel unsafe.
We can each use our voices in a myriad of ways, in-person, online, through protests or petitions, in whichever form feels comfortable. Prevention efforts on campus require better funding and listening to the calls of student leaders. Tell your administration that this matters to you! Remember that these institutions are meant to be serving you, and you deserve to have a say in how they approach the pressing issues impacting our campuses.