From October 20 to 24, McGill will be launching #ConsentMcGill. The campaign is an important step forward, bringing the university toward a “yes means yes” model of consent, where silence or the absence of a “no” does not mean consent. However, this event is a small step. Establishing a culture of active consent is a constant commitment, one that requires the University’s wholehearted backing and the ongoing inclusion of student groups.
While McGill appears to finally be paying attention to the importance of consent, until recently, its actions on consent have been largely reactive. It created a harm reduction coordinator position in the wake of last year’s sexual assault incident involving three Redmen football players, a move that seemed designed to prevent further scandal. It also has yet to create an explicit sexual assault policy, although one is in the process of being drafted. Quite simply, the University needs to take a more proactive stance on sexual assault and rape culture, following the example of the many student groups, such as the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) and the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU), who have been working toward a safer campus for years.
Attention to consent has been growing on North American campuses, though that attention is overdue. In Canada, one survey found four out of five female undergraduates have experienced violence in a dating relationship, and of that number, 29 per cent experienced sexual assault. These numbers don’t take into account the underreporting of sexual assault. Another national study noted that crimes of sexual assault are typically reported at a rate of about one in ten. Some are taking action: Emma Sulkowicz, an undergraduate at Columbia University and a survivor of sexual assault, has been in the news recently for carrying a mattress around campus to protest the university’s lack of action against her attacker. The state of California also took action by passing a “yes means yes” campus consent law, taking a definitively proactive stance against sexual assault.
Here at McGill, progress has been inching forward – largely thanks to devoted student groups, such as SACOMSS, the Union for Gender Empowerment, and SSMU. The most visible existing campus resources are largely student-run – such as Rez Project, an anti-oppression workshop series in McGill residences that provides consent education to first-years, and SACOMSS, which offers therapy and assistance to guide survivors through internal McGill policies, rather than the legal system as a whole. SACOMSS is also largely behind the ongoing creation of a sexual assault policy at McGill in conjunction with other student groups and the administration.
There is still much progress to be made regarding consent at McGill, such as establishing safer space at Frosh and providing more thorough consent training. #ConsentMcGill is a good start, but the University must remember that consent is not just an event; it is an ongoing commitment that needs to be continuously upheld through education, policies, and enforcement. Beyond this week-long event promoting and acknowledging the importance of consent, we must move toward supporting survivors of sexual assault and establishing a culture of consent, both on and off campus.
—The McGill Daily Editorial Board