Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of rape and sexual assault.
In response to the outcry over the University’s handling of a sexual assault case last semester involving a former Concordia student and three former McGill Redmen football players, McGill held its first ever Forum on Consent on February 26.
The Forum’s speakers and its participants sought to untangle myths about consent, and to address ways in which McGill and Montreal as a whole can create a safer space for open discussions on topics like consent, rape culture, and sexual assault.
“[We’re here] because students and others on campus have asked us to deal differently with sexual assault. [… We’re here] to create a safer environment on campus and to do that around the notion of consent and [to form] consenting relationships. That’s our goal here – what [consent] is and how to do that,” said Carrie Rentschler, the Director of the McGill Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies and the co-chair of the forum.
The forum held a panel discussion, as well as a question and answer session from members of the McGill community. Panelists included Kai O’Doherty from the Union for Gender Empowerment (UGE); Kelly Schieder, External Coordinator of the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society; Lee Lemieux of Queer McGill; and Christopher Tegho, Engineering Undergraduate Society Equity Commissioner.
The Forum also reached out to the greater Montreal community, inviting representatives from Concordia University’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre and a Counselor at the Centre d’aide et de lutte contre les aggressions à caractère sexuel de l’Ouest-de-l’Île.
“We [also] wanted members of the [Montreal] community [in the panel discussion] because this isn’t just a McGill issue that people are sexually assaulted — it’s community wide,” Joey Shea, Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP University Affairs, and co-chair of the event, told The Daily.
The myth of “just say no”
Abigaël Candelas de la Ossa, the Forum’s keynote speaker, and PhD Candidate in the Linguistics Department at Queen Mary University of London, addressed issues related to society’s perpetuation of “just saying no” myths and how they “normalize sexual violence” and “make [it] harder to recognize violence and [to seek …] roots of redress.”
“We need to stop focusing on sexual consent [as] being indicated as whether a survivor said enough or physically struggled enough,” Candelas de la Ossa explained, “because as long as we’re doing that, we’re still objectifying survivors of sexual violence.”
“I think we’re also objectifying sexual groups that are at social risk of sexual violence: women or gay men, or [trans* people], or people who come from ethnic minority backgrounds, or people who are disabled. Those groups get treated as sexual objects and not as sexual [beings],” she continued.
“The ‘just say no’ myth,” stated Candelas de la Ossa, “tells us that you can only understand something as a ‘no’ when it involves lots of verbal and physical resistance, when there’s a physical struggle, or when someone repeatedly very clearly says ‘no.’ And the effect of that is that anything else is understood as a yes.”
Candelas de la Ossa emphasized that notions of consent and the ways in which people may decline sexual invitations extend to non-sexual situations as well.
“[Say that] someone has issued an invitation and [they] were wondering whether you’d like to come over for dinner on Saturday, and [you … replied] by saying ‘Well, that would be great, but [I] promised Carol already.’ […] No one would hear that and think that the invitation was being accepted. […] Clearly the invitation is being declined. So the way in which sex is refused is the exact same way that people refuse all kinds of invitations.”
O’Doherty echoed Candelas de la Ossa’s sentiment on the extension of the sexual notion of consent to all situations of social interaction.
“Consent doesn’t necessarily only apply to the realm of sex. It also applies to any interpersonal communication or interaction you’ve ever had. And it can be as easy as asking people what they want and asking what they’re comfortable with.”
Sexual assault policy proposed by student groups
Along with discussions about the definitions of consent and rape culture in relation to McGill and the Montreal community, and about methods for cultivating consent within these communities, the panel discussion saw the announcement of a proposed sexual assault policy for McGill by panelists O’Doherty, Lemieux, and Schieder.
The policy contains aspects such as being “pro-survivor,” “active rather than reactive,” and a “consent-based definition of sexual assault which [would] be institutionalized and implemented university-wide,” meaning that it would be mandatory to offer workshops on sexual assault for new and incoming professors and for student groups, and optional or encouraged to current professors and students.
Once implemented, the policy would require a new sexual assault response coordinator who is trained on matters of sexual assault sensitivity, anti-oppression and trans* 101, and who would be able to lend support to survivors and gather awareness campaigns against rape culture and victim-blaming.
“We strongly hope that the proposed sexual assault policy will be taken seriously, that the administration will collaborate with students, […] and that a clear, anti-oppressive, intersectional, and pro-survivor policy be put into place by the university,” said Schieder in an email to The Daily.
“We see this policy, this forum, this consultation sort of as […] being a […] way for McGill to come to show leadership for this initiative. […] We do see this as an opportunity to bring this [conversation] forward, as a way to generate proactive change as opposed to just discussing things forever,” said Lemieux.
When asked whether similar public discussions will be held in the future, Shea said to The Daily, “I mean yeah, fuck yeah. There definitely needs to be. [… McGill was …] blasted in the media before. So there’s a direct cause and reaction. And McGill is always reactionary and it needs to stop being reactionary. And in addition to priding themselves on ratings and research, [McGill] needs to pride [itself] on excellence within [its] community and fostering consent and safe space [on campus].”