News  An uphill battle for consent culture

Panelists discuss consent education, sexual assault policy

On Thursday, four panelists participated in a discussion hosted by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU)’s Equity Committee to address how best to foster a culture of consent on and off the McGill campus. The event was a part of the #ConsentMcGill campaign, held from October 20 to 24, which aimed to educate students, faculty, and staff about consent in sexual situations and daily life.

The panel was composed of three students: Alice Gauntley, a Healthy McGill Peer Educator specializing in sexuality education; Roma Nadeem, a member of the SSMU Equity Committee and former Rez Life coordinator; and Jean Murray, External Coordinator at the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS). The panel also included Carrie Rentschler, an associate professor in the Department of Art History & Communications who focuses on feminism and media. Panelists discussed what a culture of consent would look like on the McGill campus, as well as the obstacles facing its establishment.

Gauntley said that a community that fosters consent is one “where the principles of asking for consent and listening to and respecting that answer [are] woven into all areas of our lives, not just in terms of sexual activity.” The panelists agreed that ideally, consent should be normalized among all peers to eradicate the idea that asking for consent is redundant or inconvenient. Murray added that “it’s teaching people to be prepared to have ‘no’ as an answer and be okay with that.”

“A culture of consent looks and sounds very different than what we have on campus right now,” said Rentschler. She called into question whether a true culture of consent was possible within a university setting where the hierarchy between students, faculty, and the administration can undermine students’ efforts to eradicate non-consensual power dynamics between individuals.

“It’s really hard, because this is a deeply hierarchical place […] and a lot of us are invested in those hierarchies,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen consent being performed at a university,” she continued.

Murray spoke about how another obstacle facing consent education on campus involves addressing the preconceptions of a diverse student body. “Everybody who comes here was almost certainly raised in a culture of normalized gender- and sexual-based violence,” she said. “[Consent education] involves complete paradigm shifts,” she said.

A topic that pervaded the discussion of eradicating sexual violence through consent was the current student-driven drafting of the university’s new sexual assault policy. “Often we talk about consent on an individual level, but it’s also really important at an institutional level,” said Murray.

“That means proactive policies to make students feel safe and supported on campus,” Gauntley agreed.

“We have the possibility right now to make potentially a pretty radical sexual assault policy that doesn’t really have a precedent,” added Murray. “The only way to deal with assault on campus is to go to the police, is to go to the criminal justice system.” Panelists and audience members alike were optimistic about the potential for the new sexual assault policy to transform how universities across the country approach situations of non-consent, with some audience members expressing interest in methods of “alternative accountability.”

The response to the panel was largely positive, with many participants offering opinions and suggestions on fostering a culture of consent. “This conversation is something really palpable on campus,” said Lily Schwarzbaum, Student Engagement Facilitator at the McGill Office of Sustainability.

The panelists were pleased with the outcome and level of participation during the panel. “When it comes down to it, a culture of consent is one where students are all engaged in continuing to build and grow that culture,” said Murray.