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Consent education dangerously trivializes the gravity of rape

Content warning: sexual assault, rape, misogynistic slurs

This September at McGill, consent education will be in full force: first year students living in Rez will be participating in Rez Project – mandatory workshops that discuss consent, sexuality, and gender – and the #ConsentMcGill campaign will be holding Consent Week, aimed at preventing sexual violence on campus.

In previous years, I have been involved with consent education programming at McGill and Montreal as a participant, facilitator, and organizer. But I’ve long since lost respect for this kind of programming, and refuse to continue to support it. Firstly, because I realized no amount of consent education would have prevented me from getting raped. Secondly, because I have witnessed how consent education overshadows and replaces institutional transparency and accountability.

But most importantly, this year, after months of doubting the legitimacy of my disillusionment with consent education, I met other PWESAs, which stands for Person Who Has Experienced Sexual Assault, from all across the country who have been failed by consent discourse. As my friend Nina Hermes, who was sexually assaulted by her McGill floor fellow, recounts, “[My rapist] had already had two years of floor fellow training (around 60 hours of training each year) and had facilitated at least four Rez Project workshops, so he should have known better, right? Hell, he should have been an expert on consent!” So why wasn’t he?

What if for so many PWESAs, “healing” – something consent educators are so fond of – only looks like justice and accountability?

Beyond offering a theoretical framework to talk about gender and sexuality, consent education at Canadian universities persistently fails to offer real-life conceptualization of sexual violence. In many ways, it misinforms students about the true nature of sexual violence by watering it down to unrealistic scenarios, ridiculous analogies, individualized and one-off incidents, and de-politicizing its roots.

I’ve been told by consent educators, over and over, that consent education is like “planting seeds” that will grow into a robust understanding and practice of consent, and elimination of sexual violence in the long run. But what if these seeds are rotten? What if so many of us are already suffering? What if for so many PWESAs, “healing” – something consent educators are so fond of – only looks like justice and accountability? What if so many of us don’t have the privilege of “healing” without being compensated for all the money we lost getting our life back together after rape? What if so many of us can’t give a crap about preventing rape when we know there’s little point, since raping has absolutely no consequence for rapists on our campus?

The consent framework and the de-politicization of rape

The basics of what you learn at a typical consent workshop are simple. According to McGill’s Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention website, consent is “an affirmative decision to engage in mutually agreed upon sexual activity and is given by clear words and/or actions.” We can all probably recite the rest: consent is continuous, can be revoked at anytime, should not be assumed, should be enthusiastic, and so on.

And, just like that, rape becomes divorced from its social reality and de-centered from the conversation to open up space for consent – the golden key to good, fun, mutually respectful sex. Rape becomes a “campus sexual assault epidemic,” as if rape is a new phenomenon. Instead of being acknowledged as a tool of patriarchy, as a form of social control, as men enacting dominance over women and femmes’ bodies, rape is simplified to any sexual activity gone bad, by anyone.


Every other nuance becomes secondary or simply omitted. The role of rape in upholding white supremacy by falsely accusing and suspecting racialized – but primarily Black – men of raping white women, or its practice during slavery, or its use in warfare – mostly formally documented during the wars of the 20th century – are rendered irrelevant. Power dynamics created by age, desirability, sexual experience, or pressure to fit in are too ‘advanced’ to discuss in consent workshops, as is women’s socialization to please men or men’s socialization to be entitled to women’s bodies. We are all standing on an equal playing field – unless there’s a professor or frosh leader involved – ready to exchange sex.

Furthermore, in consent education’s eagerness to appeal to “everyone” – read: men, a.k.a. potential rapists – we are reminded, over and over, that men can get raped too, that one out of four ‘people’ get raped in college, not one out of four ‘women.’ And very little to no attention is paid to sexual violence against trans people.

Instead of being acknowledged as a tool of patriarchy, as a form of social control, as men enacting dominance over women and femmes’ bodies, rape is simplified to any sexual activity gone bad, by anyone.

Men do get raped, but according to a 2006 study from the U.S. Bureau of Justice, at a staggering rate of 98 per cent, men are almost always the perpetrators, not the victims. When they do get raped, there’s a 93 per cent chance that they’re assaulted by other men, according to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. By avoiding any interrogation of male violence, we dilute our values and falsify the reality just to roll out a bigger welcome mat for would-be rapists.

Moreover, consent programming preaches that if you, as an individual, check in during sex with your partner, respect their wishes and so on, rape won’t occur. And if you, as an individual, feel violated, if you didn’t consent, then it’s rape.

While it is absolutely crucial to understand the validity of feelings and emotions, the focus on PWESAs’ individual actions instead of interrogating cultural and systemic problems lets rapists off the hook. How about we also ask why rapists pressure their targets, why they get off on dominating other people’s bodies non-consensually? Why do rapists rape?

Rape is part of broader sexual realities, and we need a more nuanced deconstruction of the culture of hookups, alcohol, and parties to understand sexual violence. Alcohol, drugs, and the highly sexualized contexts in which they are consumed are not solely responsible for rape – and I have no time for the likes of Brock Turner who blame their acts on “college drinking culture.” However, stopping at this statement is too simplistic.

The truth is, most rapists do rape while drunk or high, often in the context of the hookup culture pervasive on university campuses. In such environments, the lack of emotional accountability removes checks on people’s actions. The hookup culture game is so rigged that one of women’s main fears about hookups is “coercion,” which is, you know, just good old-fashioned rape. We also need to move beyond “sex positivity” to understand that, even when rape doesn’t happen, the sole focus on consent and non-consent ignores the vast array of technically consensual experiences that are just terribly sexist.

Consent as communication

There are only two stages of sex and sexual assault which are covered in consent programming. The first is during sex: preventing rape by teaching people to ask their partner “does this feel good?” and “can I do x to you?” The second is post-assault: teaching people to “support survivors” by repeating “I’m sorry you had to experience that” and “that sounds shitty.” Basically, anti-sexual violence work is all about talking – a lot of it. When we talk – or, in consent educators’ words, “communicate” – apparently, rape goes away. When it doesn’t, we can just keep talking until we “heal.”

If not raping is as easy as talking, then why on earth is rape so pervasive? If consensual sex is a result of “Ask, Listen, Respect” – #ConsentMcGill’s motto – then non-consent is the absence of those things. Or, in other words, rape only happens when we don’t communicate well enough.

In a 2014 study published in the journal Violence and Gender, one third of college men reported that they would rape if they knew they could get away with it.

The problem is that rape isn’t an accident or an unfortunate episode of miscommunication – the vast majority of college rapists, statistically, know very well that they’re doing something wrong. In fact, many rapists carefully premeditate their attacks and use sophisticated strategies to ensure the success of their plan – by physically isolating their victims, by feeding them drinks, by gaslighting them enough so they don’t say a word to others.

Even more chilling is that, in a 2014 study published in the journal Violence and Gender, one third of college men reported that they would rape if they knew they could get away with it. Rapists often display misogyny, lack of empathy, and a need to dominate women. They view sex as ‘conquest,’ and women as their ‘target.’ What does all of this mean? That your average rapist may know what consent is, or may not – in any case, for them, consent education is effectively redundant.

Consent in daily life

Consent discourse has shifted the focus away from sexual consent, and depoliticized and broadened consent education to include “everyday consent,” which includes asking for consent during daily interpersonal interactions, like giving someone a high-five or hugging them. As the magical consent umbrella gets bigger, it becomes less specific, less political, to the point that consent applies to everything and nothing.

Sexual consent is infinitely more complicated, and a lack of sexual consent is infinitely more traumatizing than the consent involved in giving a hug, taking a picture, or putting your hand on someone’s shoulder. It would be nice to always ask if someone wants a hug, but don’t you fucking dare suggest that a hug without asking, even a hundred hugs without asking, is even comparable to the trauma of rape, is remotely as violent or has the same history of domination as rape. That’s an insult. That’s misogyny. That’s rape culture.

Don’t you fucking dare suggest that a hug without asking, even a hundred hugs without asking, is even comparable to the trauma of rape.

While, often, speaking about “everyday consent” is supposed to engage those who don’t have sex, we need to acknowledge that everyone is affected by sexual violence, and that sexual violence takes different forms for different communities and people. Even though sexual violence on campus often takes place where hookup culture and alcohol are present, the narrative of the skinny white girl who once got “too wasted” and “taken advantage of” at a party should not dominate the conversation on campus sexual violence at the expense of overlooking other forms of sexual violence experienced by students, faculty, and staff.

Where does a married student or faculty member who is physically assaulted by her husband receive support on campus? Someone sexually abused as a child and uncomfortable having roommates in Rez? Someone who has to go home on Thanksgiving to witness the abuse of her mother? University campuses’ exclusive brand of consent activism is leaving people behind, and that doesn’t get solved by making a mockery of rape.

Feel-good awareness projects

Most people have seen the tea video where violating, overpowering, and humiliating women’s bodies is compared to pressuring someone to drink a cup of tea. Following this lead, a collaboration of several offices and groups at McGill produced a mandatory-to-watch consent video for Froshies that uses “a clever (and even at times funny) dance analogy,” according to McGill’s website.

While the fundamental problem with such awareness campaigns is their dilution of the gravity of rape, what is more concerning to me is that these videos are supposed to be ‘funny.’ If dancing without consent is an analogy for rape, and is oh-so-hysterical, then we are effectively laughing at rape or at least laughing in a context where rape is being discussed, because who would dance with or pour a cup of tea down the throat of an unconscious person?

There is absolutely nothing funny about rape. Rape ruins people’s lives. People drop out of school, develop drinking problems, resort to suicide because of rape. Any programming, regardless of methods, impacts, and intentions, that elicits laughter when talking about rape is reprehensible. Do people really take rape more seriously when it’s reduced to nonsensical mundanities? If they do, they’re the cause of rape culture.features_button2_web

Yes, it does seem illogical to dance with someone that doesn’t want to dance with you. But that’s because comparing rape to dance is fucking ridiculous. Rape has absolutely nothing to do with logic; it’s about violation. If anything, the logic in the mind of a rapist is to detect targets, isolate them, and loosen their inhibitions to ensure a successful conquest.

According to an independent investigation funded by the Government of Ontario, such “education and training ‘short cuts’ through, for example, online modules or student contracts, are not suitable and strongly discouraged.” But it’s surely too tempting to force students to watch a seven minute video for the good PR that results from checking the students-know-enough-about-consent box before throwing them in the binge-drinking festival of Frosh that is rampant with casual misogyny.

Athletics, fraternities, and Frosh at McGill

Such videos, virtually spewing out of every university in North America and babbling the same lines, often have a tendency to exonerate groups notorious for encouraging environments that breed sexual violence.

McGill athletics, fraternities, and Frosh have all produced such videos, and they all have a strange – but surely deliberate – erasure of the history and structures of violence facilitated by them. There’s, unsurprisingly, no systemic procedure to collect information about the nature and history of sexual violence at our campus. For example, how many of us know that, in 1988 and 1990, a gang rape at Zeta Psi and another high-profile rape at Phi Delta sparked national outrage, and that the sexual assault centre on our campus was established as a response to the disgusting misogyny and sexual violence happening within McGill’s Greek system?

Five years ago, a McGill student wrote in The Daily about her experience at a Rugby banquet where women were referred to as “rugby boys’ sluts” and the players chanted “I wish that all the ladies/ were like the statue of Venus/ because then they wouldn’t have any arms to shove away my penis!” Soon after, McGill made national headlines when it was revealed that three players from the varsity football team were permitted to stay on campus for a year and allowed to continue playing on the team after being charged with sexual assault with a weapon and forcible confinement of a Concordia student. Popping out a cute little video in the face of such aggressive misogyny doesn’t make rape go away.

While I’m sure that there have been efforts to make Frosh more ‘inclusive,’ sexual violence is rampant at events where alcohol is the main focus and chants are spiked with misogyny and promotion of rape, such as Frosh, E-Week, Carnival, Hype Week, and Science Games. Frosh is different because, statistically, college women are at a higher risk of getting assaulted during orientation week and the months of September, October and November – a period called the “red zone” – than at any other time in their undergraduate career. Does anyone tell first-year women about this reality?

Popping out a cute little video in the face of such aggressive misogyny doesn’t make rape go away.

Sadly, saying “things have changed” and “we are not as bad as the States” doesn’t solve McGill’s rape problem. I want McGill athletics, fraternities, Frosh, and binge-drinking festival enthusiasts to tell us what they’re actually doing to address sexual violence within their communities. Is there a special body governing and addressing complaints? How are abusers held accountable? What if they find out about a complaint before an important game, in the middle of a drinking event, during an end-of-the-year banquet? What if the abuser is a senior athlete, a coach, an E-Week team captain, or the president of the fraternity? Are abusers removed from the community? Are they allowed to just switch to another rape-friendly environment with nothing more than a slap on the wrist?

The role of institutions in facilitating sexual violence

Consent discourse is silent when it comes to the role of universities in creating an unsafe campus, probably because most consent educators are university employees. What is unique about campus sexual violence is that PWESAs and perpetrators are often in the same community, and without the school’s intervention – such as forcing the perpetrator to switch classes or dorms – PWESAs’ continued education could be hindered.features_button1_web

When universities fail to uphold their own charters that mandate them to ensure safe and suitable conditions of learning for students, they effectively betray their community members. Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, defines “institutional betrayal” as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals, committed within the context of the institution.” According to her research, PWESAs who experience such institutional betrayal also experience higher levels of several post-traumatic symptoms.

Consent discourse will never cover this kind of trauma. In fact, even though I should be exactly the kind of person consent educators are supporting, I have experienced silencing and even bullying by educators at McGill, Ryerson, and Queens, and my friends have experienced the same at University of Toronto, York, Mount Saint Vincent, and University of British Columbia. With bystander prevention workshops, rape becomes everyone’s responsibility except the university’s, and many consent educators effectively act as bystanders themselves by staying silent about institutional betrayal.

Moving forward

If the consent framework isn’t working, then what will? I’m not sure, but I know if a fraction of the resources devoted to educational programming was redirected to prioritize consultation and collaboration with PWESAs, we would know that we need a radical revisioning of Frosh and other drinking events, a pause to interrogate Rez culture, comprehensive and easy-to-navigate accountability processes, reporting procedures at all levels of the university, and a complete overhaul of consent educational programs on campus.

While I am happy for PWESAs who find healing in consent programming, I need people to acknowledge that it is not working for many others. Last year, two survivors penned an article in The Daily to express their frustrations with consent programming, anonymously, likely due to ever-present possibility of ostracization for those even slightly critical of the ‘leftist’ status quo. We need room to have non-oppressive, mutually respectful discussions about our work in leftist communities – something that is virtually nonexistent. Who is our activism for if only the most powerful among us get space and media attention, while the rest of us are left behind?

In 2015, a CBC investigation into the frequency of campus sexual violence excluded McGill from its data set, because our school was among the three universities nationwide without proper documentation of sexual assault reports. Earlier this year, former Dean of Students Andre Costopoulos said in an interview that his office is informed of 1 or 2 assaults per month – or roughly 18 per year. “In a town of 40,000 you’re going to have stuff happen,” he said.

Clearly, sexual assault is massively underreported at McGill. But let’s work with these 18 incidents of “stuff happening”: how many rapists involved in these cases have been removed from PWESAs’ classes, clubs, or residences? How many of these 18 incidents involved formal reports, informal reports, investigations, hearings, mediations, appeals, criminal trials, disciplinary charges, suspensions, or expulsions? Who do PWESAs disclose to? Do unsupportive disclosure recipients face any sanctions? Who sits on disciplinary committees? Which faculty, department, race, age, ability level is mostly represented among PWESAs and perpetrators? How do these 18 PWESAs perceive their experience with McGill?

Who is our activism for if only the most powerful among us get space and media attention, while the rest of us are left behind?

Clearly, transparency isn’t McGill’s best suit. But let’s go back to underreporting, because McGill fails miserably at accountability as well. Why would a survivor care to report, and why would a rapist stop raping, when we know that, plain and simple, rape is tolerated in this institution? Sadly, nothing seems to be changing; the administration has refused to include a single clause on reporting and disciplinary procedures in the Sexual Violence Policy, leaving too many things up to individual administrators’ discretion.

A letter published in 1991 in The Daily (after the Phi Delta Theta rape) reads, “If McGill cared as much for women’s rights as it did for its own reputation, there would be the reassurance of checks on university decisions.” In 1994, the University refused to adopt a sexual assault policy despite student activism, arguing that a general assault policy was sufficient. Last April, 22 years later, McGill rejected the sexual assault policy developed by students for similarly ridiculous reasons. Alas, when accountability and transparency – the signifiers of institutional health – are lacking at our university, when PWESAs’ trauma is McGill’s PR disaster, a painful history can repeat itself.


Use the hashtag #ThisIsNotHelping to join the conversation on consent education at McGill.