content warning: mentions of sexual violence
Registering for Frosh at the beginning of August was anxiety inducing, mainly because it prompted me to start thinking about the social interactions that university would bring. At the bottom of the email explaining how to register, as if it was an aside, there was a paragraph indicating that in order to participate in Frosh, it was required that every student complete an online seminar about consent. After reading a bit about the seminar, I felt inclined to avoid it until the last minute. When I finally steeled myself into clicking the link, I realized I had been right to be reluctant.
The video seminar, entitled “It Takes All of Us,” involves a robotic voice detailing example situations in which consent is important or unclear. There is very little done to engage the student watching it, and so I sat in my grandma’s kitchen in August, clicking through the modules and trying to not get too bogged down by the onslaught of statistics and cutesy advice. I tried to finish the seminar as quickly as I could, and I’d be surprised if I was the only one in 7,000 incoming students to rush through it. The information was presented in a way that allowed people to give it as much or as little attention as they desired. This is not how we can meaningfully work towards eradicating sexual violence. There are definitely some students for whom the program would have been triggering, and while it is true that the same can be said about many types of consent education, a marked lack of respect for these students is evident, even within the title. A formal, engaging, and wellstructured dialogue about these topics during Frosh is necessary, as this online format felt like it sidelined students’ experiences for the sake of convenience.
A formal, engaging, and well-structured dialogue about these topics during Frosh is necessary, as this online format felt like it sidelined students’ experiences for the sake of convenience.
Because of how uninvolved and casual the program was, I assumed that this was the first part of a larger consent training that McGill would mandate participation in. At a certain point I realized that the five minute conversation our Frosh leaders had with us about the ban on relationships between “Froshies” and leaders was the last time they were going to formally bring up the topic of consent. The word “formally” is of the utmost importance here, because the catchy, informal phrase “consent is sexy” was, in fact, repeated countless times over the course of Frosh.
To put it simply: the “consent is sexy” rhetoric is harmful and dangerous. Consent is not sexy, consent is what distinguishes sex from rape. I’ve never heard anyone say that “rape is unsexy,” as a way of promoting the importance of consent, because to do so would be to belittle the experiences of survivors of sexual violence. Funnily enough, saying that “consent is sexy” accomplishes the exact same thing – while simultaneously oversimplifying a complex issue. The onus in this circumstance is not on the Frosh leaders, but on the University’s administration for relegating consent education to the sidelines.
Consent is not sexy, consent is what distinguishes sex from rape.
On the first day of Frosh, there was a list of tasks that each group competed to finish first. One of these tasks was to “explain why consent is sexy.” Hearing this set off alarm bells in my head, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. Nothing about my group members’ explanations was offensive or inaccurate, but nothing about the seminar had been insensitive either (aside from the title). All of these things could have sufficed as components of a broader consent training program. My discomfort stemmed from the fact that McGill’s consent education was centered on making consent palatable. It’s presumed to be an unpleasant conversation to have and therefore it was instead dealt with in the margins, at the leisure of each incoming student and in a funny, casual way.
In a video introducing the seminar, Principal Suzanne Fortier describes the training as “required learning for each one of us, including [herself ]”. This statement, along with the title, suggest that each member of the McGill community plays an equal role in preventing sexual violence. The program successfully addresses the ways in which each individual is affected by consent as it covers what to do as a bystander, someone in a sexual situation, and someone supporting a survivor. However, by providing incoming students and faculty or administrators with the same training it disregards the differences in power that characterize a university environment. My role in preventing sexual violence is different from the role of Professor Manfredi, the Provost and VicePrincipal, who claimed to be “proud” to have already completed the modules in an email addressed to students. It is the responsibility of the University to do more than just the bare minimum, which is what this seminar is. The role of the Administration should be to actively support and protect the student body.
My discomfort stemmed from the fact that McGill’s consent education was centered on making consent palatable.
The rhetoric within the seminar portrays it as an effective tool in combatting sexual violence on campus because of its mandatory nature. A more effective strategy would be to provide separate training for faculty and students, because the reality of consent is affected by the position one occupies. Within the online seminar, it is stated that there is a higher risk of sexual violence during the first eight weeks of the semester. The alcohol-fueled nature of the frosh activities coupled with the fact that, for many students, this is the first time away from home, creates a hyper-sexualized environment. Clearly, this is understood by the coordinators, who provided us with condoms in our Frosh bags. It is also evidently understood that such circumstances lend themselves naturally to higher incident rates of sexual violence. Yet instead of addressing the issue in a meaningful way, priority was placed on making sure nothing interfered with the fun of the week. It’s true that an in-depth, multifaceted training about consent would not be fun, but isn’t that kind of the point? There are people who need to feel uncomfortable, who need to be made to genuinely consider the reality of what consent means — because the alternative (sexual violence) is significantly more unpleasant than a comprehensive and informative workshop.