[Talk at the Social Justice Action Network @ UBC Law: Defining “Yes”: Consent, Sexual Assault and the Law]
First of all, I would like to start with recognizing that we are on unceded Musqueam land. If we are going to talk about a culture of violence, we have to first start with the very land we’re standing on and how it was stolen through violence, and how power continues to be held over it through sexualized violence, racism, and poverty.
There is a big difference between how Canada sees itself when it comes to sexualized violence, and the actual reality. The Canadian Government says, “Canada is a world leader in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality. These issues are central to Canada’s foreign and domestic policies. Canada is committed to the view that gender equality is not only a human rights issue, but is also an essential component of sustainable development, social justice, peace, and security.”
AND YET, our government refuses to investigate on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women or see this epidemic as anything more than individual crimes. WAVAW’s own stats show a dismal 4% conviction rate. And we see rampant sexual assault and harassment within the police force and RCMP.
We do have great legal premise that feminists fought for. According to the Criminal Code of Canada (Section 273.1), Consent or a “yes” that is obtained through pressure, coercion, force, or threats of force is not voluntary.”
BUT, here’s the situation: Consent presupposes equality, which we do not have. Let’s break it down!
We grow up watching TV shows and movies that depict romance in a skewed, male centric way. (Men stalking women is romantic, etc.) Our society devalues femininity and women, objectifying and valuing us based solely on appearance and there is enormous pressure for women (and younger and younger girls) to be sexual. These influences are very real and powerful and they shaped the way we understand consent.
We know that there is a high rate of sexual assault but our society constantly sanitizes and minimizes it with language. Using phases like “non-consensual sex” instead of rape frames the issue as if it is only a matter of consent and that it was only an agreement issue between two individuals. This language also grooms us and coerces us to accept the normalization of sexualized violence. If we leave survivors without the language of rape and sexualized violence (only “non-consensual sex”), we have nothing to validate our experiences of trauma, hurt, pain, and violation. Most recently, the Ghomeshi case highlighted the impact of the desensitization of sexualized violence and how society dismisses these violent acts as “kinks.”
Consent is not even a consideration in many forms of sexualized violence. How can we give consent when there’s still oppression happening? In situations where there are power differences? In stranger attacks? In state-sanctioned violence? In war? When our society and criminal-legal system are built on foundations of colonization, and dominance continues to be held through a legacy of colonization, racism, and high levels of sexualized violence against Indigenous women including rape, we need to go beyond the discussion of consent. We need to look at everything that has allowed the continuous attack on women’s bodies in our society.
THREATS OF FORCE
HIV non-disclosure is considered “Level 3 Sexual Assault” and it has huge implications on positive women. Positive women are often forced to stay in violent relationships out of fear of being charged and labeled as a sex offender. Women have also been put into positions where they are forced to testify against consensual partners who are HIV positive. With the explosion of technology, there are new ways for perpetrators to hold women hostage. We see the damage of phenomena like “revenge porn” and “dirty.com”. These threats are just as powerful as actual acts of violence.
Wherever there is power and domination, there is always resistance. We honour women’s resistance to rape culture in any forms it takes.
We know it is resistance when women tell us how they survived an assault.
We know it is resistance when women say with confidence “this wasn’t my fault.”
We know it is resistance when women come together to march, make our voices heard, and demand better.
WAVAW and our allies are working toward addressing the root cause of violence against women and shifting society so that our laws on consent can actually be applied true to their intention and not the current ineffective state. We need to recognize that rape culture permeates every level of the criminal legal system. So thank you for coming out to events like this because you will have an influence in the system. With the awareness of the shortcomings and challenges, I believe we will have a fighting chance.