Written by WAVAW Relief Staff, Caity Goerke
The recent rape chants at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Saint Mary’s University (SMU) have prompted many public conversations about sexual violence. Specifically, they’ve inspired conversations about consent, many of which seem to assume that widespread misunderstandings about consent are the central issue of concern regarding sexual violence and that the priority of anti-violence activists must be to address this “crisis of consent.” For example, according to the “Report from the President’s Council” recently released by SMU, the university’s consultations with students made it clear that “young people, like many others, often do not fully understand consent and can feel that the line between consensual sexual acts and sexual assault can be unclear.” In fact, the SMU report asserts that “the most critical foundation for sexualized violence prevention is to ensure that individuals understand what consent means and that it can be revoked at any time under any circumstances.”
The most critical? Consent is mandatory, and adequate discussion about what it means is a necessary aspect of education and public discourse about sex and rape. But what gets lost when consent is the only thing we talk about? We only have to look as far as the recent stranger assaults at UBC to know that consent can’t possibly be our only entry point into discussions of sexual assault. Did consent have anything to do with what happened to the six women on campus who were assaulted by a stranger? How relevant are conversations about consent when a perpetrator has already decided consent isn’t necessary? The stranger assaults at UBC occurred because a man who has lived his life in a rape culture felt entitled to women’s bodies, not because of any blurred lines between the consensual and nonconsensual.
When we only talk about sexual violence in terms of consent, we lose a lot of what makes up the real context of rape and, sometimes, we lose rape entirely. Both the media coverage surrounding the rape chants at SMU and the SMU report itself continually use the euphemism of “non-consensual sex.” For example, this CBC article refers to the Y-O-U-N-G rape chant at SMU as “glorifying non-consensual underage sex with girls.” The SMU report explains that “Some hook-ups involve non-consensual sex. In a 2011 study, 7.6 percent of participants indicated that their most recent hookup was an experience they did not want to have or to which they were unable to consent.”
By definition, sex requires consent. “Non-consensual sex” is rape. The Y-O-U-N-G chant is about rape. If a hookup involves sexual activity that isn’t consensual, it’s not a hookup – it’s rape. Not only does calling it “non-consensual sex” redirect conversations away from rape and towards what does and doesn’t constitute consent, but it buries the issue of sexual violence entirely. When we say that 7.6 percent of survey participants experienced recent hookups that were “unwanted,” we reduce the problem to a misunderstanding between two individuals. If we were to say that 7.6 percent of respondents reported being raped in the recent past, then we would have to acknowledge rape culture, structural oppression, and the epidemic of violence that exists in our society.
If we continue to frame consent as a simple negotiation between two individuals, and if we continue to use discussions of consent as our only way of addressing sexual violence, then we fall into the trap of imagining rape only in an individual context. Suddenly rape is whittled down to a set of individual choices: a woman presents herself as hypersexualized, she decides to have a lot to drink, she puts herself in an unsafe situation… and the result is violence. The SMU report cites “hypersexualization,” “youth culture,” and “campus drinking cultures” as major causes of sexual violence. It’s important to recognize this as troubling: when we attribute hypersexualization solely to “youth,” “campus,” and “drinking/partying” cultures, it becomes all too easy to blame the young people who engage in those activities. Before we know it, we’re buying into rape myths about “how much she drank,” “what she was wearing,” and “mixed signals.”
The SMU report further states that, according to its research findings, “there are no proven practices to counter the harmful effects of hypersexualization.” If we only ever think about hypersexualization as an inconvenient side-effect of youth and campus drinking culture – if we only ever think about it in terms of individual young people making individual choices – then it might be easy to be bogged down in a world of no solutions, a world of “well I guess that’s just the way it is.”
But what if we open up the conversation? What if we realize that hypersexualization and violence exist within systems of power that dictate who does and doesn’t count as a whole and valuable human beings deserving of respect and safety? To be frank, the idea that there are “no proven practices to counter the harmful effects of hypersexualization” is laughable when we consider the powerful, well-established impacts of feminist activism, feminist education, and feminist support work. Feminism is a practice that counters “the harmful effects of hypersexualization.” Women’s and social justice-oriented community and advocacy groups like WAVAW have been doing the work of supporting women and dismantling rape culture for decades. We can’t forget to employ a feminist analysis of the ways that patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, and other systems of power directly affect lived and daily experiences of hypersexualization, consent, and rape.
We can lose that bigger picture of power, privilege, and oppression if we only talk about consent. The SMU report uses the word “consent” 104 times. In contrast, both “structural” and “systemic” are never used, “power” is mentioned only eight times, “patriarchy” is used only twice, and “oppression” is mentioned three times but only ever in relation to the mandates of community organizations (and never in the words of the report writers themselves). With the exception of relatively small sections on “Gender Equality” and a “Culture of Equity,” there is little discussion of the ways that structural oppression such as sexism, racism, ciscentrism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, colonization, or sizeism contribute to lived realities of sexual violence. Conversations about consent often lead to discussions of interpersonal relations on a “micro” scale. What we need is more critical analysis of the “macro” picture – the realities of power, privilege, and oppression that result in rape.
So let’s stop limiting ourselves to talking about consent and start engaging with the full picture of violence. Let’s ask our educational institutions like UBC and SMU to be leaders in responding not just to violence but also to rape culture and oppression. WAVAW is already proving this work is possible. The Raise It Up program provides a free curriculum for high school teachers and aims to build awareness about the root causes of violence while motivating young people to take action to make their communities safer. The C.A.R.E About Gendered Violence project (which is funded by Status of Women Canada and WAVAW donors) combines WAVAW’s expertise and experience with that of on-campus partners in order to make concrete changes to prevent violence against women on campus. (WAVAW is currently working with Vancouver Community College on this project. We previously offered UBC similar funding but were turned down by the university.) In addition to these efforts, WAVAW women share their analysis and response to issues of consent and violence through blog posts and at community events. At WAVAW, we know that rape culture will never be dismantled unless we understand its structural context. We know that we can’t compartmentalize the issue of rape into discussions of “consent,” “hypersexualization,” and “youth culture” as if these pieces can be imagined and explained outside of the larger puzzle. That is why we can’t support the analysis provided by the “Report from the President’s Council” at Saint Mary’s University and why we will continue asking our educational institutions to do more and do better.