Figures from Statistics Canada published in 2020 show that nearly three-quarters of university students in Canada witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviors in a post-secondary setting in 2019 – either on campus, or in an off-campus situation that involved students or other people associated with the school. In August 2022, Statistics Canada reported that sexual assault is the only violent crime in Canada not declining. According to the report, the sexual assault rate in 2021 was the highest since 1996. There were more than 34,200 reports of sexual assault in Canada in 2021, an 18 per cent increase from 2020. Despite the increase in reporting, the number of sexual assaults reported to police is still very low. In 2019, only six per cent of sexual assault incidents that took place the previous year had been reported to police. Almost one in seven women say they have been sexually assaulted at Canadian colleges and universities. And 71 per cent of students have either witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behavior.
These troubling stats reveal that universities need to do a lot more to foster a culture of consent on their campuses.
Here are some ways universities can play a crucial role in creating safe, respectful and equitable environments that prioritize the well-being of all students and staff.
Comprehensive consent education programs
Universities can implement consent culture by establishing comprehensive education programs that go beyond the basics of “no means no.” These programs should delve into the nuances of consent, including the importance of enthusiastic and ongoing agreement. They can offer workshops, seminars and online resources to help students and faculty understand consent in various contexts, such as intimate relationships, academic collaborations and extracurricular activities.
Incorporating consent into the curriculum
Integrating discussions of consent into the academic curriculum is a powerful way to make it a central part of campus culture. Professors can incorporate consent-related topics into their courses, whether in psychology, sociology, gender studies, or ethics. This approach ensures that students encounter the concept of consent in multiple disciplines and recognize its relevance in various aspects of life.
Clear and enforceable policies
Universities must establish clear and enforceable policies that address consent in all aspects of campus life, including sexual misconduct, academic integrity and organizational behaviour. These policies should outline expectations, procedures for reporting violations and consequences for offenders. Ensuring that these policies are widely known and consistently enforced creates a culture of accountability.
Supportive resources and reporting mechanisms
Providing accessible resources for survivors of consent violations is crucial. Universities should offer counseling services, confidential reporting mechanisms and trained staff who can guide survivors through the reporting and recovery process. These resources not only support survivors but also demonstrate the institution’s commitment to addressing consent-related issues.
Consent-centered orientation programs
Orientation programs are an ideal platform for instilling a culture of consent among incoming students. Universities can incorporate consent workshops and discussions into orientation activities, setting a tone of respect and understanding from the very beginning of a student’s college experience.
Engaging student organizations and clubs
Student-led organizations and clubs play a vital role in shaping campus culture. Universities can collaborate with these groups to promote consent awareness and education. Encouraging clubs to adopt and promote consent-related policies and practices can have a far-reaching impact on campus life.
Faculty and staff training
It is essential to provide ongoing training for faculty and staff to ensure they understand and uphold consent culture. Faculty can benefit from workshops on recognizing and addressing consent violations in academic settings, while administrative staff can receive training on supporting survivors and handling reports effectively.
Promoting open dialogue
Creating spaces for open dialogue about consent is fundamental. Universities can organize forums, panel discussions, and town hall meetings where students, faculty, and staff can discuss consent-related topics, share experiences and ask questions. Encouraging open and respectful conversations helps break down barriers and fosters a culture of understanding and empathy.
Evaluation and adaptation
Universities should regularly assess the effectiveness of their efforts to implement a consent culture. Collecting feedback from students and staff and making necessary adjustments to policies and programs ensures that the institution remains committed to creating a safe and respectful campus environment.
Collaborating with local organizations and advocacy groups focused on consent education and sexual assault prevention can enhance universities’ efforts. These partnerships can bring additional resources, expertise and perspectives to campus initiatives, contributing to a more comprehensive approach to consent culture implementation.
Consent culture is vitally important on university campuses as it sets the foundation for safe, respectful and equitable environments. On campus, it not only helps prevent incidents of sexual assault and harassment but also fosters a climate where students can freely express their boundaries and desires without fear. It encourages open dialogue and education about consent, empowering students to make informed decisions about their relationships and interactions. By promoting consent culture, campuses create spaces where students can thrive emotionally, socially and academically, ensuring that everyone’s autonomy and well-being are respected and upheld.
Leisha Toory (she/her) is a political science undergraduate at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, the founder of Period Priority Project and a sexual and reproductive health and rights activist.