We do not live in a culture of consent.
I was reminded of this fact when scrolling through the comments of a news article criticizing the recent ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that maintains that “stealthing” — the act of pretending to use a condom, or removing one prior to sex without the partner’s consent — is sexual assault. While this ruling provides further legal clarification on the issue of consent and condom use, it will unfortunately not address the lack of understanding regarding what constitutes consent among the population. Those active in the violence against women (VAW) sector witness the various ways that this lack of awareness manifests itself, is perpetuated, and causes harm.
It manifests itself in the accusations often lodged against victims of domestic violence that imply they consented to being abused by staying with their abuser.
It’s perpetuated in the language used by media when reporting on violence against women, often referring to rape as “non-consensual sex” or using other consensual language to describe violence.
It causes harm through the questions often presented to victims of sexual violence by those meant to help them, focusing on what they were wearing, whether they were consuming alcohol, or their sexual history, rather than providing support.
Moreover, these well-intentioned laws and legislation do not properly address the systemic harm caused if those who are responsible for administering and enforcing them are also uninformed. A notable example of this gap is Judge Gregory Lenehan, who in 2018, stated that “clearly, drunks can consent” during a sexual assault trial in our province. When those in our legal and judicial systems do not understand — or choose to disagree — with the principles on which our laws are based, this can often act as a barrier to victims accessing justice and proper support.
As an umbrella association of VAW organizations, we believe that we must pair progressive legislation and laws with broader education. This includes teaching about consent and healthy relationships within schools and workplaces, but also adapting trauma-informed practices within the systems that those experiencing violence encounter.
It also means transforming our current approach towards understanding consent and sex in our society, which emphasizes the need for women to take preventative measures to protect themselves from sexual violence, while completely dismissing the responsibility and education of men.
While these structural and cultural changes will take time, there are everyday actions that individuals can take to help foster a culture of consent — one based on respect, bodily autonomy, choice, and agency. These can include taking the time to learn more about consent and sexual health, using your voice to advocate or educate others, or challenging toxic gender roles that contribute to violence against women. It is only when we begin to seriously invest our time and money into these structural and individual measures that the transformation required to live in a culture of consent can happen.
Ann St. Croix is the coordinator of the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia (THANS), an umbrella association of Violence-Against-Women organizations across Nova Scotia.