Sexual Consent Education at Canadian Post Secondary Institutions

By Scharie Tavcer (2021-02-05)

For years I have studied sexual violence. It’s an issue that divides people in the room. Whenever I tell folx what I research they either dive in, discuss, and debate, or they deflect and walk away. That’s okay because I remain passionate about studying sexual violence and I am comfortable with the discomfort.

Lately the discussions and debates revolve around whether universities should have sexual consent education and if so, should it be mandatory? MRU, for example, offers consent education (and other sexual violence programming) on an ad hoc basis to anyone who seeks the info, and it is part of a larger educational program for Resident Advisors and other student leaders.

Unfortunately for the MRU community, budget cuts have dissolved the Centre for Equity and Meaningful Inclusion (CEMI) and our Sexual Violence Coordinator (SVC) is now the sole person responsible for programming and services with the help of volunteers.

Information about consent is available on the website of the MRU Relationship Violence Prevention & Research Centre.

In case you didn’t know, the prevalence of sexual assault in Canada has not changed in more than 30 years and the reporting of victimization has only waxed and waned over that same time period. In Canada and United States one in three women over the age of 15 has experienced sexual assault during her lifetime. One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted during their stay at a post-secondary institution [PSI] and more than 90% of those victims do not report to school authorities. The lack of reporting is consistent across North America in that only 1 in 10 sexual assaults is reported to police.

In response to these facts, I ask what can be done differently – what can PSIs do to reduce the numbers of victims and potential perpetrators? What can be done in the face of dwindling budgets and lack of access to programs and services?

I began my study about sexual consent education by taking an inventory of what is currently offered at over 100 PSIs across Canada. Then I asked students at seven PSIs to explain their understanding of consent, what consent education exists at their university, and who receives that education? And I also asked them if consent education should be mandatory for students and/or mandatory for everyone on campus (faculty, staff, and administrators)?

Findings so far tell us that students have a mixed understanding of what is consent. This is troubling for many reasons. Students also express that they want consent education, and that they want everyone on campus to get that education. They talk about wanting a #cultureofconsent that permeates all corners of their university.

I want that too. But how can this be realized when resources are cut, when positions are eliminated, when CEMI exists only in name, and when an SVC is expected to gather volunteers to do the work of many?

If we truly want to change those statistics, if we truly want a campus that is safe, we need to do things differently. One of the outcomes from my research is to craft an online consent education module that will bring us towards a #cultureofconsent and hopefully address prevalence. The module has several topics and with research and in consultation with other experts and will be ready later this year. My hope is that the value and need for consent education will no longer be a dividing topic.

Further reading

Benoit, C., Shumka, L., Phillips, R., Kennedy, M. C., & Belle-Isle, L. (2015). Sexual violence against women in Canada. Status of Women Canada.

Brennan, S., & Taylor-Butts, A. (2008). Sexual assault in Canada in 2004 and 2007. Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

Cantalupo, N. C. (2011). Burying our heads in the sand: Lack of knowledge, knowledge avoidance, and the persistent problem of campus peer sexual violence. Loyola University Chicago Law Journal, 43(1), 205-266.

Department of Justice Canada. (2017). Justice Canada Knowledge Exchange on the Criminal Justice System’s Responses to Sexual Assault Against Adults – Summary of Proceedings.

Fisher, B., Cullen, F., & Turner, M. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.  

Holland, K. J., & Cortina, L. M. (2017). “It happens to girls all the time”: Examining sexual assault survivors’ reasons for not using campus supports. American Journal of Community Psychology, 59(1-2), 50-64.

Karjane, H. K., Fisher, B. S., & Cullen, F. T. (2002). Campus sexual assault: How America’s institutions of higher education respond. Education Development Center.

Krebs, C.P., Barrick, K., Lindquist, C.H., Crosby, C.M. Boyd, C., & Bogan, Y. (2011). The Sexual Assault of Undergraduate Women at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Journal of Interpersonal Violence 26(18)

Tjaden, P., & Thoenees, N. (2000). Prevalence, incidence, and consequences of violence against women: Findings from the national violence against women survey. U.S Department of Justice.

United States Department of Justice. (2005). Sexual assault on campus: What colleges and universities are doing about it. U.S Department of Justice National Institute of Justice.