“Sex is always the answer, its never a question.” – Nickelback.
Ah dear, sometimes, it’s just too easy. Absolutely incorrect, Nickelback. Once again, this infamous Canadian band proves just how wrong they can be. Sex, for those of you in the dark (literally and figuratively), is always a question!
On Tuesday, March 1, the School of Public Policy and Governance’s Gender and Public Policy Initiative led a discussion on why consent is beginning to get the recognition it deserves. The initiative hosted a roundtable discussing consent and the extent to which Ontario’s updated sex-education curriculum could combat the occurrence of sexual violence in the province. As eloquently stated by the roundtable’s hosts, Jessica Riehm, Jas Goraya, and Adryan Bergstron Borins, sexual violence not only has dramatic repercussions for victims and families, but also for the province as a whole, leading to serious criminal justice, health, and economic consequences.
According to Justice Canada, sexual assaults and offences imposed a $4.8 billion burden on the Canadian economy in 2009. The Gender and Public Policy Initiative presenters succinctly unpacked elements of this figure, estimating costs of over $210 million in lost productivity, $113 million spent on medical costs, and criminal justice system costs of $150 million. Given the number of sexual assaults left unreported in Canada, this number could be staggeringly higher.
A 2009 Statistics Canada investigative report into violent crime found that 88 per cent of sexual assaults were not reported to police. Thus, as the presentation pointed out, the 7,618 sexual assaults reported in Ontario in 2014 is, in all likelihood, a serious underestimation.
In early 2015, the Ontario government responded, unveiling two policy initiatives that both took action to address and reduce occurrences of sexual violence in the province: the new sex-ed curriculum, unveiled in February 2015, and the March 2015 action plan to reduce sexual violence and harassment. Recognizing its role as a policy leader, the provincial government was integral in igniting conversations and raising public awareness about sexual assault .
The roundtable participants discussed how the new Ontario sex-ed curriculum could play an influential role in modernizing attitudes towards perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence in Ontario. By teaching young Ontarians about consent, sexuality, sexual safety, and by presenting an overall positive attitude towards sex, educators could emphasize the importance of respect in sexual relationships. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies societal norms as one of the contributing risk factors increasing the likelihood of commitment of rape by a man, and by combatting norms such as sexual entitlement, as well as notions of superiority based upon sexuality, race, or gender, this risk is reduced. This is important as not only is sexual violence disproportionately perpetrated against women, but members of indigenous and LGBTTQ communities as well. By conscientiously promoting consent and safety, the new curriculum works to enhance sexual equality in the province. On the importance of consent, the curriculum states:
“Students need to be taught about their right to refuse and about ways of showing affection appropriately and recognizing and respecting consent.”
This important concept was brought forth for inclusion not by legislators or educators, but by two grade 8 students from Toronto, Tessa Hill and Lia Valente. The two astute students recognized the need to promote a positive sex culture for kids growing up in a world with the strong influence of social media and enhanced influence to the internet. In response to parent backlash, the girls astutely observed: “It’s just the basic rules of consent, I don’t really get why they could be opposed to that” (besides Nickelback fans, apparently). It is this positive attitude towards ideas associated with consent that the curriculum hopes to promote.
The roundtable’s guest speaker was Vivien Green, Director of Community Development at WomenatthecentrE, who posed complicated questions to participants on strategies to reduce sexual violence and induce a cultural change in Ontario. Many participants appeared to be convinced that introducing notions and definitions of consent, sexuality, harassment, and abuse into the education curriculum could help end the stigma experienced by survivors, while reducing incidents and encouraging more victims to come forward. By promoting education for both girls and boys together, a distinct shift in attitudes towards perpetrators, victims, and society’s persistent inaction on sexual assault could occur. However, these discussions were framed in lens of the hypothetical future – when it came to combatting sexual violence today, especially on university campuses across Ontario, policies are incredibly muddled.
The fact is universities are simply not taking extensive and comprehensive action to address sexual harassment and abuse on campuses. An investigation by the CBC found that, in a study of 87 Canadian post-secondary institutions, only 16 have zero reported incidences of sexual assault in the past six years. Furthermore, this same investigation revealed only 700 reported sexual assaults on Canadian campuses between 2009 and 2013. In 2014, the number reported was 224. This works out to a rate of 1.85 assaults per 10,000 students. This rate is alarmingly low, experts say, and only displays the trend of underreporting across just one facet of Canadian society.
While the policy initiatives undertaken by Ontario, such as the #itsneverokay campaign and updated sex-ed curriculum, have valiantly begun to raise awareness of sexual assault, more initiative must be taken. If the provincial government is able to take steps in primary and secondary education, surely it should be able to do more to combat sexual violence on Ontario campuses. The roundtable concluded by emphasizing that this movement must go beyond government, discussing the role citizen organizations, religious leaders, and post-secondary institutions must play in educating women and men on sexual violence. By leading the conversation on sex positivity and promoting consent, perhaps meaningful action can begin against sexual violence in Ontario.
Fiona Downey is a 2017 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in political studies from Queen’s University. Her interests lie in women’s health policy, civic engagement, urban policy, and human rights. When not reading or writing about policy, Fiona enjoys playing field hockey and exploring Toronto.