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460,000 and counting

460,000 and counting

May 5, 2015 by Ann Decter, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, YWCA Canada

The Ontario government has recently gone activist on violence against women, and as far as this parent is concerned - that’s a good thing.

In March, Premier Wynne announced It’s Never Okay, a new provincial action plan on sexual violence and harassment backed by a three-year, $41 million investment. Accompanying that was Who Will You Help? a bystander-motivating ad described as “edgy” that went viral. That’s worth repeating: An edgy government ad about stopping sexual assault and harassment went viral. Amazing. Who Will You Help? is smart, scary and ultimately, positive. On Twitter, #WhoWillYouHelp continues to move as the government promotes Sexual Assault Prevention Month in May.

The Wynne government’s welcome activism includes the establishment of a permanent Roundtable on Violence Against Women, chaired by Sly Castaldi and Farrah Khan, two not-to-be-messed-with advocates with decades of experience.

It also includes much-needed revisions to the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum for elementary and high school, in areas related to sexual health and healthy sexuality. This week, some parents in Ontario are withdrawing their children from school to protest the new curriculum. Similar protests derailed the McGuinty government’s attempt to introduce a revised curriculum, which is why it hasn’t been revised in this century. Protestors may feel emboldened by their previous success, and presume that at some point Premier Wynne will succumb to their pressure. She shouldn’t.

To end rape culture we must create a consent culture,” that’s the message of the petition organized by Grade 8 students Lia Valente and Tessa Hill, which garnered more than 40,000 signatures – including mine – before Premier Wynne announced that consent would be covered in the revised curriculum.

For those who haven’t looked at it, the revised high school curriculum is very clear on consent, explaining simply that, “When making decisions about sexual activity, both people need to say yes. Silence does not mean yes; only yes means yes.”

That brings back a high school house party decades ago, a guy standing in the hallway asking no one in particular, “Suzie is passed out in a car, can I have sex with her?” I don’t recall anyone answering him. That Seventies Show, as we lived it: no Charter of Rights, abortion just barely out of the Criminal Code, and in our prairie city, girls who became pregnant vanished from the halls of high school, never to return.  

This time next year, Ontario high schoolers who have learned the new curriculum will be able to answer, “No,” to that question without a pause. They’ll know, as the new curriculum says, it’s “illegal to have sexual contact with someone who has not consented or who is uncon­scious or too impaired to give voluntary consent.”

Consent is the law in Canada, and young people need to learn it. Everyone needs to learn it. Only yes means yes. Sex with someone who has not consented is illegal and punishable by law.  Someone who is uncon­scious or impaired cannot give consent. This is the articulation of consent culture.

Consent is the law, but it isn’t the culture. According to published research, there are convictions in only .3% of the 460,000 sexual assaults that occur annually in Canada. That means 99.7% of sexual assaults do not result in legal sanctions by the criminal justice system.

Clearly, we have a problem.

The term rape culture accurately describes this statistic and the massive gap it points to between the rate of occurrence of the offence and rate of conviction of offenders. With only 3.3% of sexual assaults reported to the police, it’s fair to say women do not see the police and court systems as a desirable response.

We need to move from a rape culture to a consent culture.  We also need to shift the social normalcy of sexual assault itself. 460,000 is a big number. Proportionally, that’s 180,000 sexual assaults a year in Ontario.

YWCA Canada developed an infographic in 2013 using University of Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson’s analysis of Statistics Canada data. We released it that year during our annual Rose Campaign to end violence against women, to modest notice. On Tuesday, October 28, 2014, as the narrative of the Ghomeshi sexual assault allegations moved from complete denial to doubting women for not reporting, we re-posted the infographic on social media to show that not reporting sexual assault is actually the norm in our society. It, too, went viral, and showed up behind Peter Mansbridge on the National.

Are we on the verge of shifting social norms? Perhaps. If so, this new curriculum is a big push in the right direction and could create a tipping point.

We need to shift the stigma in sexual assault, so that it falls on the rapist/attacker, instead of on the person – most often a girl or woman – who has been assaulted. That requires education. Would the police investigating Rehtaeh Parsons’ assault complaint have behaved differently if they had grown up learning that sex with a girl who is inebriated lacks requisite consent and is illegal?

To be clear – it is not shameful to have been sexually assaulted, any more than it is shameful to have had your car stolen or your house robbed.  It is shameful to sexually assault someone and we need a culture that fully recognizes this.

Is it through the justice system that shame and blame attach to sexual assault? Statistically, a miniscule number of sexual assaults get anywhere near prosecution, yet there’s a common belief that men are often falsely accused. Reality check! More than 99% of sexual assaulters walk away. How can an adversarial justice system deal with a crime often described as “coming down to he said she said” in a society that, although in the process of change, is still patriarchal? And by patriarchal, I mean male privilege still exists.

Here’s a quick example: As the allegations against him became public, Mr. Ghomeshi filed a $55 million lawsuit against the CBC, alleging misuse of "personal and confidential information”, a lawsuit he later dropped and for which he agreed to pay costs. His privileged expectation was that his employer owed him damages. Reality is that he is facing criminal charges. Male privilege can also be seen operating in media discourses that bemoan the conviction of young men on sexual assault charges as “ruining their lives” rather than assigning them responsibility for their criminal actions, and ultimately, the direction of their lives. This is rape culture, not consent culture. And would those young men’s behaviour change if they had been educated differently? Don’t they deserve to be taught the law?

To change rape culture to consent culture, we need the kind of societal shift in attitude that has happened with drinking and driving and with smoking in public places. Long term public awareness campaigns were essential to making those changes. In social situations, men, and young men in particular, will have to be able to say to their peers, “that’s not okay, and it’s never okay.”

Enforcement is expensive, laborious, and unwieldy. The law is often a very blunt instrument and in the area of sexual violence, clearly an inadequate one. A citizen who has to constantly litigate to enforce her rights is not a citizen whose rights are realized.

We need a province and a country where everyone expects women to exercise their rights and freedoms and acts accordingly. We need a body politic with the expectation that women will have equality, security of the person and full Charter rights and freedoms. We need to evolve into a consent culture. And that is not possible without education.

The curriculum revisions are strong. A consent culture is a culture of respect for others. Children can learn to respect others, and to ask before touching, at a very young age. For the 180,000 Ontarians who will experience sexual violence this year, and even for those who will commit it, Premier Wynne needs to stay the course and implement the new curriculum.

Let’s have a new September.

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