What is consent? Sexual assault survivors demand better classroom education

What is consent? Sexual assault survivors demand better classroom education
WatchPart two of our series on rape culture. Where our society's systems, and we, are failing survivors of sexual assault.

This is part two of a two-part series on rape culture in Victoria. You can read the first story here.

It took a Law 12 class, and two years, for Gwen Stoker to understand she’d been repeatedly raped by a former boyfriend.

“There were many times where this had happened, it was not just one big thing,” said Stoker, who says the sexual assaults occurred when she was heavily inebriated at 14 years old.

Stoker was a student at Claremont High School in Saanich School District at the time and says she was never taught about consent.

“Education is so important,” said Stoker.

“I feel that better education would have prevented my experience.”

Consent and healthy relationships are taught within sex-ed, as part of Grade 9 and 10 P.E. class. And while the head of Saanich schools says he can’t speak to specifics on why Stoker fell through the cracks, consent education can vary by class.

“There is an expectation on that topic being taught. How a teacher actually goes about teaching it, is at the teacher’s discretion,” said Dave Eberwin, superintendent of Saanich School District.

But Kailyn Ford, 16, a sexual assault survivor and current student at Stelly’s High School in the Saanich School District, says what is being taught, is coming too late.

“I didn’t learn about the ‘consent’ they taught in school, for just five minutes, until after I was already assaulted,” said Ford.

And as a result of their experiences, Ford and Stoker are calling on the province to modernize the way sex education is taught in British Columbia.

“What’s being taught is content that feels so traditional, old, and just not up to date,” said Stoker.

“I remember literally just being told how to put a condom on a banana and that was the extent of it,” added Alexandra Kierstead, co-founder of Survivors Support Victoria, an online support group.

The young ladies are also advocating for a standardized consent curriculum, so kids across the province are guaranteed the same education.

“It should be longer than a five-minute talk, it should be a full class,” said Ford.

And while offering no promises, B.C.’s education minister says, it’s not off the table.

“It’s very courageous for survivors to step forward and tell their stories and provide this information, so we can take it away and we can identify those gaps and address them, because certainly, students need to be supported in the system,” said Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Education.

But advocates say this problem extends beyond our schools — it’s cultural. It’s rape culture.

And the lack of education both in schools and at home does a disservice to everyone.

“Sometimes there’s a fear that it’s a hard conversation. Sometimes there’s a fear or a lot of suffering. People may have experiences themselves and don’t feel up to for talking about it with children,” said Elijah Zimmerman, executive director of Victoria’s Sexual Assault Centre.

“But it’s OK to talk about consent. It’s OK to talk about sexualized violence and boundaries.”

So what actually is consent?

It’s enthusiastic permission prior to any touching, kissing, or sexual act and it needs to be much more than just acquiescence, according to a local lawyer.

“Consent in the sexual context has to be affirmative consent, which means it can’t simply be someone being silent and not resisting. It’s got to be in advance, it’s got to be the person whose consenting to the sexual activity,” said criminal lawyer Michael Mulligan.

And advocates say the lack of education, both at home and in schools, on what consent is, actually drives a lack of reporting.

Rape is one of the most under-reported crimes. But beyond that, finding justice through the criminal system is often elusive.

“One of the challenges with sexual assault investigations and prosecutions is that there is often no other evidence on what transpired. There’s not usually going to be third-party evidence which would objectively confirm,” said Mulligan.

So many survivors seek other forms of justice.

“For many survivors, reporting to police does not always feel comfortable or safe. Reporting can be retraumatizing and, at times, can feel futile when charges are so infrequently approved by Crown Counsel,” said the Survivor Stories Project, an Instagram group that posts allegations of sexual assault in the Greater Victoria community on Instagram.

“It can make survivors feel like they are not believed, or that their experiences haven’t been heard.”

Many survivors of sexualized violence are turning online. Whereas the justice system route for many victims feels lonely, isolating, and uncertain, advocates say, the online forum brings a sense of belonging.

“If you put your story out online and you find community support, other survivor support, that has meaning,” said Zimmerman.

“That is seeing some type of action that’s more immediate and more responsive, so you’re not alone.”

It’s in those online groups, where survivors of sexualized violence first hear three important words — ‘we believe you.’

A sentence that has become a movement all on its own, but is often misunderstood.

“The ‘believe survivors’ narrative is about making sure everyone feels safe coming forward,” said Kierstead.

“I would rather support someone who is a liar, than someone who is a rapist.”

If you have been a victim of sexualized violence, you can contact the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre.

[email protected]

Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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