But months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and countless people came forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault, it seems Canadians’ understanding of consent hasn’t gotten any better.
In fact, a survey released by the Canadian Women’s Foundation Wednesday shows that people across the country are actually less confident that they understand the concept of consent than they were years ago.
According to the survey of more than 1,500 respondents, only 28 per cent of Canadians say they fully understand what consent means. That’s down five percentage points from 2015.
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Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, explained the results were a surprise.
“It’s surprising because we’ve been having a lot of conversation around the issue of sexual assault, sexual harassment, in society at large and within workplaces,” she said.
What it means, essentially, is that men and women alike are now realizing how much they don’t know about consent.
“One way that I would understand is perhaps people are becoming more clear in terms of what sexual assault is, and therefore some folks are probably realizing that perhaps they don’t fully know [what consent means].”
Education about consent is something that many respondents to the survey supported.
Forty-four per cent said that more awareness needs to be raised about how to give and get consent and that it was the most important next step in progressing the #MeToo movement.
Senior said the education must allow individuals to “freely talk about what consent is when people come together for sexual activity.”
And a key aspect of that education involves gaining an understanding that consent is not a one-time conversation, but rather it is ongoing through verbal and non-verbal communication.
“Behaviour is part of it,” Senior explains. “Is there someone initiating and is someone responding positively? Is someone clearly showing that they are enthusiastically interested?”
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Meaghan Peckham, a therapist based in Toronto who focuses on areas of domestic abuse, violence and sexual abuse, explained consent can be difficult to understand because it is complicated and there are still a lot of misconceptions.
“It is then difficult to wrap our heads around fuller conceptions of consent when we have been thinking about it in a particular way,” Peckham said.
“Myths about ‘grey area’ in consent, where a lack of resistance can mean yes, still pervade, as well as a lack of understanding as to how factors such as substance use, alcohol, and age, can change the definition of consent.”
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Peckham added that there’s also a misconception that consent is only needed for penetrative sex — but it actually applies to any case when you are touching someone’s body.
“Each new encounter requires expressed consent by both parties, and can be withdrawn at any time,” she explained.
Another misconception is that consent needs to be given beforehand only.
Peckham says that consent needs to happen before, during and after physical touch.
“If you are questioning whether someone is interested in engaging in sexual activity, or if someone seems hesitant or not having fun, then you should stop what you are doing.”
This Canadian Women’s Foundation survey was conducted online in partnership with Maru/Matchbox between April 23 and 27. It has a sample size of 1,502 Canadians aged 18 and over. The margin of error is +/- 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. The statistics were weighted according to Census data to ensure results are representative of the Canadian population.
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