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An overdue conversation: #Metoo is bringing discussion about consent to the fore

The Ottawa Citizen with Elizabeth Sheehy 11 February 2018

On a recent weekday evening, a handful of young Ottawa 67s hockey players filed into a lounge inside TD Place for a mandatory session on consent and preventing sexual violence, among other things.

Far from the awkward few hours that scenario might suggest, the conversation was animated and the players, ages 16-18, were eager to talk — about consent, about preventing sexual violence and about masculinity.

Among questions: How can you be sure if your partner is really into intimacy?

Their interest in the subject didn’t surprise Matt Schaaf, who ran the workshop. Schaaf co-ordinates programs for men, including the junior hockey workshop, through the MANifest Change at the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women.

“Young men want to talk about this. There is a hunger and an appetite.”

The young hockey players are not the only ones anxious to talk about sex in the age of #MeToo.

The reverberations from the #MeToo movement — in which thousands of mainly women from all walks of life have spoken publicly about being sexually assaulted and harassed — continue to be felt in the worlds of entertainment, politics, business and beyond.

It is also prompting conversations on campuses and in communities that many believe could be key to a cultural evolution.

Sexual violence is so common that researchers in Ottawa have warned in recent years about predictable spikes in assaults during festival season in the city, including Canada Day on Parliament Hill.

Another common denominator in sexual assault has long been that when women have spoken up, no action is taken.

Canada has strong legislation around sexual assault, but recent research and reporting has highlighted that very few sexual assault claims result in convictions.

Canada has “great legislation” around sexual assault, says Elizabeth Sheehy, Shirley Greenberg professor of women and the legal profession in the faculty of law at the University of Ottawa, “But we don’t have much else that is very positive.”

Research by Holly Johnson, a criminology researcher at University of Ottawa, highlighted the barriers and attrition factors. Compared with 460,000 sexual assaults reported to survey interviewers (in 2004), there were 1,519 sexual assault convictions (in 2006/2007). The true number of sexual assaults is likely much higher, and will never be known.

A high “filtration” rate — meaning few cases of sex assault are reported to police in the first place and many of those that are reported are filtered out by police, prosecutors or the complainants themselves — means only a small fraction of perpetrators are ever held accountable by the justice system, said Sheehy.

The response of the justice system is one reason women don’t report sexual assaults.

The #MeToo movement, said Sheehy, reflects a search by women for a means other than the justice system to speak out against sexual violence and to push for change.

“Greater pressure is being exerted on our social world because our legal world is not responding.”

Sheehy said Canada has to do better in terms of criminal law and sexual assault. Still, social change, she noted, usually doesn’t occur as a result of legislation, but of social discourse.

Can talk change the culture of sexual violence?

Those who lead workshops on reducing sexual violence and promoting bystander intervention, say conversations play a role in changing the culture around sexual violence, and talking about negotiating sex and about the pressures men and women face are important parts of that conversation.

“I never encounter a quiet room of young men who don’t want to figure out how we negotiate intimacy and how to be a man,” said Schaaf.

It isn’t just men who want to talk about consent. Men and women are talking about their own experiences and about what consent means. Some of those conversations are underscored with anxiety.

“I have young men come to me and say ‘I am worried about doing the wrong thing,’” says Kelsey Gilchrist, co-founder of Our Turn Carleton, which combats sexual violence through peer training workshops.

“I say, ‘The fact that you are thinking about it means you are most of the way there.”

“Most people know how to listen and make sure their partners are OK and having a good time.” You should be able to tell, she says to participants, and if you can’t “you should ask.” Enthusiastic consent on is the goal in sexual relationships, she said.

Gilchrist and others dismiss the sometimes-heard complaint that the #MeToo movement means: “You can’t even hold hands without signing a contract first.”

Sheehy characterizes that as a kind of backlash against the #MeToo movement. Gilchrist addresses it head-on in workshops.

“Probably when you hear the term consent, you think of walking up to someone else and saying ‘Hello, would you like to participate in sexual activity with me from this hour to this hour?’ or maybe pulling a contract out of your bedside table,” she sometimes tells groups.

In real life, she says, consent is a conversation that is ongoing. “You have to keep talking and keep checking in.”

Most people are already doing it, she adds: “They just don’t know that is what they are doing.”

Explaining consent using simple concepts has become a social media phenomenon. In a British-made video, sexual consent is compared to making someone a cup of tea. If you ask someone if they want a cup of tea and they say no, do not make them a cup of tea and do not force them to drink it, a voice explains over quirky animation. Critics have complained that understanding sexual consent is not as simple as the cup of tea scenario and, in fact, much more nuanced.

As an example, in Schaaf’s workshops, participants are asked to shake hands with a partner after first discussing and negotiating every aspect — Which hand? How much pressure? How long will it last? Then participants are asked to shake hands while making eye contact and tuning in to the other person’s body language “to try to figure out how the other person is doing.”

The exercise helps demonstrate how consent is negotiated and understood, by using verbal and non verbal cues and constantly checking in, he said.

“It’s not about a checklist … asking for consent doesn’t mean some kind of stilted conversation that kills the vibe.

Ottawa activist Julie Lalonde, who leads workshops on sexual violence, consent and bystander intervention, in schools across the province, said she tells school groups that understanding consent is common sense.

“The second you take consent out of the sexual context, people know exactly what it means.”

Abusers often understand the concept too, she said, but don’t care.

Among other things, she talks to schoolage girls and teens about standing up for themselves.

“We don’t teach young women to stand up for themselves. That is the practical solution that we need, having conversations with young women and young men.”