10/04/2015 10:01 EDT | Updated 10/04/2016 05:12 EDT

Teaching Postsecondary Students Consent Helps End Rape Culture

Group of college friends tailgating before football game.
asiseeit via Getty Images
Group of college friends tailgating before football game.

By: Craig and Marc Kielburger

Beers raised high, three young men look smugly at the crudely spray-painted sign planted on the lawn of their fraternity house. The message is worse than the scrawl: "Thank you fathers for your freshmen daughters."

In photograph after photograph taken at campuses across the United States this fall, many more signs bear similarly disgusting expressions of predatory intent. Tom McKay, a journalist with youth news site, uses the photos in an online article to make a harsh point about the prevalence of rape culture at American colleges.

Lest Canadians feel superior, we need only remember last year's incident at Dalhousie University's school of dentistry in Halifax. A secret Facebook club of male students shared fantasies about having "hate sex" with their female colleagues. Two years ago, freshmen at both Vancouver's University of British Columbia and St. Mary's University in Halifax performed chants advocating the rape of underage girls. And when the University of Ottawa surveyed its students in 2014, results revealed 78 per cent of women and 49 per cent of men said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment on campus.

Overall, Canadian postsecondary institutions act swiftly when such cases arise. We are even more encouraged to see many schools taking a proactive stance on campus sexual harassment, tackling the underlying attitudes of gender disrespect and a lack of information about healthy relationships that leads to sexual assault.

Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, for example, isn't waiting for problems to happen. One week before students arrived on campus, the university emailed them a video entitled Consent Comes First. Ryerson is trying to prevent incidents by setting standards and expectations for healthy sexual attitudes.

The video emphasizes that students must have consent from any potential sexual partner. More than that, it also teaches how to recognize when consent has -- or has not -- been given. For example, the video teaches students that when their prospective partner says "that doesn't feel good" or simply remains silent, those are as much expressions of non-consent as a loud, clear "no." And someone who is drunk cannot truly consent, no matter what they say.

The video also offers tips and encouragement for students to intervene when they encounter a situation of harassment or assault.

"The message has changed from simply 'no means no' to making sure you have clear 'yes,'" explains Dr. Heather Lane Vetere, Ryerson's vice-provost of students.

Ryerson students feature in and helped produce the video, which is part of a larger awareness campaign the university will push throughout the year with social media and campus activities. And Vetere tells us an increasing number of postsecondary institutions across Canada are taking similar, proactive approaches to the problem of sexual harassment on campus.

But teaching healthy attitudes shouldn't be left until freshman week. That's closing the barn door when the horse is already in the next field hitting on the mares.

When high schools help senior students prepare for college or university, teaching healthy sexual relationship skills needs to be right up there with teaching good study skills. Although it has divided parents, Vetere believes the consent material in Ontario's new sex ed curriculum will help. "I feel that curriculum has the potential to make our campuses safer," she says.

And families, too, can prepare their young adults for postsecondary life by talking to them about sexual attitudes, relationships and stepping in when they witness others experiencing harassment or assault.

"You want them to arrive on campus not just knowing how to study and do their laundry, but also with the ability to express their limits and have healthy relationships," says Vetere, who tells us she had this talk with her own family members.

Our postsecondary campuses must be safe places to study for people of all genders and sexual orientations. Achieving that takes more than installing safety lighting and handing out rape whistles.

Colleges and universities, high schools and parents must work together to teach positive relationship skills and respect that can prevent harassment and assault.


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