The first weeks of university can be and should be an exciting time. Meeting new people, having new experiences, becoming independent. However, it can also be a frightening time; not knowing anyone, being unfamiliar with your new campus, and not knowing who or where to turn for support. Perhaps most frightening of all is experiencing sexual violence, such as sexual assault, harassment, or stalking.
The Red Zone, as it has been termed in academia, is the time between orientation week and Halloween when students, especially first-year students, are statistically more likely to experience sexual violence. This happens in part because cruical components of education regarding sex, pleasure, and consent needed for students to navigate healthy relationships have not been provided. There is also an unbearable pressure on students to fit in and try new things in an atmosphere where drinking is often central to socializing, and support networks are not yet established. This all leads to a high prevalence of sexual violence on college and university campuses, and the University of Waterloo is no exception.
In 2018 the Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey gathered information about perceptions and experiences of sexual violence in Ontario post-secondary institutions. Of the University of Waterloo students who responded, 18 per cent disclosed they experienced a non-consensual sexual experience, 18 per cent disclosed they experienced stalking, 59 per cent disclosed they experienced sexual harassment, and 71 per cent disclosed they witnessed situations with sexual violence or the potential for sexual violence.
Although consent education is slowly being integrated into grade school, high school and University curriculums, consent is not something all people fully understand. A Canadian Women’s Foundation study revealed that although almost all Canadians (96 per cent) agreed that sexual activity should be consensual, only one-third understood what that meant. In addition to this, there are few discussions of consent that acknowledge and address the power imbalances, gender inequality, and systemic oppression that shape environments for sexual violence.
An example of consent involves asking before you touch someone and continuing to check-in with that person – especially if you’d like to touch them in a different way. For example, you might ask, “May I give you a hug?”, or say, “I am really interested in touching your naked body, how does that sound to you?” Asking for consent, as well as accepting rejection, is important and essential if we are to create a culture of consent on campus, a culture where no one is forced into anything, bodily autonomy is respected, and there is a belief that people are the best judge of their own needs and wants.
Consent culture in which the prevailing narrative of sex is one of mutual consent, is in direct opposition to the culture that currently exists in our society – rape culture. In a rape culture institutions, social practices and cultural ideologies condone, trivialize, and normalize sexual violence. Images, language, and everyday phenomena perpetuate false and damaging ideas about what sex is, and sexual violence is expected and often viewed as “just the way things are.” This careless attitude hinders changes that are necessary, deserved, and crucial if we want to put an end to the Red Zone and sexual violence on campus.
Attending university can be a time of sexual exploration and pleasure, a time to navigate new and interesting relationships. However, this takes communication, mutual respect and yes, a full and nuanced understanding of consent. You can demand the consent education you deserve, speak up when you hear a rape joke, step in when you see the potential for sexual violence and ask before you touch someone. We all have a role to play in ending sexual violence and creating consent culture. I hope you all freely agree to participate.
If you are a member of the University of Waterloo community and have experienced or have been impacted by sexual violence, you can contact the Sexual Violence Prevention & Response Office (SVPRO) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SVPRO also recognizes that prevention is essential in creating a culture of consent on our campus and provides education and training on a regular basis. For more information please see: