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Consent on Campus: What Students Should Know About Sexual Assault

Many students throughout Ontario are returning to university or college classes this month. For some of the hundreds of thousands of students moving into campus dormitories, this month marks their first time living away from home.

Adjusting to life on campus can be a whirlwind, full of both excitement and compromise. Going without the creature comforts of home, learning to cohabitate with roommates, and meeting so many new people can be overwhelming. In an attempt to fit in, make friends, and explore their newfound freedom, university and college students may find themselves in situations that feel uncomfortable. This can be especially true when experimenting with sexual partners.

It is essential for everyone on a university or college campus to understand and respect the importance of consent in sexual relationships and encounters. Consent is the cornerstone of healthy sexual partnerships. If any sexual activity occurs without the explicit and enthusiastic consent of all parties involved, it can be considered sexual assault.

Sexual assault on campus is unacceptable. Everyone who has enrolled in college or university deserves to feel safe, respected, and in control of their body. Unfortunately, sexual assault is a pervasive issue that impacts tens of thousands of students each year.

According to a recent survey of Ontario college and university students, 63% report experiencing sexual harassment on campus. This alarming statistic highlights an urgent need to both educate students about the acceptable treatment of others and radically transform Ontario campuses into consent-based cultures.

Although anyone can be the target of sexual assault regardless of their gender, female students are the most likely to be the targets of sexual violence on campus. According to information in the provincial government’s resource guide for Ontario’s colleges and universities, 15-25% of college and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career.

All students have a role to play in the prevention of sexual assault. The Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario’s report on sexual violence on campus reveals that many sexual assaults at post-secondary institutions occur within the first eight weeks of class. Now that classes have begun for the semester, it is time for students to review the importance of consent and to educate themselves about actions they can take in the face of sexual assault.

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Understanding Consent

Consent is the cornerstone of healthy, respectful relationships. It is a voluntary agreement between adults to engage in any form of sexual activity. Any sexual activity that occurs without the consent of all parties involved is sexual assault.

This agreement made by sexual partners is active, ongoing and – importantly – revocable. Any party can withdraw their consent at any time during their sexual encounter. If one party continues engaging in sexual activity after consent has been withdrawn, they have committed sexual assault.

Consent must be freely given without any form of coercion, intimidation, or under the influence of substances (including alcohol). According to the Council of Ontario Universities recent findings of a two-year study, some of the most commonly reported occurrences of sexual assault took place when respondents were inebriated.

No one invites or provokes sexual assault – not by flirting, not by wearing certain types of clothing, not by accepting their romantic partner’s offer to pay for their date, not even by engaging in certain forms of consensual sexual activity. No one is “asking for it” unless they explicitly give their consent to their partner.

As it stands, the prevailing on-campus culture is one in which students – primarily female students – are subject to both sexual harassment and the fear of resulting stigmatization. Sexual assault is an underreported crime acoss the country precisely because survivors feel that the stigma of being “a victim” will continue to follow them in perpetuity.

All students deserve to feel safe, that their personal boundaries and limitations will be respected, and that they will not be made to feel ashamed for the wrongdoings of others. In order for that to happen, everyone on campus has a role to play.

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Creating a Culture of Consent

Bystander intervention is one of the most effective ways to discourage one’s peers from engaging in wrongful behaviour. Since female students are the predominant targets of sexual assault, it is incumbent upon male students to call out their fellow students’ misconduct.

Male students in particular should feel empowered to intervene if they witness a situation that appears non-consensual. They should encourage others to do so, as well. It is also important for individuals to tell other male students that their mistreatment of female classmates will not be tolerated.

If a fellow student expresses a toxic, violent, or misogynist sentiment, it may feel difficult to challenge their opinion. But standing up for the safety of others on campus can help educate potential sexual predators about the importance of consent to prevent them from committing acts of sexual violence in the future.

University and college students can also take the initiative to educate themselves on consent-based sexual relationships and effective ways to navigate consent and communicate sexual desires in a non-problematic way. Researching and participating in workshops or seminars (either on campus or online) and encouraging others to do so, as well, could help affirm the values of a consent-based culture at school. These values can then be practiced off-campus, and maintained by students into their adulthoods.

Offering support to those who have been the subjects of sexual assault can also help foster a culture that values consent. Providing emotional, non-judgmental support to classmates who have been the targets of sexual violence can help them navigate feelings of guilt and self-blame that so often follows an assault. Supporting a friend in a time of need can also embolden them to report their assault to the proper campus authorities.

Many survivors of sexual assault suffer in silence, rather than reporting the crime committed against them. However, by taking action against a perpetrator of sexual assault, survivors can find a degree of emotional closure, help ensure that other students will be safe from this predator’s actions, and recover compensation for damages they have incurred because of their assault.

Resources and Support for Survivors

Campus authorities should be equipped to handle sexual assault cases with sensitivity and confidentiality. If you were the target of sexual assault, you have the right to file a report about your experience and, potentially, to pursue legal action.

You may be encouraged by campus authorities to report your assault to the local police. If you choose to do so, the police may decide to press criminal charges against your abuser. The case may then proceed to criminal court. If found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, your abuser could face harsh punishments, such as imprisonment.

Survivors of sexual assault can also choose to pursue civil claims. These claims are subject to a lower burden of proof; an alleged sexual predator may be found guilty by weighing the balance of probabilities, meaning it is 51% or more likely that the assault occurred. The person who committed assault (and any other contributorily negligent parties) may then be required to financially compensate the person they injured.

By working with an Ontario sexual assault lawyer, university and college students who have been the victims of institutional sexual violence could recover compensation for their financial losses and hold the responsible parties accountable for their wrongful actions. Our firm has experience helping survivors of institutional sexual abuse pursue compensation from various educational organizations. If a school’s administration or governing body has taken no action to protect the students in their care from known perpetrators of sexual violence, they may be liable for resulting damages.

Our sexual assault lawyers serving Ontario offer all prospective clients a free, confidential initial consultation. To learn about your options, call Preszler Injury Lawyers today.

By understanding the importance of consent, recognizing the signs of sexual assault, calling out bad behaviour, and providing support to survivors, everyone on campus can work together to create a safe and respectful environment for all students. To learn more about legal options that may be available to survivors of sexual assault, contact us today and book a free initial consultation.

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