Written by: Jessica Wright
Promoting education about affirmative sexual consent has become one of the most popular ways to address gender-based violence (GBV) on post-secondary campuses. However, many of these initiatives are relatively new and it’s critical to reflect on who they reach and which issues around consent are prioritized. In my Ph.D. research, I engaged in conversations with youth who self-identify as trauma survivors about their lived experiences and understanding of consent and consent education. Youth with histories of trauma are more than twice as likely to subsequently be re-victimized by sexual violence compared to their peers without such histories (Statistics Canada 2017). What I found in my research is that much contemporary consent education does not factor in the unique risks for (re)victimization that survivors face. There is an urgent need for trauma-informed consent education, and below I offer a (non-exhaustive) list of guiding questions for developing this approach.
TRAUMA-INFORMED PREVENTION PROMOTES EMPOWERMENT AND GUIDES AN APPROACH THAT ASSUMES THAT ALL COMMUNITY MEMBERS HAVE EXPERIENCED GBV REGARDLESS OF IF THEY HAVE OR NOT. IT PROVIDES US WITH THE OPPORTUNITIES TO NORMALIZE THE CONVERSATION AND MOVE FROM SILENCE TO CHALLENGING MISCONCEPTIONS THAT GBV IS NORMAL OR ACCEPTABLE (COURAGE TO ACT REPORT, PP. 85).
Does the programming recognize that multiple kinds of trauma are prevalent in our communities?
Is the presence of survivors in the learning environment acknowledged along with the fact that trauma is prevalent in our society (i.e. via misogyny/rape culture, homophobia, and racism)? Is there an intersectional lens being applied to the understanding of trauma so there’s space to think about combined oppressions and intergenerational trauma?
How are survivors accounted for? For example, discussing consent when one has been sexually assaulted may be triggering. Are there efforts to promote feelings of safety, such as by creating space for students to self-reflect on how they’re feeling before, during, and after lessons? Are there supports in place, like school counsellors or therapeutic community resources, should students need to talk to someone?
How are perpetrators of violence talked about? Is there recognition that those who commit acts of GBV often have a history of trauma and need support too?
Do the lessons understand survivors’ behaviour in context?
Is the grey area of consent discussed? The concept of consent is one that consent researchers have described as nebulous, contested, and continually ill-defined. Yet, within most contemporary consent education, a healthy sexual interaction is presented as something with a simple, binary and common-sense logic to it—just say “Yes!” and all is good and fun, or say “No!” and you will be free from harm. Unfortunately, this over-simplified binary not only makes some survivors’ experiences unintelligible, it also makes some preventable harm invisible. I’ve developed ‘grey area’ case studies based on the experiences of participants in my study. For more information, please be in contact via www.jessica-wright.ca.
Are any of the psychosocial impacts of trauma discussed in relation to how they impact the consent process? For example, childhood sexual abuse survivors may be more likely to acquiesce to others’ requests or desires, or to accept abusive treatment as ‘normal.’ Do the lessons treat consent the same for everyone? Another example pertains to experiences of disassociation, which my research found makes consent difficult if not impossible at times. Is disassociation discussed as something that may create experiences of the grey area of consent?
Is harm reduction prioritized? Some consent programs over-emphasize the risks associated with sexual exploration and focus on refusal skills. This can be particularly unproductive and shaming for youth trauma survivors who use risky behaviours to cope. Their adaptations, such as having frequent and/or casual sex or using substances, can put them at risk of being (re)victimized, but they are also modes of coping with horrendous trauma and shouldn’t necessarily be pathologized.
Is the empowerment of survivors an intervention goal?
Are survivors asked to engage in activities that re-enact sexual violence? For example, the now-classic activity that pairs students up and asks one to try to coerce the other to do something could be harmful. What alternatives might achieve similar learning outcomes without re-traumatizing students?
Does the programming give survivors the opportunity to see themselves in an empowering light? For instance, discussion of the concept of post-traumatic growth can point to the resilience of survivors rather than their ‘damaged’ or ‘at risk’ status.
Are survivors’ voices given space in the conversation? They often have the most insight and wisdom into their lived experiences and challenges.
Is there a holistic approach that respects providers as well as recipients?
Is the well-being of facilitators, who may be survivors themselves and affected by vicarious trauma, considered? A trauma-informed lens requires a holistic approach that prioritizes physical and psychological safety for providers and recipients.
Suggested Citation: Wright, Jessica. (2020, October). Factoring Survivors In: A Tool for Making Consent Education Trauma-Informed. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/consenteducation