Written by: Carolyn Bridgeman
A sea of pastel-colored posters with printed messages reading “No means no,” “My clothes do not equal my consent,” and “Make consent education mandatory” flooded Canadian campuses on April 4, 2022, as secondary students across the country left their class in a call for mandatory consent education from K to post-secondary.
Walkout4Consent, the national student-led walkout created by Calgary high school students Hayley Bryant and Eliza Kalinowski, successfully mobilized 17 demonstrations across Canada, including demonstrations at eight schools in Calgary, three in Ontario, four in British Columbia, and two in Manitoba (Fitzpatrick 2022).
But this wasn’t the first time Canadian secondary students protested sexual violence this year, nor will it be the last if we don’t answer their call.
This wave of student activism came after more than 16 student-led demonstrations occurred between October 2021 and April 2022. Although, student pleas for comprehensive consent education can be traced back much further than that.
#HighSchoolToo, a student network connecting young people across Canada to end sexual violence, has been working to unify these efforts and recently released a list of 10 calls to action, including national mandatory consent and sexual violence education.
What we’re seeing is that secondary students across the country want consent education, and it’s long overdue that they get it.
According to a study by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, while 96% of Canadians believe “all sexual activities should be consensual,” only “one in three understand what consent looks like” (2015).
Canadians possess an even more fragile understanding of consent when it comes to online activity, including the dissemination of explicit images and the need for active, ongoing consent in relationships (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2015).
If most Canadian adults do not understand consent, why aren’t we teaching our youth?
According to a report from Statistics Canada, “of all sexual assault incidences, 47% are committed against young women aged 15 to 24” (Conroy & Cotter, 2017).
When looking at school-related sexual violence, a 2019 survey of 4,000 Canadians between the ages of 14 and 21 found that 15% of girls and 9% of boys said they have had a sexual act forced upon them by a peer, including oral sex or being forced to touch someone sexually. Of the students who reported to have been subjected to sexual violence, a quarter of them encountered it for the first time before Grade 7, while more than half of the students first experienced it between Grades 7 and 10 (Taylor, Singh & Common).
Due to additional discrimination and barriers, some youth are at an ever higher risk of sexual violence. For example, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) school climate survey that looked at students in grades 8 and higher, most LGBTQ+ students (58%) had been sexually harassed in the past year, and 13% reported that this harassment occurred often or frequently (Peter, Campbell & Taylor 2021).
Canadian youth are not exempt from the dangers of sexual violence. Waiting to provide students with consent education at the post-secondary level is both too late, and proven to be significantly less effective. Research has found that consent education is most successful when taught to youth and continued over a prolonged period of time (Spencer & Kulbaga 2021).
Like essential principles of honesty, empathy, sharing, and respect, today’s students deserve to understand the fundamentals of consent.
While it is easy to assume that consent is a conversation parents have with their children, this isn’t usually the case. The topic of consent is often overlooked by parents or avoided because of its complexity and perceived “awkwardness” (Hamilton 2017). Thus, comprehensive consent education alleviates parental responsibility and provides youth with valuable lessons on boundaries and communication as building blocks to develop healthy and respectful relationships in all aspects of their life.
Simultaneously, it provides youth with the knowledge and tools to identify and report abusive and dangerous relationships. A 2019 study found that “only 6% of sexual assaults are reported to police, making it the most underreported crime measured in the General Social Survey on Victimization” (Cotter).
Rape culture that perpetuates victim blaming contributes to the devastatingly low reporting rates. However, normalizing the consent conversation will dismantle sexual violence stereotypes, remove taboos surrounding reporting, hold perpetrators accountable, and increase reporting rates (Bobba 2021).
Consent education is not merely an explanation of “yes and no.” It is a valuable road map to help youth develop and maintain healthy relationships throughout their lives and a useful tool to help lower the rates of sexual violence (Hamilton 2017).
Canadian students are calling on us from across the country. It’s time that we prove to them that we see them, believe them, and are willing to do the work to support them.
I’m committed to supporting our youth and answering their call. Are you?
Bobba, T. (2021, October). Opinion: Lack of Consent Education Perpetuates Sexual Violence. The Tulane Hullabaloo. tulanehullabaloo.com/57519/intersections/opinion-lack-of-consent-education-perpetuates-sexual-violence/
Canadian Women’s Foundation. (2015, May 5). Only 1 in 3 Canadians Know What Sexual Consent Means. canadianwomen.org/about-us/media/1-3-canadians-know-sexual-consent-means/
Conroy, S. & Cotter, A. (2017, July 11). Self-Reported Sexual Assault in Canada, 2014. Statistics Canada. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2017001/article/14842-eng.htm
Cotter, A. (2021, August 25). Criminal Victimization in Canada, 2019. Statistics Canada. www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2021001/article/00014-eng.htm
Fitzpatrick, T. (2022, April 4). Walkout 4 Consent Highlights Importance of Consent Education in Alberta. Livewire Calgary. livewirecalgary.com/2022/04/04/walkout-4-consent-highlights-importance-of-consent-education-in-alberta/
Hamilton, V. “Sexual Consent Education” (2017). HON499 projects. 29. digitalcommons.lasalle.edu/honors_projects/29
Peter, T., Campbell, C.P. & Taylor, C. (2021). Still every class in every school: Final report on the second climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Egale Canada. www.uwinnipeg.ca/rise/docs/second_climate_survey_2021_final_report.pdf
Spencer, L.G., & Kulbaga, T.A. (2021). Consent Education as Active Allyship: A Call for Centering Trans and Queer Experiences. QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking 8(2), 97-103. www.muse.jhu.edu/article/851615
Taylor, C., Singh, A. & Common, D. (2019, October 25). More Than 1 in 7 Girls Say They Were Sexually Assaulted by Another Student – but Schools Lack Policies to Help. CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/marketplace-school-violence-sexual-violence-1.5329520
Suggested Citation: Bridgeman, C. (2022, March). Students are Calling for Action to Address Sexual Violence in #HighSchoolToo. Courage to Act. www.couragetoact.ca/blog/highschooltoo