More than one in 10 Canadians believe spouses and long-term partners don't need to bother getting consent from each other before having sex, according to a troubling new survey from the Canadian Women's Foundation.
Conducted last month, the online poll of 1,500 Canadians suggests many aren't clear on the definition of sexual consent. In this country, consent is defined as both affirmative and ongoing during sexual activity, a point only a third recognized throughout the survey.
"The idea that you need ongoing consent when you've been together for 30 years – this is where some people have an information gap," says Anuradha Dugal, director of violence prevention at the foundation. "Yes, even after 30 years, it has to be consensual."
The survey showed that some Canadians view consent as less and less important the longer couples remain together. While 97 per cent of Canadians surveyed believe consent is required between people on a date or between new partners, 12 per cent didn't think it was always needed between spouses. Some 11 per cent didn't think it was a must between long-term partners.
In counselling survivors of rape within marriage – a subject that remains greatly taboo – Dugal says there are cultural and generational factors at work, and also a false sense of marital entitlement.
"I've spoken to women who described husbands who expected sex every day, who come back at lunch time and demand sex in the middle of the day. They think that's what wives should do. There are men who have used pressure tactics: if a woman says she doesn't want to have sex, he turns off the heat or threatens their children."
Dugal pointed to retrograde attitudes around "wifely duty," saying, "There may be a sense of, 'Why would I ask this person? That's one of the reasons why I've married them.'"
For some couples, intimate familiarity may mean they've started taking consent for granted, failing to check in or communicate their boundaries. Dugal underscored that consent is always required, regardless of the longevity of the union: "It's a way of showing your care, concern and respect for another person."
She argued that generational hangovers might be at play: In Canada, the law on marital rape only came into place in the 1980s. Before 1983, rape was only treated as an offence outside of marriage, meaning a husband could not be charged with raping his wife.
"There are generations of people for whom it actually wasn't illegal to have sex with your married partner without consent," Dugal says. "Now it's very clear that it is illegal, but there might be a bit of catching up to do there."
Some misreadings of consent are cultural: "In some communities, the only abuse that is named as abuse is physical abuse. If he's hitting her, she'll say something. But if he's not hitting her, then it's not abuse. There could be many other things happening, including sexual violence," Dugal says. "There's an education piece missing. When you come to Canada, this is something you have to be aware of."
These false assumptions about spousal consent manifest painfully at rape crisis centres and women's shelters, with many married victims ashamed to say they've been sexually assaulted by their husbands. "Especially when they've been together with someone for so long...the assumption is that you have a relationship and you should somehow have been able to negotiate that. There's still victim blaming."
Dugal stresses that cultural translation around consent is crucial, especially for spouses from countries of origin where there are still no marital rape laws.
"Consent is a conversation people are now having. People should be willing to learn."