Skip to main content

High-school students held a vigil for sexual-assault victims at the University of Virginia, although this cause fell under a cloud of doubt over the facts surrounding a Rolling Stone story.Ryan M. Kelly/The Associated Press

There are moments in time when an issue rumbling under the surface makes a leap into the national consciousness. For sexual assault and consent, it started on campus, with misogynistic chants and concerns about how universities were dealing with sexual violence. Former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi went from interviewing people about rape culture on his show, Q, to becoming the centre of a scandal that led to vile accusations and criminal charges against the public broadcaster's most famous celebrity. In the nation's capital, after two Liberal MPs were suspended from their party following allegations of harassment, there was much parsing of details among the political class, and whether handing over a condom, as one of the women involved described, constituted consent.

This was also the year that Bill Cosby's Pudding Pop reputation was forever crushed by multiple sexual-assault allegations. U.S. President Barack Obama challenged schools to handle the issue better. Rolling Stone's botched story about a rape at the University of Virginia became a call to action, even as the facts fell apart. As points go, this one tipped from every angle.

As more victims came forward, and #yesallwomen roared at #notallmen on Twitter, finding solutions for the problem of sexual violence against women took on new urgency. Universities began reviewing their policies – and many discovered they didn't have any. Politicians fielded regular questions about harassment. Not since Canada amended its sexual-assault law in the early 1980s had a debate about consent – no means no? yes means yes? – made so many headlines.

So, now what? Now that we have nearly exhausted every variation of who-did-what-and-when, and who-came-forward-and-why, what happens next? The charges have been laid, the internal investigations are under way, the committees struck. The question left is whether we'll waste this moment, leaving the teenagers today to have the same conversation decades from now. It's time to talk about solutions – in the courts, on the Internet and in our schools.

It should start in the classroom

While many universities are stepping up with consent training – either in workshops for first-year students, poster campaigns, or special sessions for frosh leaders – it needs to happen much earlier.

For one thing, not every teenager goes to college. Teenagers are also increasingly exposed to pornography – a script for sex that hardly fosters consent conversation. (In a 2014 Canadian study, 40 per cent of boys between Grade 7 and 11 reported looking for it online – 88 per cent admitted doing so more than once a month.) They are witness to a sex-obsessed pop culture that dances to Blurred Lines. They sext before they drive. And by age 19, 43 per cent of Canadian youth report having had at least one sexual partner.

And yet, we water down "the talk," by delivering inconsistent and narrow messages in our sex-ed programs, until our children are practically adults. In most provinces, sex ed begins with health class in elementary school, but it varies widely depending on the teacher, and in high school it's often criticized for focusing too much on biology and pregnancy, and too little on relationships.

In most classrooms, the sex-ed curriculum predates social media. Official resources aren't much better, leaving advocacy groups to provide material that fills in the gaps. A search of the most recent Canadian sexual health-education guidelines published by the Public Health Agency of Canada does not produce a single mention of the word "consent," although it does reference teaching victims of sexual assault how to access support. Although the document mentions the role of media in influencing "the timing of sexual behaviour," there's no specific mention of pornography or sexting. A question-and-answer document produced by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, which is listed as the first resource on its website, mentions consent only in relation to the legal definition of the age of consent – and pornography only in the same context.

Some provinces are working on it: Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals is now promising that "explicit consent" will be introduced into the province's new curriculum, which is expected to be in place next fall – after being delayed for several years when conservative parent groups complained about its original content. In Alberta, a citizen's group called AIM, which stands for Accessing Information not Myths, has launched a campaign to modernize the provincial curriculum, including making consent mandatory.

"Kids are subjected to a mass of sexualized images and there needs to be a discussion about confidence and sexual autonomy," says Kim Stanton, legal director of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, which offers consent education to willing schools across the country. (The group estimates it has reached 10,000 students, mostly at middle and high schools.) "The building blocks need to happen a lot earlier."

Updating sex education to reflect the world of today's teenagers is a conversation happening in many countries. A bill introduced in Britain's Parliament last year would make sex education mandatory in all state-funded schools; Prime Minister David Cameron has also said that he believes students should be taught the "dangers" of Internet pornography in the classroom. A similar push to make sex education – including consent – compulsory is under way in New Zealand.

"You don't let students get into a car without teaching them what a stop sign means. So why would you teach sex ed without teaching them what consent means," says Cristina Stasia, a lecturer at the University of Calgary, who is part of the Alberta campaign. "This is an unpopular thing to say: Students are having sex. [Understanding consent] is pretty useful information for kids to have before they go to parties where they are drinking."

Students themselves are also making the case for better education at an earlier age. "What people don't realize is that not having an open conversation about sex leaves an information vacuum," says Cody Kane, a student at McGill University who wrote a recent opinion piece in the campus newspaper arguing for consent education. "If [they're] not getting their information from parents or educators, they'll get it from the Internet, Cosmo magazine, porn – which leads to a really warped perception of sex in real life," he says. "In high school, there was immense pressure to lose your virginity. This led to a lot of crass behaviour from boys, and I am sure a lot of anxiety on the part of girls."

Even though most sexual assaults are perpetrated by acquaintances, Kane says, "I think the vast majority of my peers knew next to nothing about date rape." Yet, there's a big push on bystander training as an important step for prevention, both online and offline, and particularly when alcohol is involved. That's where sex education has to be comprehensive – if we want students to intervene when they see risky behaviour, we have to teach them exactly what that looks like.

It carries into our courts

The majority of sexual-assault victims never take their stories to police. Why would they? According to Canadian statistics published in 2012, less than 10 per cent of sexual-assault complaints to police result in convictions. (If the estimated number of assaults that go unreported are included, that number falls to less than 1 per cent.)

Canada's criminal code includes a charge for more serious sexual assault – those cases that involve violence or multiple perpetrators, use of a weapon, or result in bodily harm. But, in 2007, roughly 98 per cent of charges were laid under level one, the least serious category. According to Holly Johnson, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa, that was up from 88 per cent in 1983, the same time that Canada's criminal code was changed to remove rape as an offence, and group offences under the more broad definition of sexual assault, as well as limit how the victim's conduct and sexual history could be raised at trial. Despite best intentions, the legal amendments did not improve reporting rates.

Even now, "many women don't report because they are terrified about the court process, and very often advocates at rape crisis centres will say: 'You won't get a conviction,' and they are right," says Johnson. "We need, as a society, to take a hard look at this and see where we are falling down."

For one thing, when even the most serious cases are diverted away from the justice system, it often leaves universities to resolve complicated criminal allegations, with mixed results for both the complainant and the accused.

One solution may lie in creating specialization within the court system – one that allows for continuing support for complainants, and expert prosecutors and judges to shepherd cases through trial. In the recent Australia state election, specialized courts became an election issue. A pilot project is in the works in London, Britain. The state of New York already has specialized sex-offender courts, to handle trials as well as probation violations. South Africa is now re-establishing its special courts – a much-praised system in which both criminal cases and victim support were co-ordinated. (It had fallen apart over the past decade because of concerns about equitable spending with other areas of the justice system.) In a study of one of South Africa's courts, conviction rates of sexual violence cases rose to more than 50 per cent, compared with a national average as low as 9 per cent.

In Canada, specialized courts already exist for cases related to mental health and addiction, and domestic violence. The first domestic-violence court was created in Winnipeg in 1990, although it has morphed through the years. The new court started with 14 specialized judges and a team of specialized prosecutors (now numbering 18) to deal with cases on designated days. By 2012, because of a backlog of cases, all provincial court judges began to handle the trials, which occur as courtrooms are available. However, Jane Ursel, a sociology professor at the University of Manitoba who has been tracking the specialized process for 24 years, says this change had no effect on the disposition of cases – she suspects because the system had been in place long enough to develop a pool of expert judges and prosecutors.

In addition to more reports coming to police, more cases proceeded to trial, or resulted in guilty pleas. In 1983, seven years before the specialized court existed, the two most common sentences were probation and conditional discharge, and a significant portion of charges were stayed and didn't proceed to trial. Under the specialized court, Ursel says, "there was a massive change." The most common sentence was two years of probation, requiring court-mandated treatment, and the second most common was incarceration.

Ursel sees the same solution working for sexual-assault cases, given the similarities between the charges. In particular, she suggests a specialized group of prosecutors that can consult as a team, and are also experts to assist less-experienced prosecutors in smaller jurisdictions, and in other provinces. In the justice system, "serious failures are often the result of a lack of community between the different parts," says Ursel. "If you have specialized units across the country, [everyone] knows where to call."

Creating the special domestic-violence unit, she says, also elevated the status of those kinds of cases, making it a valuable stop in a prosecutor's career. (In Winnipeg, prosecutors in the unit are assigned a case indefinitely, so they stay on top of any repeat charges.) Specialist judges also helped create a body of knowledge on the bench, but Ursel's research suggests that focusing on the Crown counsel's office is even more important. "If you have a really good Crown who prepares a solid case, everybody has to work harder."

We have to change how we live online

As a society seeking to prevent assaults, technology might make our work easier.

In February, the University of Florida announced a campus-wide safety project using an app called Tap Shield, developed by an alumna. The app, which has since been downloaded about 20,000 times – a number almost half the student population – allows students who find themselves in a dangerous situation to send their GPS location directly to police. The app, which works for students on campus, also allows students to send alerts to friends or family if they don't arrive at a location on time, to map out the safest routes, and to have a notification sent to police if their headphones are forcibly yanked out of their phone. In April, The Orlando Sentinel reported, a female student used the app after a man followed her on campus – he was apprehended by campus police. "The feedback has been incredible," says Cory Yeffet, the student-body president. "Students feel that extra layer of safety." (Still, it's not a magic bullet: This September, there were reports of a series of assaults on campus.)

Safety apps have become trendy lately, especially last year after the White House created a contest for developers, called the Apps Against Abuse challenge. One award-winning app, Circle of Six, which allows users to link easily with six designated friends if they get into trouble, is now being piloted at Williams College in Massachusetts. Other inventions include nail polish and bar glasses that change colour when they come into contact with the date-rape drug.

This new technology, while promising, still relies on the victims to take measures to keep themselves safe, rather than considering the role that society – and the Internet, in particular – plays in making sexual assault permissible. Increasingly, women's groups are arguing for tougher responses to gender harassment and stalking online by law enforcement and by private companies, especially as social media has become central to our professional lives.

"You can't tell people to turn off their computers and that will solve the problem," says Danielle Citron, author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, published this fall. "That's a 1995 version of the Internet. Twenty years later it is indispensable to our economic lives."

Online harassment also spills over into off-line consequences. In October, abusers targeted female video-game critics on social media, making their addresses public and forcing them to leave their homes. According to a Pew study in October, 26 per cent of surveyed women between the ages of 18 and 24 reported being stalked online, and 25 per cent said they had been sexually harassed.

Last month, Twitter announced plans to improve reporting procedures for users. The announcement followed an experiment, by the non-profit advocacy group Women, Action and the Media (WAM), which began collecting complaints from female users this fall and forwarding them to the company for action. In a month, the group received 700 complaints. Some of them included women being specifically stalked or receiving abusive texts from a single person – in those cases, Twitter responded variably with warnings or site suspensions, says Jaclyn Friedman, WAM founder and executive director. More difficult cases involved a user being bombarded by one-off, hate-filled tweets from 100 different people. (Twitter did not respond to questions before deadline.)

Citron argues that both police and companies need to respond to harassment and stalking online in the same way as workplace harassment. "The Internet is a force multiplier," she says. "We become really vicious and we also become our best selves."

Given that the online world is populated by bystanders, it seems that, rather than looking away, or laughing it off, "our best selves" might be the first defence against some of the hate-filled language online. Over the summer, for instance, after the #jadapose – pictures of people posing like a recent victim of a high-school sexual assault – began trending on Twitter, other users quickly shut it down, by condemning those posts and supporting the victim.

Experts point out that solutions to prevent violence against women, and many others being proposed or researched, are interconnected. Implementing them requires resources, and most importantly, commitment. Unfortunately, Citron observes "we pay attention for five minutes and then we fall asleep." Will that happen this time?

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles