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A person walks past the University of Toronto on June 10, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Genevieve Scott is a Canadian writer and writing teacher based in Southern California. Her most recent novel, The Damages, came out in July.

This September, the class of 2027 is finding its way around campuses across the country. Most are nervous, many are excited, but all are watchful. Starting university is an opportunity for reinvention; there is information everywhere on who and how to be, from upper-year students hawking clubs on the sidewalk, to plastic party cups littering the curb, to bathroom posters offering conversation starters around consent.

In 1997, I was that frosh bent on reinvention. When my parents drove me to campus, there was a banner on the highway exit that said, “Fathers, thank you for sending us your daughters.” We didn’t discuss it. I didn’t think the sign was inappropriate so much as crass; it was uncomfortable for me to see it in front of my parents in the same way that I found fart jokes embarrassing around them. This was not their brand of humour. But I was ready to roll with these “jokes” as part of my new world. After all, two years earlier, at a university across the country, my sister had been issued a hard hat during frosh week, nicknamed “hard head frosh,” and was told to insist “I like to give head hard” if anyone asked her why. I figured that this sort of “raciness” was just what adulthood was about. My plan was to be a cool and breezy nineties girl: not fussy or fragile, but unflappable, in on the joke and up for whatever.

This month , the first-years arriving on campus probably did not see signs thanking their fathers, and they probably weren’t asked to chant about performing sexual acts. Now, they are more likely to be told about the “red zone” – the first six weeks of university when assault is statistically more likely. They will participate in activities and discussions during Consent Awareness Week. Orientation tours will emphasize safe places on campus to get information, counselling or report harm. Of course none of these things can guarantee keeping students safe, but creating a consent culture gives everyone a better chance to negotiate healthy sexual relationships, and to find the right support when harm does occur. It’s important that campuses do their best on consent, because the rules of engagement we learn as young people stick with us. They shape the people we become and how we understand the world.

I don’t remember any discussion around consent during frosh week. I knew that rape was wrong. I was aware of the phrase “No means no,” which sounded simple enough, but was far from it in practice. (When exactly were you supposed to say it? What if you changed your mind? What if you were drunk? What if you were scared? What if you didn’t want to embarrass or hurt anyone’s feelings?) It’s also true that if you’d asked me back then, I probably wouldn’t have said that there was a problem with gender inequality on campus. Canadian universities were graduating more women than men, most residences were co-ed, and the president of the business program I was entering was a young woman. I had internalized the message that times had already changed – young women had access to all the opportunities and freedoms that young men enjoyed. If we failed to thrive, the fault was probably our own.

What I didn’t see then – or didn’t see as a big deal, or anything dangerous – was that sexism and misogyny were rampant in the way we socialized. My photos from the era suggest that all the parties I attended had sexualized themes: There was the “Pimp & Ho” party; the costume party where two friends dressed up like Bill and Monica – him with a suit and cigar, her with a large white stain on a very short skirt; “hickey parties” where the girl with the most welts on her neck was declared the “winner.” When I ran in a class election, my slogan was “Gen Scott. She’s Hot. In any position.” At the time, none of this turned my stomach. Now it does. Because it was also not uncommon in this atmosphere for non-consensual acts to be absorbed as “jokes” too.

In my first year, I remember a male friend pulling down my track pants as I bent over to reach for a tray in the cafeteria. As I rushed to pull them back on, embarrassed nearly to the point of tears, he said, “How could I not? It was an invitation!” My first reaction wasn’t anger or offence; I felt ashamed. I was worried about how I’d looked, half-naked without my best underwear. On another occasion, at a Halloween party, another male friend dressed as a pirate stuck his plastic sword down the front of my jeans. When I jumped back in shock, he pulled it out, sniffed it and declared, “Not bad!” It was a violation, but we all laughed and moved on. No one seemed outraged. Privately, I was mostly relieved that his comment hadn’t been disapproving. These incidents, and others, felt like harm to me, but I wasn’t equipped, back then, to call them out as anything at all. While they were acts of sexual harassment and assault, those words would have felt melodramatic; weren’t these just my friends trying to be funny, and missing the mark?

A few years ago, when I began writing The Damages, a novel set on a university campus in the nineties, the #MeToo movement was reaching fever pitch in popular media. The movement provided me with a different lens through which to view my own experiences, as well as a chance to reflect on my reaction to the rush of other women’s stories. Sometimes I saw situations as clear-cut; sometimes not. Sometimes I had the distinct sense that I was supposed to feel angry or indignant, but I didn’t quite, and I guiltily wondered why. My own university students seemed to have such an uncomplicated relationship with whom and what to believe, what they personally would or would not countenance. Whereas sometimes I’d find myself thinking things like, “Okay, I see how what happened to her wasn’t great, but is it that big a deal? In my day, unwanted touching at a bar was treated like a routine inconvenience.” But even if that’s true, or how I might have seen things 25 years ago, what is the upside of continuing to think that way? Deflecting, dismissing and minimizing my real feelings of violation may have felt necessary to get by in 1997, but it didn’t serve me well then, and who does it help now? What does it make better?

Even for those of us long past our university days, reinvention is still possible when it comes to our understanding of consent and abuse. But in order to reinvent ourselves, we need to listen to the younger people who now know so much better than we could have. No matter how we made sense of our own campus life, or of our own or someone else’s behaviour decades ago, when we’re part of the conversation today – and when we’re prepared to listen without defensiveness – we can become more aware, more empathetic and kinder – not only to others, but also to ourselves.

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