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Back to College and University – Have You Talked About Consent and Sexual Violence on Campus?

While you’re here, you may wish to attend one of our upcoming workshops:

We invite you to join Janice Rubin, Christine Thomlinson, and Cory Boyd for their hour-long annual review of the top 10 workplace investigation cases for the year.

It is September and back to school time, including back to the physical campus after more than one year of virtual learning. I imagine that most students are looking forward to being back on campus, or attending campus for the first time. It is an exciting time, yet not without its fears, especially from a parent and investigator’s point of view.

One of the side-effects of the job of a workplace investigator is that it can make you a little paranoid. On my first day of work at Rubin Thomlinson, waiting for me in my office was the very informative book, Sexual Violence at Canadian Universities: Activism, Institutional Responses, and Strategies for Change, by E. Quinlan, A. Quinlan, C. Fogel, G. Taylor, editors (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017).

I then perused past continuing professional development sessions at our firm including one on “Sex Assault, Criminal Law and Investigations,” as well as another on the “Effects of Alcohol and Cannabis on the Human Body.” Rubin Thomlinson also offers a public course on “Conducting Sexual Harassment and Violence Investigations,” including an edition of this course specific to the university/college sector.

I was suddenly very much aware of the unfortunate prevalence of sexual violence on campus at the same time that my own children were leaving home to attend post-secondary institutions. For a brief moment, I thought of running back home and telling them they could no longer leave the house. While I came to my senses, it made me think about the discussions we might have with campus-bound students.

What to talk about and with whom

With whom? Consent is a two-way street. Talk about consent with all students: male, female, and non-binary students.

Provide the information. With knowledge and awareness may come prudence. Talk about the existence of sexual violence on campus and that it is often not perpetuated by a stranger.

Consent. I admit, the consent talk is not the easiest of conversations and one that may be met with a sigh and a rolling of the eyes. A psychologist once told me to have these difficult conversations while also performing another task, such as driving (which avoids having to look each other in the eyes), baking, or walking. Talk about active consent, which requires that one provide actual active consent throughout every phase of the sexual activity. This means that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Furthermore, a past consensual sexual encounter does not mean that future such encounters are consensual.

Alcohol and other drugs. This conversation should go hand in hand with the conversation on consent. Be aware of non-consensual drug use. Remember the requirement for active consent: someone who is passed out drunk cannot give consent.

The students’ responsibilities are not limited to the campus. Many university and college policies on sexual violence apply beyond the campus and are attached to the status of being a student and a member of the university or college. Hence, a student could be the subject of a sexual violence complaint and investigation even when the incident occurred off campus and/or the complainant is not a student of the university or college.

Bystander intervention. Think about what one can do as a bystander. If a friend appears to be in trouble, intervene provided it is safe to do so. For example, perhaps accompany an intoxicated friend back to the dorm or their apartment rather than watch them leave the bar with someone whom they have just met.

What to do if something happens. The majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Even if a student does not want to tell their parents or close friends about a sexual violence incident, there are campus resources that they can access, not only in respect of reporting the incident, but also in respect of other supports such as counselling. Encourage students to find out about available resources before they actually need them.

And lastly… Make this an ongoing conversation. It does not hurt to continue to discuss these themes as students acquire their own personal experiences at school.


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