Men need to be involved in the conversation about consent

For a sixth consecutive year, the Yukon Consent Crew is hitting the streets of Whitehorse and the summer music festivals.

by Hillary Aitken

For a sixth consecutive year, the Yukon Consent Crew is hitting the streets of Whitehorse and the summer music festivals. This group of volunteers mingles throughout crowds, engaging festival-goers in sex-positive conversations about consent, sexualized assault, and alcohol. Their goal is to reduce the number of sexualized assaults in Yukon by encouraging everyone to get active, enthusiastic consent.

Like always, we work hard to seek volunteers who are outgoing, enthusiastic, and fundamentally understand the work we are doing. In the past, about nine out of 10 volunteers have been women, but we want to encourage more men to be consent crew volunteers.

Since 97 per cent of offenders of sexualized violence in Canada are men, they are well-positioned to put an end to it. They can stop making the choice to commit violence.

It’s a men’s issue. We have seen how the conversation changes at a music festival when a male voice is talking to his peers about consent, as opposed to a message coming from women’s organizations. When a dude tells his friend about the reality of sexualized violence and reassures them that getting consent is not only okay, it’s absolutely necessary, and he does it all the time, the message travels further than we will ever be able to take it.

But as we reach out to men, we have run into a conflict. Sometimes we find out that a man might not be the best role model for our campaign; perhaps he has been the perpetrator of violence, or sexually assaulted someone in the past, or perhaps we hear comments or statements that raise some red flags. Maybe they haven’t been taught what consent really is (or is not), so when they learn, they suddenly realize they didn’t actually get clear, ongoing, enthusiastic consent that one time.

But what do we do with that?

It’s not our role to judge innocence or guilt. As women’s equality-seeking organizations, it is our job to believe and support survivors, to hear them, to provide options for them, to help change the culture so it doesn’t happen again.

How do we hold people accountable for their behaviour? What will create community accountability, or even further, work towards some sort of justice for the survivor?

We’ve seen that the legal system isn’t working for survivors of sexualized assault, so we can’t rely on it to provide justice. Should we be publicly shaming these offenders? Should we cut them off from their community? I don’t think that will serve anyone well.

But perhaps more importantly – how do we make space for someone to honestly disclose past behaviour? How do we encourage them to share their experience? How do we let them realize that oh crap, they didn’t get consent that time, or oh ya, it actually wasn’t her fault, and oh right, that rapey comment was completely unnecessary?

We have successfully made it socially inappropriate to be labeled a rapist. But can we make it okay to say, “hey, I’m living in a rape culture. I sexually assaulted someone” or “I didn’t get consent every step of the way” or “I made a stupid joke”? Then follow that with accountability, including both personal and cultural change?

I believe we can.

Perhaps people who have gone through the most personal of learning experiences could become our best ambassadors. They get it. They can talk to their buddies about what happened. They could provide apologies.

Because these people are everywhere. That offender of sexualized violence might be your buddy or your boyfriend. That woman who tells a rape joke could be your colleague. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of us who don’t get consent every single time. That’s why the Yukon Consent Crew needs to exist.

You don’t have to be perfect to talk to others about the importance of consent. If you are willing to acknowledge that in the past you might not have always acted appropriately, but can now understand how to act differently, you can share that experience with others. Maybe you could join White Ribbon Yukon.

What if Brock Turner, the man convicted of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman at Stanford University in California whose lenient sentence sparked national outrage, acknowledged that what he did was not only illegal, it was unbelievably awful, and he has forever scarred someone’s life? What if he apologized to his victim and committed to never do it again? What if he started talking to college campuses about how to get consent?

Would it be enough?

Hillary Aitken is Program Coordinator at Victoria Faulkner Women’s Centre in Whitehorse.