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Say "YES!" to a World Without Sexual Violence

ConsentFEST takes back empowerment

by Melissa Albiani

Shannon Hardy from Venus Envy, was a panelist on body policing pregnant women during the ConsentFEST Conference at SMU.
Shannon Hardy from Venus Envy, was a panelist on body policing pregnant women during the ConsentFEST Conference at SMU.

"YES!"

Giving or not giving consent and having that decision respected is the key to ending sexual violence.  We've all seen the 'No means no' campaign to end date rape, but what's the 'Yes means yes' vision of sexual power and a world without rape? 

Consent -- whether expressed at an individual or community or cultural level -- was the focus of a weeklong series of events in Halifax from Dec. 5 to 11.  Called ConsentFEST, it aims to inspire conversation and change.  Events included workshops, lectures, and panel discussions.

“This week is all about opening up the discussion around how fostering consensual relationships and finding our voice are both integral aspects of ending sexual violence,” the ConsentFEST website said.

Arising out of the SlutWalk event in Halifax, ConsentFest was planned collectively by Dalhousie Women's Centre, Saint Mary's Women’s Centre, Venus Envy and Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

“People wanted more out of it; a deeper analysis," said Ellen Taylor, Campaigns Coordinator for the Dalhousie Women's Centre.

"It's important for us to stop being bystanders and address these issues with our friends, our families, whether they're participating in victim blaming or making a racist joke.  Those are hard conversations to have; but we have to rock the boat to make people really pay attention."

Writer, educator and activist Jaclyn Friedman described the dominant 'commodity model' whereby women (especially virgins) are sexualized, fetishized, and commodified by the media for men.  This problematic model disregards the desires of the person being commodified, and completely ignores trans, queer, and other gender identities.

In this model, Friedman said, consent is commonly treated as an ON/OFF switch.  Once a woman consents, it's a one-way street.  There's no way of changing her mind.  This leads to victim-blaming.  If she was raped, it's her fault in society's eyes because she said yes, ONCE.  She's only got one chance.

But sex is a two-way street.  Where lies the responsibility of the other partner?

Friedman proposes an alternative model that she calls 'enthusiastic consent.' In this model, communication and collaboration are key.  Partners maintain communication throughout sexual interaction, checking in to see if their partner is still 'enthusiastic' about what's happening in the moment.

Friedman says, "One of the best things about enthusiastic consent is that you only have sexual interactions where everyone's having a good time.  In other words, everyone has better sex except the rapist."

Nova Scotia is a long stretch from Friedman's enthusiastic consent model.  The Avalon Sexual Assault Centre states that Nova Scotia has the highest per capita incidence of sexual assault in Canada (NSACSW, 2005) and one of the lowest convictions rates for sexual assault crimes (NSACSW, 2005).

This was recognized at the Not So Silent Vigil on Dec.6 – the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.  Women and allies packed the Company House to speak out against violence against women in the form of prayer, song, spoken word, and monologue.  After a minute of silence and emotionally charged performances, a minute of collective screaming was shared.  The goal was to release the grief and anger rarely expressed by women in society.

This was especially poignant in light of Bill C-19 having recently passed first and second readings in the House of Commons.  Bill C-19 would eliminate the long-gun registry originally established in response to the Montreal Massacre.  The gunman used a legally obtained rifle to kill 14 women at École Polytechnique.

Based on the facts, one could safely say that people in the room had either experienced sexual violence themselves, or knew someone who had.  Statistics Canada reports that one in four females and one in six males have experienced some form of sexual violence.

The evening covered heavy topics such as rape as a weapon of war, and specifically the massacre at École Polytechnique.  However, not everyone felt represented or included by the evening's focus.

Before and after the planned performances, women spoke to the group about their personal experiences and frustrations.  One woman spoke of her childhood sexual assault, and how as a result, the system failed her.  She now lives in poverty.  Another women broke out in tears, when after having attended two separate vigils that day, there was no mention of people with disabilities or the violence they face.

She brought up a valid point.  83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, according to the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

Issues of inclusion and representation came up repeatedly during the week, even in events peripheral to ConsentFest.  On Thursday, NSCAD's Feminist Collective hosted a roundtable discussion about their recent Art show, 'Forever in Flux:  Feminism in Dialogue,' commemorating the Montreal Massacre.

The artists, community, and professors discussed the different feminisms represented in the art, and how the process resulted in mostly white female NSCAD students' involvement.  It was a diverse show in terms of medium, but excluded artists and feminists from the Black, First Nations, male, Queer, Trans and non-NSCAD community.

"It's not the job solely of women to work on gender oppression, why aren't guys talking about this as well?" commented an artist on the limited participation.  Admittedly working with minimal membership and time, the Collective hopes to continue dialogue, and make its planning process more inclusive in years to come.

At most events, groups discussed wanting to become more inclusive.  They pointed out that gender oppression isn't equal across society.

Avalon Centre's zine states that sexual violence is not about sex, it is about power and control.  Racism is used both overtly and covertly as a tool of power to be used against peoples of colour.  And Indigenous peoples are THREE TIMES more likely than non-indigenous peoples to experience a violent victimization.

That's why Friday's ConsentFest Conference at SMU began with an analysis of interlocking oppressions.  Mary Burnet from Venus Envy explained how patriarchy, sexism and rape culture intersect with racism and white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, ableism and classism, and how systemic oppressions can be replicated within seemingly radical spaces.

Burnet made a 'pizza of power,' which is a tool that can be used to help individuals become aware of the different ways they might be privileged or marginalized, and see these trends within a larger group.

Each slice of pizza represents a different facet of identity that can be the basis for privilege or marginalization in society, such as race, gender, religion, ability/disability, etc.  The pizza's centre represents the centre of privilege in society, where the cheese and toppings typically slide, and the crust represents the margin.  People in the workshop charted their identities in each category, or slice.  The group left their mark largely near the centre, with various divergences in gender identity, sex, size, race, and other categories.

When asked, Burnet didn't claim to have all the answers about building inclusive spaces without tokenization.

"It takes personal work to break down your own oppressive tendencies.  Rather than tokenizing a person by asking them to join a relatively homogenous group in an attempt to create "diversity," a more valuable strategy could be to become aware of organizing and activism being done by people who are oppressed in ways that you are privileged, and seeing what you can do to support that movement as an ally," says Burnet.

The workshops gave the message that by examining ways in which we are oppressed, we can strategize our own empowerment.  A panel on body policing and empowerment focused on fat bodies, trans bodies, bodies with disabilities, and pregnant bodies.  Panelists explained that society tries to control and exclude people who identify with these qualities.  This happens by portraying fat people or people with disabilities as unsexy, hypersexualized, or asexual; or in the case of pregnant women and Trans folks, by limiting choice and access to fair medical practice.

Consent takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to transitioning.  In Halifax there is currently only one nurse who does intake for testosterone or estrogen, said Stephanie Gabriel, a member of Laing House, a peer support organization for youth with mental illness.  There is a three-year waiting list for her services.  "Depression is a huge thing in the Trans community so if there isn't support for the depression or the gender identity issues, you're going to lose a lot of talented and worthy people," says Gabriel.

One way to move beyond body policing and cultural stereotypes, is to challenge your notions of what is sexy, said Kaleigh Trace from Venus Envy, speaking as a person with a physical disability.  Trace also encouraged folks to widen their definition of sex beyond penetration so that everyone can enjoy pleasure, at his or her ability. 

Take back your pleasure with an enthusiastic 'YES!' by sticking to Friedman's enthusiastic consent tips, and have fun.

Start with yourself; get in touch with what you want.  Only YES, means YES.  If you can't tell you have to ask; continuous consent.  Play safe.  And no lying.

And keep your eye out for more feminist organizing to come in Halifax.

For more information, go to these links:

Avalon Sexual Assault Centre's ASK Campaign

Venus Envy

Dal Women's Centre

SMU Women's Centre


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