From no to yes and beyond

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What exactly is the Yes means Yes campaign?

Author: deidre brandt – contributor

The women’s centre has adopted the Yes means Yes to clarify when consent is given. / Haley Klassen

The women’s centre has adopted the Yes means Yes to clarify when consent is given. / Haley Klassen

Recently the University of Regina, along with the Canadian Federation of Students, has endorsed a new policy on the topics of sexual assault and consent. The “Yes means Yes campaign” aims to clarify some of the misconceptions of the “No means No” efforts to combat sexual assault. The initiative serves as a way of clarifying some of the perceived ambiguities that have not only led to many instances of sexual assault, but have also led to pervasive victim blaming. Questions like, “were they drinking?” “Had they had sex before?” “Had they agreed to it earlier?” “Were they in a relationship?”

All these examples function on the same presumptions as the “No means No Campaign;” that consent is presumed unless it is directly stated otherwise. In this way “Yes means Yes” works not only as a shift in the way consensual sexual relationships operate, but could hopefully affect the way they are publicly acknowledged.

Student response to the campaign has been largely positive, though awareness of it has been fairly limited. Cassidy Hanna, a third-year education student, while not directly aware of the campaign or the recent endorsements said that she “likes the idea that only yes means yes and not only no means no, because silence is not tacit compliance, and consent should not be passive, it should be an enthusiastic yes.” Responses like these were fairly typical among students, however most did require explanation of what “Yes Means Yes” means.

Jill Arnott, executive director of the women’s centre also saw the campaign as a positive shift away from ambiguity. Arnott said it “insists on clear communication [of consent].” Arnott was quick to point out that this campaign was only one piece of a much larger conversation, and if it feels like we’ve been having this conversation for a long time, it’s because we have.

As tempting as it is to think of sexual assault and consent as recent issues, usually accompanied by women’s stories of a prominent man misusing power and platform to abuse women, like Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and most recently Jian Ghomeshi.

With the rise of the women’s movement, women were able to take up legal cases themselves, but legal structures often favoured abusers and silenced victims, and as a result assaults largely were, and still are, underreported. Until early 1980, the term “sexual assault” was not a part of the legal system and only roughly 30 per cent of alleged rapists were convicted, while many more were never reported at all. In 1983, Bill C-46 passed sweeping reforms regarding sexual assault, not only broadening terms to allow for more diverse offences to be reported, but also recognized the legitimacy of claims of rape in marriages. These reforms marked the first major victory of the women’s movement in redefining sexual assault, and redirecting the conversation about consent.

Throughout its history the movements around consent and sexual assault have been shaped by women. As women make up 90 per cent of the victims of sexual assault and only 1 per cent of the perpetrators, they have also largely been the voices of this issue. It has been the duty of women to object to the status quo, to raise their voices and demand change. In this regard, the history of the campaign against sexual assault has mirrored the dialogue of “No means No.”

In this same way “Yes means Yes,” if engaged properly, could have a profound effect on the change in conversation on a societal level. One of the great things about the change from “yes” to “no” is that it shifts power away from silence. It poses consent as a conversation that requires participation from both sides.

Despite where it could go, “Yes means Yes” is currently in its infancy. While it is being legislated in California, it could eventually become legal policy in Canada, for now it is simply a proposed change in personal practice. Since it is largely up to individual discretion, education and discussion are necessary to building a strong foundation for these policies to thrive. Conversations about consent and sexual assault need to be encouraged and facilitated so that ideas like “Yes means Yes” can change the current paradigm.

The U of R’s endorsement of the policy provides an opportunity to continue conversation about consent and sexual assault. It allows for student discussion, and aligns with recent plans by URSU to open dialogue about these issues. Daniella Zemlak, URSU’s VP of external affairs outlined plans for two separate campaigns that relate to sexual assault and consent. One effort is centered on providing proper informational posters as well as staff training to make people more aware of sexual violence to create a “culture of consent and safety” at the Owl and on campus. The other is a women’s awareness week, being planned in conjunction with the women’s centre to educate people not only on the achievements of women, but on the issues currently facing them, including sexual assault. These initiatives are planed for place next semester and aim to provide information as well as an environment where Zemlak says students will be empowered to make “healthy, educated, sexual decisions.”

The “Yes means Yes” campaign and the initiatives posed by URSU provide the framework for meaningful discussion that can work to end sexual assault and rape culture. With this platform now available it’s up to the students to rise up, be heard, and most importantly keep talking.

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