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What we talk about when we talk about consent

“Use The Right Words” event looks at ways to dismantle rape culture
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Toronto: TIFF Bell Lightbox by The City of Toronto is licensed under CC BY 2.0​ ​​
Toronto: TIFF Bell Lightbox by The City of Toronto is licensed under CC BY 2.0​ ​​

When I was in eighth-grade, the word “consent” was kept within the confines of daily matters, never to be discussed in relation to sex. Although we were hitting puberty and rapidly growing out of our “cootie-days”, the discussion of consent in regards to sex and relationships was never explicit. The only conversation I ever remember of rape-prevention was directed at us girls.

My eighth-grade teacher, as lovely as he was, asked the boys to wait outside while he gave us the “dad-spiel.” “Watch out for spiked drinks,” he told us, and “don’t walk home at night,” because during puberty “boys only want one thing.” Seven years ago, in an eighth grade classroom, the only thing we were taught about rape was that it was a mere occurrence; a fact that you must accept, and something you must structure your life around.

That’s why eighth-graders Tessa Hill and Lia Valente’s project-turned-documentary, Allegedly, is proof of the turning tides. The young feminists’ documentary premiered at the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s “Use The Right Words: Young Women Talk Consent” event last Monday June 8 as part of a night filled with discussion, poetry, and film.

Indeed, it is true that rape culture is still ever-present, multi-faceted, and deeply rooted in our everyday lives. However, while we undoubtedly have far to go, the women behind Bad Subject, Femifesto, We Give Consent, and Project Slut are proof that the taboo silence of a decade ago is quickly eroding, to be replaced by a long over-due discussion.

Addressing the major issues

When I sat down with the panellists before the event, I asked Tessa and Lia what they consider to be the two most challenging obstacles facing those battling the current apathy towards rape culture.

Tessa was quick to point out two major issues: school dress codes, and changing the way both the school curriculum and the media address the subject.

Lia added, “More youth need to be involved. There’s this whole discussion going on of whether or not youth should learn this-or-that in the curriculum, when they’re the ones affected by it.” Andy Villanueva and Kerin Shenal of Project Slut — the activists responsible for the End the Dress Code petition — agreed, adding that the dress code is “a serious issue.”

“It serves to police people and their bodies, especially people of colour and transgender individuals. For example, black boys in school are more likely to be told to take their hats off because they can be seen as a threat, and this doesn’t happen as often with white boys.”

Problematic narratives

The need to change the media’s representation of rape and survivors of sexual assault is the foundation of the documentary’s title and theme; namely, the obsessive use of the word “allegedly” in media reports. Throughout the film, feminists such as Steph Guthrie and Farrah Khan clarified the ways in which the media’s inappropriate use of language serves to construct and preserve narratives of rape culture.

Using the word “allegedly”, they explain, instead of favouring words such as “said”, undermines the credibility of the survivor’s story, perpetuates disbelief, and once again helps to reinforce rape as a “he-said/she-said” crime. Guthrie also notes that even when the police’s official reports or statements mention rape, the media still uses the word “allegedly”, leaving room for speculation when really there should be none. In addition to the inappropriate use of words, the media also frequently paints a picture of sexual assault as a single, isolated event, failing to report the actual statistics. To address this, Femifesto hosts workshops with journalism programs, and is also currently working on a toolkit they hope to distribute to Canadian media outlets.

Breaking down dress codes

After Allegedly ended, a short clip by Project Slut was shown explaining the origins of school dress codes, and the many lives they affect. With such a backlash in response to the recent “Crop Top Day” at Etobicoke School of the Arts, it is interesting to discover that the origins of the dress code in Canada can be traced back to residential schools.

Andy Villanueva and Kerin Shenal of Project Slut explain how school dress codes are a reminder of colonialism; how the White Man was adamant about “civilizing and assimilating” the Indigenous people. Even today, dress codes not only affect women, but all people of colour and gender identities. Some transgender students are told that “their appearance makes others uncomfortable” and may be forced to dress according to their “assigned” gender. In the subsequent panel, Shenal notes that dress code rules go beyond mere clothes and into appearance itself, including hairstyles and colour. “One girl I met had bright red hair and she told me she was kicked out of her school as a result of it,” Kerin stated.

Hopeful future

Although their work is just beginning to unfold, the activists are certainly a force to be reckoned with, and one that is here to stay. As the panel was coming to a close, master of ceremonies Farrah Khan asked the group of women what makes them hopeful about the current state of our culture. They each had their own opinion on the matter.

“Young people talking about this makes us hopeful. Let’s get more young people involved, and more people listening to the youth,” said Lia. “In the beginning, I think everyone just thought we were a couple of coloured women who talk too much and just won’t go away. But be like that, don’t go away! What makes me hopeful is that through this we found community – we found people who care about what we believe in,” shared Andy. “Youth are the now – not the future. What makes me hopeful is intergenerational femtorship – we need more of that!” added Shannon from Femifesto. “What makes me hopeful is that people are finally acknowledging that there’s a problem. In order to find a solution, you have to first admit that there’s a problem,” shared Anoodth. “I feel hopeful when the privileged and powerful are silent and allow the oppressed to speak up,” said Effy from Bad Subject. Destiny added, “The word “consent” gives me hope. It’s a mark of sovereignty.”

As Anoodth stated during the panel, now that we have recognized the ever-growing problem of rape culture, silence and ignorance is no longer acceptable. If there’s one thing to take away from “Use The Right Words”, it’s to keep the conversation going; we must talk about these issues and educate one another, and in the process of doing so, we must educate ourselves. Only then, can we replace rape culture with a culture of consent.