It’s no secret that university is an important time for sexual exploration and development. Luckily, there is an array of organizations on campus that can help support students in learning safer sex practices, encouraging sex positivity and experimentation, and supporting students with their sexual health.
At UTSG, the Sexual Education Centre (SEC) offers a comprehensive array of services and support. It was founded in 1976 but has since undergone significant changes in its organization and the services it offers. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the centre offered walk-in pickup for safer sex products such as condoms, dental dams, gloves, and pregnancy tests at no charge to university students.
Today, it still offers supplies in a box outside of their office at 21 Sussex Street and curbside pickup on scheduled days. Beyond physical products, the SEC also offers phone and peer support, resources, and sex education talks for residences and high schools.
UTM has its own sexual education centre, which is known as the UTM SEC. Although UTSC does not have its own education centre, it does have both the Women’s and Trans Centre and SC:OUT, which is an organization for LGBTQ+ students. Both of these organizations perform a similar role to that of the SEC.
Although the list of teams, clubs, and organizations that support students with their sexual health and well-being extends significantly beyond this preliminary one, the University of Toronto still has a long way to go when it comes to teaching safer sex to its students and staff — including about the importance of consent.
The university community was reminded of the undercurrent of harassment at the university when, last summer, open letters highlighted the sexual misconduct prevalent at the Faculty of Music. This was further underlined by the fall investigation into allegations against Trinity College’s former provost and vice-chancellor. Sexual violence rates on campuses are staggeringly high in Canada, with approximately 71 per cent of postsecondary students either having experienced or witnessed sexual harassment within student settings in 2019. U of T is no exception.
It should not take allegations, investigations, and open letters for the community to ultimately receive a response from the university. Rather, the university ought to offer proactive education and training to the members of its community, as well as promote programs already in place such as the SEC, so as to foster a safer environment.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged U of T’s typical operations — such as its services and orientation plans — the university was severely lacking when it came to ensuring students have universal access to basic sex education even prior to the pandemic. U of T must ensure that consent is taught as an active exchange, where the importance of mutual, enthusiastic consent is highlighted, with an emphasis on ensuring all parties feel comfortable in their environment. This education could help limit situations where consent is given under duress.
Despite attending Victoria College’s orientation in 2020, I never learned about the SEC; I only learned about the role of the blue lights on campus. I learned about the fantastic work VicPride does at Vic specifically to foster a safe environment for LGBTQ+ students on campus. Yet I never learned about where on campus, specifically, I could go to learn more about sexual health and well-being. I find this troubling, given that only one third of Canadians understand what consent actually means — which demonstrates that sexual resources and education are necessary.
I am not arguing that the university should insist that students and faculty take workshops on sexual pleasure and experimentation, but I am arguing that they need to educate beyond a simplified vision of consent.
Consent is the essential framework for sex. A comprehensive education on it should be the basic standard. A preliminary sex education, that includes conversations of consent and how it is tied with pleasure, can help bring awareness as to what positive and negative sexual experiences look and feel like, and how to better recognize signals from your partners.
This basic education should also equip members of the university community with the basic tools to seek out further sex education. A positive, consent-focused campus environment should encourage personal growth, open-mindedness, and non-judgemental avenues to ask questions and explore.
One of the fundamental strong suits of the SEC is its emphasis on teaching pleasure and the value of sexual experimentation. Not only do they offer a “product of the month,” which has so far consisted of toys, but they also offer experimentation and sexual health workshops throughout the school year. The main problem is that students do not know that these resources are here, right at our doorstep.
The climate of learning about sex, sexualities, and ourselves has come from the ways we all engage in conversations and open spaces for growth. But we can’t improve that culture at U of T if the university doesn’t actively showcase the amazing work done by volunteers across the three campuses. Similarly, sex education shouldn’t have to be another orientation requirement to get through; it should be an open and ongoing dialogue.
Rion Levy is a second-year literature and critical theory student at Victoria College. He is an undergraduate research fellow with the Northrop Frye Center and the Associate Arts and Culture Editor at The Strand.