Central Alberta Sexual Assault Centre: Changing how we talk about consent

The Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre is partnering with several organizations to help bring awareness to sexual harassment in the workplace. (Photo courtesy of CASASC)

The Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre is partnering with several organizations to help bring awareness to sexual harassment in the workplace. (Photo courtesy of CASASC)

The words we use matter. Our words have impact, positive and negative associations. Words can empower, limit, lift others up, and transcend time and space.

The language we use to speak to others and explain our experiences also matter. Our words can contribute to positive culture and community.

Why am I focusing on the power of our words? Because they play a primary role in an important concept in sexual violence prevention – consent.

This is the idea behind the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Support Centre’s (CASASC) newest campaign Only Yes Means Yes (OYMY) – speaking positively about consent to change our community for the better.

OYMY changes the way we look at and understand consent. It focuses on what positive consent can sound and look like as a way to promote healthy relationships and increase a greater sense of consent culture.

Many of us may be familiar with the saying “no means no.” This is a frequently used statement when talking about consent. This statement indicates that we are always saying “yes” until we say the word or indicate “no,” a lack of consent. This statement tells people that unless they indicated “no,” that was clear and understood by both involved individuals, they were giving consent.

With OYMY, we have turned the above no conversation on its head. This campaign challenges the consent conversation by reinforcing that an individual is always conveying a lack of consent (always saying no). The default for consent then is no. It’s literally a no until they say “yes” with their words, their actions or with their body. Consent can only happen when a person actively and consciously says “yes” and gives/shows their consent.

Consent can be simply defined as this: a voluntary agreement between people who want to do something together. Yes, this of course applies to sexual activity, but it also applies to our everyday lives, with things like driving a car down the street, shopping in a grocery store, visiting a doctor’s office and so on. When defined like this, consent applies to everyday life.

Consent is given freely. It’s chosen and ongoing.

Despite ongoing efforts, sexual violence remains a problem in our province and community. In Alberta, two out of three women and one in three men have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime. From that same 2019 study, 67 per cent of Albertans indicated knowing a survivor of sexual abuse, with 53 per cent having personally supported a survivor.

What does this have to do with consent? A lack of consent can be seen as the foundation of sexual violence. The difference between a consensual intimate partner relationship and sexual violence is the choice made when it comes down to consent words and actions. Your words matter. Is it a yes? Or is it a no? Those who commit sexual violence have chosen not to respect another’s no or to not get consent.

This is why positive consent matters. Showing and saying an enthusiastic “yes” is letting that other person know that you are interested in the activity. Remember, your words matter.

Here’s an easy way, or rather process, to give consent: 1) Know how to ask for consent. Your words matter, 2) Saying and/or showing a “yes” or “no” for yourself, 3) Hearing and/or seeing if the other person is saying “yes” or “no” and 4) Recognizing and respecting the other person’s yes or no. That’s the process – knowing, saying, hearing, recognizing and then respecting.

CASASC provides education programs and presentations on consent and many other prevention-based topics throughout central Alberta. Reach out to the education team at education@casasc.ca for more information.

CASASC also offers a 24 hour help line for those dealing with sexual violence impacts in our community. Call or text 1-866-956-1099, or webchat at www.casasc.ca for confidential support, information and referrals.

Sarah Maetche is the communications and administration manager at the Central Alberta Sexual Assault Centre.