By Chelsea Corsi and Meaghan Hagerty, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, Canada
WHO WE ARE
For people who know us well, or have just met us for that matter, one thing we believe resonates is that we are passionate about health and well-being on our campus!
For me (Chelsea), working with students in my role as Wellness Coordinator inspires me every day. My experience over the past 15 years has shown me that the hearts and minds of students are open to learn more about themselves; they are open to critically reflect on their current values, beliefs, and perspectives; and they are ready to challenge the social and political context we live in…even when the issues, such as consent for sex and sexualized violence can be difficult to talk about. I believe students to be brave, courageous, and vulnerable, more so than I was when I was a student. Working alongside students to support their health and well-being fills up my cup and motivates me to do my best work!
For me (Meaghan), I scored the jackpot when I landed a position at TRU’s Wellness Centre as my first job post-graduation, and my luck continued with an opportunity to temporarily take on the Sexualized Violence Prevention and Response Manager position. It’s one thing to learn about program development and community engagement in a classroom, but actually facilitating space for challenging conversations and hearing the rich dialogue and learning that follows is what professional dreams are made of in my world. We’re working to change some deeply entrenched social norms with topics like sexualized violence, but the energy and drive to shift the conversation exists and is growing. Learning from the students, as well as staff, faculty, and community organizations, through events provides motivation to keep looking for those creative ways of opening space for dialogue and learning.
We are fortunate in our roles at TRU because we are able to collaborate on health promotion and sexualized violence prevention programming in a way that brings creativity and innovation to the work. We utilize key pieces of evidence and theories in a way that engages student learning and, as we have noticed, improves the culture of health and well-being at TRU. Developing programming and outreach events about sexual health and sexualized violence prevention that have the capacity to captivate students is one of the most exciting, rewarding, and nuanced pieces of health promotion work at TRU. For us, this is the stuff that sleepless nights are made of!
THE NEED FOR THE WORK
In case you, or anyone else on your campus, need more convincing that this is important work for us to be doing, let’s recap what we know. Our campus understands sexualized violence as, “an umbrella term that encompasses any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent.” According to the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia, up to 25% of females report experiencing sexualized violence during their time in post-secondary education. On our campus this means over 1,800 females are pursuing their studies while navigating an experience of sexualized violence. While this statistic is staggering, it does not capture other gender identities or those who decided not to disclose for a variety of great reasons. This is a real and impactful thing that is happening on every campus. Post-secondary institutions are increasingly taking responsibility to provide dedicated response and support services on campus, and in parallel, education and prevention programming is growing.
But let’s be honest…while we know sexualized violence is a critical health issue impacting university culture, sometimes the education and prevention work can be heavy. It can be loaded with stigma, partially because talking about sex in general is often taboo and also because there is still a strong tendency to blame the victim while protecting the perpetrator; it can be uncomfortable to talk about; and it can potentially trigger those who have lived experience. However, if done well, it can be a catalyst for personal reflection, growth, and change as well as a positive shift in culture.
CONSENT TEA IN ACTION
Consent education is recognized as a cornerstone in creating that culture shift, and at TRU, our Annual Consent Tea has become one of our programming success stories. Capitalizing on pop culture, creative program implementation, activity-based learning, and peer-led dialogue, we have successfully navigated campus discussions on consent for sex and sexualized violence broadly. Instead of metaphorically pulling teeth and/or speaking to silent workshop participants, we took inspiration from the viral “Consent: It’s as Simple as Tea” video to develop a ‘Consent Tea’ event, approaching conversations in a trauma-informed, anti-oppressive, and survivor-centred way. Tables decorated with fresh flowers, tea, and treats at a central campus location invite students into this peer-led space for learning and open dialogue.
The idea first came from a thoughtful reflection about how to help students ‘get’ or better understand the idea of consent for sex. How could we encourage student praxis (the practical application of learning) about consent in a meaningful way? How could we bridge the theory/concept with action and inspire reflection and dialogue about a difficult topic?
Opportunities for applied learning are woven throughout our Consent Tea event. We provide a safer, open environment that is foundational for reflection about key messages brought forth in the Consent: It’s a Simple as Tea video. For example, if someone is unconscious you wouldn’t force them to drink tea, and similarly if someone is passed out you wouldn’t force them to have sex. By physically drinking tea while discussing the fact that you wouldn’t force someone to drink tea with you, participants are ‘acting out’ part of the message. This helps to solidify the underlying concept that you also wouldn’t force someone to have sex or assume that they wanted it.
Some critics of this video believe the message is too ‘juvenile’ and doesn’t go far enough to address the complexities of consent. In our experience, we have found that because the key messages in this video are approachable and use plain language, it acts as a terrific entry point that resonates with varying levels of participants sexual consent literacy.
True Dialogue theory also underpins this event. The process is designed to increase empathy and understanding, promote self-reflection, and raise awareness that different cultures and communities have varying perspectives and practices. The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) explains that the key components of dialogue are to:
- Inquire and learn
- Discover shared meaning
- Integrate multiple perspectives
- Uncover and examine assumptions
While we recognize that different perspectives shape the dialogue about consent, we also know that it is our responsibility to educate about the definition and absolute requirement of consent in sexual activity.
Having peers act as dialogue facilitators helps to decrease or remove power imbalances that can be present in different contexts. Our trained peer-leaders have been key to our event success as they help create a safe, welcoming space at each table; bring knowledge about sexualized violence and consent; facilitate meaningful dialogue; and support students to access campus and community resources if and when needed. This past year all 11 students from the Student Wellness Ambassador Team (SWAT), as well as Student Services’ practicum and work-study students served as peer facilitators at our event.
During the Consent Tea, the use of visual, written, and activity-based aids prompt courageous consent conversations that challenge rape myths, develop understanding for how to support survivors, and increase awareness of campus and community support services.
The 2018 Consent Tea introduced Blackout Poetry as the primary tool for facilitating reflection, expression, and dialogue. This semi-structured, introvert-friendly art form proved to be an accessible vehicle for health promotion, emotional expression, and sharing one’s voice. Participants tore a page from a book and repurposed the words to create their own poem about consent and/or sexualized violence.
An example of a student black-out poem from our 4th Annual Consent Tea in fall 2018:
As student affairs/health professionals coordinating this event, we have seen a high degree of engagement and heard rich conversations each year. But don’t just take it from us. Nicole Stanchfield, a student survivor who was at the event and helped facilitate dialogue, wrote about her experiences. She writes:
“Through the blending of art and conversation, this tea party provided a safe and supportive space to share my story. Events like this are essential to understanding our collective responsibility to engage in an ongoing conversation about consent, sexualized violence, feminism, body autonomy, and the dismantling of my arch nemesis, the patriarchy.”
You can read her full narrative here.
Additionally, this is what one of our student leaders had to say:
“Shockingly, the Consent Tea is where I had my first ever conversation about consensual sex. I learned the basics about rape and assault in high school; but at 22, I found myself unsure of the true meaning of consent. During the tea I was captivated by the bravery of the students who shared their stores, and so impressed by the nuanced and thoughtful discussions that took place. The opportunity to share insights with my peers at this event gave me the education and confidence I needed to have a healthier understanding about sexual consent. I know that I was not the only one there learning about it for the first time, and for that I am grateful for the awareness that this event offers because the concepts I learned will have a lasting impact on my life.”
– Angela Kadar, Student Wellness Ambassador
If you are interested in learning more specific details about our Consent Tea event, or want to host one on your campus, we have created a toolkit that outlines our experiences of running this event for the last 4 years. It is accessible through this link.
As professionals working with students, we hope that this has inspired you to reflect on your own practice and share some ideas with colleagues. How do you encourage open and accessible dialogue that challenges the current discourse about stigmatizing health issues faced by students, yet is also empathetic and caring? How can you inspire a positive change in campus culture? Please “leave a reply” so we can learn from each other.
Like we said, these are the thoughts and ideas that keep us passionate about the work and up at night planning our next outreach adventure!