Talking Consent Culture in Toronto

American Activist Changing the Dialogue to End Rape Culture

Founder Amber Amour, right, and associate Callum Clarke. Photo Ocean Derouchie
Photo Ocean Derouchie

A group of women are sitting under a tree in Trinity Bellwoods Park. Meanwhile, passersby on the paths around the gathering stared down at their feet, transfixed by the brightly coloured chalk messages lining the cement.

Covering the Queen St. W. entrance of the park were powerful messages such as ‘Love is the answer,’ “Anything but ‘yes’ means ‘no,’” and “98 per cent of rapists will never spend a day in jail.”

The women, kicking back after a morning of spreading love, support and sexual assault education through chalk messages, spoke openly—but not without emotional weight—about a topic that many have trouble finding words for.

The campaign that brought them together is called “Creating Consent Culture,” an international movement that started when activist Amber Amour began writing chalk messages about sexual assault on the sidewalks of New York City. A few years later, her campaign made the rounds on Instagram and Facebook, and found its way to Toronto on Aug 20, a few weeks ago.

Since 2014, Amour has been restlessly traveling, crashing on couches and supporting thousands of survivors everywhere—with one goal in mind: to end rape culture.

One of Amour’s latest campaign focuses is speaking in high schools and universities about consent culture, using social media for social change, self-love strategies and diversity training, among other initiatives.

In a time where, according to SACHA, the Sexual Assault Center for Hamilton Area, estimates show that between 15 to 25 per cent of North American post-secondary-aged women—18 to 24 year-olds—will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career, education in universities and providing support for survivors is more necessary than ever.

The inescapable reality is that we are plagued with news stories detailing scenarios ranging from campus assault—Brock Turner, Stanford University—to horrific Frosh Week chants—St. Mary’s University circa 2013—and even scandals like that of Dalhousie University in late 2014, when a group of dental students discussed drugging and having sex with unconscious patients on a Facebook group.

Rather than addressing the problem itself, Amour believes solution-based discourse is the best way to go about changing the situation.

Leaving behind her previous campaign motto, “Stop Rape, Educate,” she has found it to be more beneficial—and better received—to use “Creating Consent Culture” as a platform to educate and inform.

So what is consent culture?

It’s a world where asking for permission is normalized, and not considered “killing the mood,” said Amour.

A society where “consent is open, and communicative and comfortable,” said CCC staffer, Callum Clarke.

“In a culture of consent, survivors are supported, and believed when they speak up. Men are not stigmatized for speaking up about their own abuse, whether it’s sexual or domestic.” Amour added. “In a culture of consent, everyone talks about it. It’s not even brave to be a survivor or speak up. It’s just normal. And when you do [speak out], you’re given total love, total support and total compassion.”

Eradicating rape culture is easier said than done, however. It’s going to be a long process—reversing the damage done by hundreds of years of violence against women. But it can start anywhere, even in schools.

Many women, Amour details, end up leaving school after experiencing their assaults. But she says that’s not the answer. “What about your dreams?” she asks, hoping that survivors wont be afraid to pursue their passions because of these experiences.

In recent years, Concordia has dealt with a few high-profile cases of students speaking out about their experiences with sexual violence perpetuated by other students. First, there was Mei-Ling—a pseudonym—who came to a public settlement with Concordia’s Arts and Science Federation of Associations for racial and sexual harassment she faced from two coworkers during her time as one of its executives. Then the story emerged about Cathy—another pseudonym—for her repeatedly postponed Concordia tribunal between her and her ex-boyfriend for assaults she says happened on and off-campus. Cathy has not returned to school because the tribunal—and any formal resolution—has not been reached.

In August 2015, a working group of students, faculty, staff, and other community members released a review of Concordia’s policies that handle sexual violence. University President Alan Shepard said the administration would act on all recommendations, with many supposed to be implemented by the start of this academic year.

“If universities are accepting sexual predators in their school, it’s their responsibility to protect the other people,” she said. “Either you don’t accept sexual predators or you do a little bit more work to make sure everybody is clear on what boundaries are, and what the consequences are.”