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Do You Know What the Law Says on Sexual Consent? Most Canadian Adults Don't

Consent must be positive and ongoing, according to Canadian law, but only one in three respondents said both of these were necessary for consent, according to a recent survey.

by Hilary Beaumont
Sep 10 2015, 9:35pm

Screen grab of #GetConsent campaign.

A woman's plate of fries overflows with gravy well after she tells the server, "OK, that's good, stop." In the new video by the Canadian Women's Foundation, a female voice states: "Like all consent, sexual consent means you should never get more than you asked for."

The video is part of #GetConsent, a campaign launched by the organization after a survey they commissioned earlier this year found that adult Canadians don't understand how sexual consent works.

One in five people aged 18 to 34 believe sending an explicit photo, text or email counts as consent to have sex, according to the survey, and 10 percent of Canadians believe consent is not required between spouses or long-term partners.

Consent must be positive and ongoing, according to Canadian law, but only one in three survey respondents said both of these were necessary for consent, the organization said.

The online survey of 1,500 randomly selected Canadians over 18 was conducted in April by pollster Angus Reid. 

The survey also found that 96 percent of respondents agreed that sexual activity between partners should be consensual.

Legally speaking, in Canada, anyone engaging in sexual activity has to take reasonable steps to make sure their partner is consenting, otherwise it's sexual assault.

Under criminal law, consent means "voluntary agreement" to engage in sex. No consent is obtained if there is submission due to application of force, threats or fear, fraud or the exercise of authority.

Toronto civil lawyer Loretta Merritt is all too familiar with cases of sexual abuse involving both children and adults. When she heard the survey findings, she was shocked.

"The things you are seeing, to me, seem to suggest that there is some very out-of-date thinking going on there and victim blaming," Merritt told VICE News.

She said the idea that sending a nude photo counts as consent is similar to the suggestion that if a woman wears a short skirt, she must be asking for it.

"It's really important for everyone to understand that from a legal perspective that if consent is not truly and freely given, it is not a legal consent," she said.

"The victim of the sexual assault, it's important for them to know that a crime has been committed ... so they know the legal action they can take," she said. "But also on the other side of the equation, it's important for perpetrators of sexual assault to understand what they're doing is wrong, legally and morally."

In recent years, discussions around campus sexual assault have prompted universities, especially, to reassess how they discuss sex and consent with students.

For Concordia University in Montreal, that means mandatory sexual consent workshops. This fall, the university is holding training camps for all athletes to inform them about consent, sexual assault, and sexual harassment.

Earlier this year, students at Concordia also developed a video game to teach players how to assess and assert their boundaries.

And after its students cheered for rape during frosh week two years ago, this fall Saint Mary's University in Halifax is training first-year students on what consent means.

Merritt said parents, schools, and peers should teach consent from a young age.

"There should be a consistent message right from a very young age: You don't touch people without their permission, and their permission means real, valid permission, not going along because they can't say no."

The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percent, 19 times out of 20. The results have been statistically weighted according to education, age, gender and region. 

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont

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