Consent Pussies Advocate Consent On Campus
Tuesday, September 9, 20141 Comment
Sonia Chwalek and Sonali Menezes, founders of the "Consent Pussies" project at U of G.
The first weeks of university are busy, exciting, and full of new freedom for freshmen. For many, these days are filled with new classes, new friends, and parties. However, a grim fact accompanies this time of transition; the weeks between when a student first steps foot on campus and Thanksgiving are when they are most likely to be sexually assaulted.
The first two weeks of school are known by campus administrations in North America as “The Red Zone”, a term coming from the zone in a football field starting 20 yards before the goal line, where the offensive team is expected to “assert its will” over the defense and “score”. With this in mind, two Guelph students have come up with a unique initiative, the “Consent Pussies”.
Sonali Menezes and Sonia Chwalek, undergraduate students’ union executives at the Central Student Association (CSA), are the founders of the Consent Pussies. They have based their campaign off two personal observations: first, that people may have forgotten or not know the rules of consent by the time they’re in a situation that calls for it; and second, that it can be hard for people to have conversations about consent, given the negative and accusatory tone that is often used to discuss it or lack thereof.
“The campaign is about sexual consent,” Sonali explains, “So what it’s talking about is that no means no in every way, shape and form. So silence can mean no, I’m too drunk can mean no, I’d just like to go to sleep can mean no…and the reason why we’re tackling this is because we know that sexual assault does happen on our campus. We know that the first two weeks of the year are called the Red Zone, because that’s when women between 18 and 22 are most likely to be sexually assaulted out of their entire university experience.”
Inspired by the popular Tumblr campaign, “Cats Against Catcalls”, the two students had the idea to dress up as cats and attend school dances, events and parties to start promoting consent under a new name, “The Consent Pussies”. With this project, they seek to educate students in their rights and responsibilities in sexual relationships, and to empower people to take back their bodies and respect others’ choices, in the actual spaces where sexual activity could be initiated. Sonali summarizes: “The whole idea is that we go to spaces where people are drinking, where they might go home with each other – so what we’re doing is making sure they know their rights, that they’re respecting each other’s boundaries, and that they know what consent is.”
Sonia continues, “Sometimes it can be hard to have those conversations. Part of the reason we did this in kind of a playful way is to try to de-stigmatize the word “consent” and make it easier to have those conversations. Sometimes they can be awkward but it’s important to have them. It’s important for people to feel comfortable talking about it. So that’s why we kind of played it up, used a name that gets people’s attention – especially at parties, people like the name. It’s also about reclaiming the name – really feeling empowered through the act, and showing support for everyone. It’s for people to feel united, it’s something that we’re all doing, it’s about empowering women, it’s about empowering men, it’s about empowering really everyone, whichever way they identify, to feel comfortable saying no when they want to but also feel comfortable saying yes when the want to - just understanding that their decisions should be respected.”
One of the events they attended was the Down with Webster concert last Wednesday. A video surfaced on social media the next day, of the Consent Pussies leading a cheer with the crowd; “Students united will never be defeated.” When asked about the cheer, Chwalek responds, “We constantly talk about students being united, and strength in numbers. One of the things that we’re tackling with the No Means No campaign is that we’re trying to build strength against what many would describe as a rape culture, in our generation and on our campuses.”
This issue is often discussed in the media, with several high-profile celebrity cases of domestic violence, date rape and sexual violence making headlines over the past year. “Even figures in popular culture perpetuate rape culture and condone rape culture”, Menezes observes while discussing the recent Cee-Lo Green case. Last week, Green pleaded no-contest against charges of date-raping a woman, and upon court release tweeted, [email protected] @dELYSEious @RaavynnDigital if someone is passed out they’re not even WITH you consciously! So WITH Implies consent”. Green followed with remarks saying he believed that if a rape victim could not remember the details of their rape, they were not really raped. Although this caused uproar on the internet, and Green made a forced public apology within 24 hours, there remains a large amount of people who champion his point of view. Sonali remarks that they have encountered people on campus with this perspective while out as the Consent Pussies. “[Sometimes] we’re engaging with folks who are like, “I don’t think consent is important”, or “I don’t need consent to have sex”. I think that a lot of that is just people trying to push our buttons, but there’s also something kind of fucked up in our culture if it’s okay for people to sort of preach non-consent.” Chwalek adds, “I think that [responses like that] make the work we’re doing that much more important, and just shows that the work we do needs to be done.”
This problem has been prominent in recent campus surveys – according to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), 60 per cent of Canadian college-aged males indicated that they would commit sexual assault if they were certain that they wouldn’t get caught, and 20 per cent of male students believed forced sex was acceptable if someone spent money on a date, if the person’s date was stoned or drunk, or if individuals had been dating for a long time.
These statistics also bring to light some issues that have been causing some difficulties for the two students, as well as any other groups campaigning against sexual assault and harassment. One issue is the availability of recent, Canadian figures - Canadian universities do not report statistics on sexual assaults on campus, which leaves only American statistics to work with when developing educational material. Another large issue is the heteronormativity of the available material on sexual assault on campuses. There is little public information published about campus sexual assaults towards queer folk, although the CFS reports that in a recent survey, 49% of trans students; 43% of female and 42% of male bisexual students; 40% of gay male students; and 33% of lesbian students reported experiencing sexual harassment in school in the last year. Additionally, the small amount of available information concerning campus-related sexual assault has a tendency to be based on the idea of a heterosexual female cisgender victim and a male cisgender perpetrator. Although it is the situation most commonly spoken about in the media, the truth is that it represents only a fraction of all assaults that occur on campuses. One in 10 men enrolled in university are victims of reported sexual assaults every year, although due to under-reporting, the actual number of male assault victims is probably much higher than the recorded figures. “We’ve engaged with some folks who feel that in talking about consent we’re attacking them. That we’re perpetuating an idea that “all men are rapists””, Menezes states, “But that’s entirely not what we’re about, we talk to everyone and we’re not pointing fingers at people. We’re just working on getting everyone united together to instead of perpetuate a rape culture, perpetuate a culture of consent.” She adds, “We’re always welcoming new members. You don’t have to identify with any gender to join; we’re just talking about sexual consent in any way, shape or form. It’s not heteronormative.”
And there is still work to be done even for those who actively practice consent. “Lots of times we hand out these buttons and talk to people and they’re like, ‘Oh no I totally practice consent.’ And that’s great, but when you’re at parties watch out for other people. It’s all about having each other’s backs. When you see someone else in a bad situation and don’t say anything, that’s bad as well”, Sonia declares. Sonali continues the thought, observing, “We always talk about being an ally like, a queer ally, or for racialized people. But I think there’s also being an ally for people who are in situations where they could be sexually assaulted, and not just being a bystander.”
The Consent Pussies have been incredibly well-received on and off campus, and are continuing to grow in numbers. “We’ve had a really positive reception on campus that we’ve been really excited about. People actually stop us for pictures on campus, saying they’re totally loving this and they want to join”, Sonia says. As grim as the facts are concerning this time of the year, it is reassuring to know there are so many positive initiatives and resources to help combat sexual assault on and off campus, and promote a culture of consent at the University of Guelph.