Students are Building a Consent Culture, one Conversation at a Time

How Ontario Schools can Draw-the-Line to End Sexual Violence

Last year in Arianna Lambert’s grade 4/5 classroom, it started with a conversation about hugs. “We talked about why you should ask someone ahead of time,” she recounts. “It got them to think about how we actually impact the way people feel around us by going too close.”

Age-appropriate conversations like this one are taking place in many Ontario classrooms. They represent important stepping stones for building a culture of consent. Or, in other words, a culture where it’s recognized that a person is always the best judge of their own wants and needs—whether we’re talking about a hug, sexual activity, or anything else—and asking for consent is normalized and promoted.

White Ribbon–the world’s largest movement of men and boys working to end violence against women and girls—understands that bringing discussions about consent and healthy relationships into classrooms is key to stamping out the attitudes and behaviours that fuel sexual violence. What’s more, it’s not enough to create a culture where, as individuals, we don’t commit or condone sexual violence. To solve this pervasive problem, we all need to learn to be active bystanders: safely and effectively intervening when we see sexual violence taking place. That’s where Drawing the Line on Sexual Violence—A Guide for Ontario Educators can help.

Schools are in a unique position to help end sexual violence.
One in three Canadian women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime—with young women being especially at risk. Female youth aged 12 to 17 are eight times more likely than male youth to be victims of sexual assault or another type of sexual offence. Meanwhile, Indigenous girls, LGBTQ youth and women and girls with disabilities run even higher risks of being sexually assaulted.
With unparalleled access to young people from all walks of life, teachers have a key role to play in helping students learn how to recognize and respond to sexual violence. That said, as a subject, sexual violence and consent can be intimidating to broach.

“When I first heard about the topic, I was a little bit apprehensive,” says Sean Lambert, a teacher with the Toronto District School Board and a contributing writer of the guide. “But once I got together with the team and knew the support we would have from White Ribbon, I understood it was good work.”

Draw-the-Line brings discussions about sexual violence out into the open.
Draw-the-Line is a bystander education campaign created by the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes, who later partnered with White Ribbon. The campaign provokes discussions about sexual violence in our communities and provides strategies bystanders can use to intervene safely and effectively.

In 2016, White Ribbon saw the need for school-based resources on the same topic and, working alongside Ontario educators, developed tools to help teachers foster the next generation’s ability to navigate healthy relationships, understand consent and prevent sexual violence. Since then, more than 5000 copies of the guide (which is available in both French and English) have been distributed.

The resource helps students prepare for real-life situations.
The Draw-the-Line educator guides are structured around a set of cards/posters that present students with age-appropriate, real-life scenarios related to sexual violence. For example:

Your classmate says they’ve noticed someone standing in the schoolyard watching kids at recess. Do you tell someone? (Elementary)

Your peer mentor sends you nudes of a girl you know. Do you share them? (Secondary)

Students discuss how they might react to the situation as teachers walk them through lesson plans that draw on expectations from the Ontario curriculum. “It becomes much more personal than a resource that might say ‘here are three tips…’” says Arianna.

According to Grace Guillaume, a first-year student at the University of Guelph who has volunteered with White Ribbon, it’s also a great way to practise for the unexpected. “When you encounter a situation in which you want to intervene, it often catches you off guard,” she explains. “You second guess yourself. But when you have these different examples of possible scenarios, you think of what you would do and should do. Then, when you encounter a real situation, there’s less processing. You can identify it more easily, and even though there’s not one exact right way to approach it, you already have an idea of what you can do.”

“I like the fact that there are also stories and links to videos about topics like cyberbullying,” adds Arianna. “It helps students understand those situations in ways that are relevant to their own lives.”

The resource can support more than just classroom discussions.

Some schools and students have used the campaign in creative ways. “Last year we created a show called My Being,” says Emily Guitar, a grade 12 student at the Etobicoke School of the Arts. “It’s an interdisciplinary show where we talk about rape culture, especially related to youth. We had 50 performers and 20 visual artists involved.”

The student-led group framed their show around the Draw-the-Line resources. They put on two performances for a total of 400 audience members, and students are planning a similar show for this year. “Last year we talked about the overall community aspect. This year, we plan to talk about how we can work to diminish sexual violence without justifying the actions of the perpetrators,” explains Emily.
Arianna can also see potential in taking the messages of the Draw-the-Line resource outside the classroom. “I think that (school-based) clubs could be a really effective way to do this,” she says. “It could allow for a broader conversation in a school that doesn’t necessarily have teacher buy-in.”

Male allies are key.
The resource guides also contain a section on engaging male bystanders—something that’s central to White Ribbon’s vision for ending sexual violence. Until recently, education initiatives have largely focused on how women can protect themselves, rather than on how men can be part of the solution.

“Throughout history people have made sexual violence a women’s issue,” says Grace. “It creates an environment where men aren’t reviewing their actions or their reactions to sexual violence.”

“I think it makes a huge difference when men and boys get involved,” comments Emily. She explains that when they do, it no longer feels like just a woman’s issue, but an issue that concerns all of us.

And when all genders become part of the solution, we all benefit. Safer communities and healthier relationships are just the start. When men and boys become allies to end sexual violence, they can also gain a healthier, non-violent sense of self—something which can lead to an increased ability to identify and express emotions, a decrease in risk-taking behaviours and even improved mental health.

How can you start a conversation at your school?

“Prior to writing the resource, I didn’t feel I had the expertise. I wouldn’t have known where to start,” Sean admits. “Teachers need good resources and a lot of good information.”

Although the current iteration of White Ribbon’s Draw-the-Line campaign in Elementary and Secondary Schools is coming to a close, the Drawing the Line on Sexual Violence guides are available for free download from the White Ribbon website. Furthermore, e-modules to support educators in the use of the guides are coming this month. White Ribbon continues to offer workshops for educators and students.

It’s also important to remember that, with the right support, any educator can tackle the material. “My mistake was thinking, I don’t teach health,” says Arianna. “All teachers could use these activities. They don’t necessarily have to happen in health class.”

Most importantly, keep in mind that by reaching out for information and support you can increase your comfort level with the subject. That, in turn, will help students to feel more at ease. “As a teacher my job is to make sure everyone is comfortable having these discussions,” says Sean. “If I can do that, it becomes less taboo.”

And when a topic like sexual violence loses its taboo, empathy for victims increases, people begin to take more responsibility for their actions and reactions, and big changes can be set in motion. “Just being presented with opportunities to have discussions around this is going to change lives, save lives, and make a change in our society,” Sean concludes.


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