The topic of consent, both inside and outside of intimate relationships, has been making headlines in recent years, but mostly because it’s become apparent to authorities that there is a shocking lack of understanding of what consent really means. The unfortunate reality is that the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit has been receiving between 500-600 sexual assault complaints each year, and roughly 25% of those complaints involve youth. Sexual assault investigations center around the issue of consent. While in many of these cases, it is clear that consent was not provided or could not be provided, other cases are not as clear. This lack of understanding about consent is creating avoidable traumatic experiences that can be long lasting and far reaching.
Looking across the country, according to Statistics Canada, 4.7 million women and girls over the age of 15 have experienced sexual assault outside of an intimate relationship; and 42% of Canadians know a woman who has been sexually assaulted.
In response to these statistics, and as a result of her own experience in the VPD’s Sex Crimes Unit, VPD Sergeant Cara Adams has set out to make a real difference in the narrative and understanding around consent, particularly among young people. With funding from the Vancouver Police Foundation, Sgt Adams launched the ‘Consent Matters’ initiative, a digital marketing campaign that targets young people, both males and females, with informational and engaging videos to define consent and provide real-life examples of when consent is both provided and not provided.
“The goal of the campaign is to reduce sexual assaults by way of educating people who have questions about consent,” explains Sgt Adams. “The majority of sex assault files really are based on problems with consent. Any form of sexual contact without consent is sexual assault.”
In 2021, there was a specific victim interview that had a profound effect on Sgt Adams. It involved a number of teens who experienced a traumatic sexual experience.
“It became very clear to me that many youth truly do not understand consent and how this understanding translates in intimate relationships. They were asking things like ‘What is consent? How long does it last? If you’ve said yes once doesn’t that mean yes all the time? Do I have to ask permission again? Can I change my mind part way? Do they have to stop? Do I have to let them keep going?’”
One of the challenges that Sgt Adams identified is that there’s no real broad-based sex education for these difficult questions, and that young people typically don’t go to adults to get answers. Instead, they tend to seek answers from their peers who often are also pretty confused about it as well.
“Habits built in youth are the habits taken into adulthood. Failing to understand consent can create a perpetual cycle of offending and victimization,” adds Sgt Adams.
The Consent Matters campaign delivers immediate, repeated short burst messaging intended to spark discussion, raise awareness, and challenge misconceptions about consent. The entirety of the campaign is delivered online via Tik Tok, Snapchat and Instagram to a large, targeted audience ranging age from 8 – 30 years old. The recent 2023 results have been incredibly positive, with more than 3.4 million impressions and 25,000 ad clicks.
This important social media campaign runs in conjunction with another VPF-funded program that also focuses on the issue of consent: You Matter is an in-person workshop series led by dedicated VPD officers that emphasizes the definition and specific examples of consent. These workshops are offered year-round to community groups, sports associations, schools, at no charge. There is also a module currently in development that will soon be offered to parents, as they also play a key role in educating their kids about consent.
While it may take time before Sgt Adams will see the results of these exceptional efforts, she has no doubt that Consent Matters has opened up an important dialogue between young people that was long overdue. She is hopeful this wide-spread education will help reduce sexual assaults going forward.
“I am confident that by providing this valuable information and clarity in an easy to digest form on social media that it can leave a lasting impression necessary to cultivate long term change.”
For more information about consent and sexual assault, please visit the VPD’s Consent Matters website for full details, definitions, resources, support agencies, and contact information to seek additional help and/or make a report.
Some things to remember about sexual consent, as described on the VPD’s website:
- Not everyone understands consent and some people are uncomfortable setting boundaries, which can sometimes lead to misunderstanding. If you’re unsure if someone wants to have sex, ask them. If they don’t say yes, it’s no.
- A person cannot give consent if they are intoxicated by alcohol or drugs.
- No consent is ever given in situations where a person is unconscious, or unable to understand what is happening, even if they said yes before they were unconscious or in previous encounters.
- If someone says yes, they still have the right to change their mind at any time.
- When someone asks you to stop, listen. Not stopping is sexual assault.
- Do not pressure anyone into doing anything they don’t want to do or are uncomfortable with.
- Yes means yes. No means no.
The Vancouver Police Foundation supports programs and initiatives that fall under one of four pillars: Youth Programs, Mental Health & Addictions, Community Outreach & Engagement, and Technology & Special Equipment. You can help build a safer Vancouver by donating to the Vancouver Police Foundation.