You asked us some important questions relating to sexual health, relationships, sexual assault, and communication, and we found the sexual literacy experts to answer them. What’s sexual literacy, you may ask? It’s the ability to communicate, gather information, and make decisions about your sexual health and well-being, and it’s a fundamental step toward empowering yourself and your community. Scroll down to the questions below to find out what our experts have to say.
Ramsey Champagne, MA
Ramsey is the community advocate at a New England university’s sexual assault prevention and response office and a former educator, administrator of nonprofits, and yoga teacher. In the past, she worked at Casa Myrna, Boston’s largest domestic violence shelter and support organization, where she provided counselling to people impacted by interpersonal violence, sexual assault, and sex trafficking. As a community advocate, she has the opportunity to sit with people as they unpack their belief systems in service of reducing the likelihood of causing identity-based harm.
Amanda Ayers, MPH
Amanda is the health educator at a New England University in the health promotion office. She received her Master of Public Health degree from Boston University in 2013. She has been working in higher education for over six years and has a passion for working with emerging adults around sexual health education. Amanda is a certified Koru Mindfulness teacher and enjoys spreading skills and knowledge of mindfulness and meditation across her university campus.
Ariana is a fourth-year college student studying the History of Science and Women and Gender Studies. She loves learning about sexual health and thinking about the intersections between sexuality education and sexual assault prevention. Originally from Juneau, Alaska, she also loves hiking and other outdoor activities.
“Have campuses become safer for students regarding sexual assault over the past decade, and how can safety be improved?”
—Third-year undergraduate, Portland State University
This is a really important and nuanced question. It’s hard to answer whether or not campuses have become safer over the past decade because we have a limited data set and sexual assaults tend to be significantly underreported (this Atlantic article explains why in more detail).
The Association of American Universities (AAU) started tracking incidences of sexual violence in the US in 2015. This is a more thorough survey than those that were used in the past, but we only have very recent data from it. Because the language used in these surveys has shifted pretty significantly in the past eight years, it’s difficult to make comparisons over time. Additionally, as RC said, it’s hard for campuses to recognize the full scope of what’s happening because sexual violence is underreported, especially among populations at the margins (e.g., LGBTQ+, ethnic or racial minorities, etc.).
Here’s what recent studies have told us:
- There are 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada each year (SACHA Sexual Assault Centre)
- Police reported 117,238 sexual assaults in Canada where sexual assault was the most serious violation in the incident (Statistics Canada)
- More than 700 sexual assaults were reported in Canadian universities and colleges between 2009 and 2013 (2015 CBC News Investigation)
- Nearly 11 percent of Canadian student respondents reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact, and nearly 4 percent said they experienced attempted penetration without their consent (ACHA, Canadian Reference Group, 2016)
Change will happen when people—students, faculty, and administrators—come together and actively work to make our campuses safer and more supportive to survivors. This takes effort and sometimes requires reframing the way we think about our communities and their cultures, but it is possible. We can start by becoming aware of and acknowledging the reality of sexual assault on campuses, talking about it more openly, and strategically advocating.
“When I think about the most effective way to reduce incidents of sexual assault on campuses, so much of it is about communication.” —AG
Having conversations with your peers about the structures and mentalities that allow sexual assault to exist is a great starting place. Build a stronger community by reminding each other about the importance of communicating during hook-ups and continuing to hold yourselves accountable.
I love thinking about the variety of ways we can contribute to creating a community that’s more accessible for all people. It helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which shows how individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres through which they move (including their relationships with themselves and with others, communities, and society) and how, in turn, they impact the well-being of those spheres. It can be hard to know how our behaviour may have affected someone. Because of this, I find it helpful to consistently practise checking in with those around me.
Good communication can build shared understanding and more respectful relationships, making it less likely that we’ll experience harm
The more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with, the easier it becomes. Eventually, it starts feeling less forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you a better sense of how your actions and words impact those around you. This can be as easy as using language like: “I want to make sure we’re on the same page…” or “How do you feel about…” It’s also important to be intentional about the language we use when interacting with our peers.
A key piece of relationship building is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant it to or not.
If you found out that you hurt someone, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then you can try to understand their experience and take ownership. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and incorporate their feedback. Bringing this back to sexual assault, it means acknowledging when or if you’re in a position that allows you to exercise power over another person, and thinking about the ways this can affect the dynamic or the other person’s sense of comfort. Our hope is that people strive to consistently negotiate consent without expecting or demanding a particular response.
Accountability, your influence, and group expectations
Some other ways to help change campus culture include:
- Participating in conversations where you have social influence and access
- Modelling positive behaviour for others (e.g., leading by example)
- Using your influence to help facilitate more equitable and comfortable environments for everyone
For example, if you’re a leader in a social group or organization, you may be able to help set group expectations about what behaviours are acceptable and unacceptable. This may look different for each group, but some examples include a zero-tolerance policy for rape jokes or for language that demeans others.
When thinking about the relationships and communities we’re involved in, reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms. For example, in your social spheres, think about the following:
- How do people hold each other accountable when someone does something that doesn’t align with group values?
- How supportive are others in the group when that happens?
- What are the group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable?
By starting with the little things we talked about earlier—like checking in and taking ownership—it becomes easier to have these conversations. Often, a clear discussion is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.
This process can sound daunting, but by practising clear and mutual communication, we each become more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn. All of this goes a surprisingly long way.
“What are key components of learning to discuss sex and sexuality with your partner in a way that’s healthy and nonjudgmental?”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Royal University, Alberta
It’s important for us all to learn a way in which we can discuss these topics with our partner(s) without bringing judgment into the conversation. I want to begin by saying that each person comes to a relationship with their own preferences regarding sex, sexuality, and pleasure, and it’s important to keep this in mind when entering a conversation with a current or potential partner.
It can make us feel vulnerable to start discussing these things. Trying to set up an honest and open space, whenever these conversations occur, is essential. Just acknowledging how awkward or uncomfortable talking about these topics can feel can also take some of the pressure off.
One way to begin the conversation is to use the language “checking in” rather than “we need to talk.” Doing so may help ease into the discussion without making it feel too heavy.
Determining wants, needs, and non-negotiables
Before starting these conversations with a partner, it’s good to take some time to reflect about what exactly your own wants, needs, and non-negotiables are—in any kind of relationship. These will differ for each person, but I once heard them described using a cake analogy: Wants are the icing that makes the cake tasty; needs are things like sugar, flavouring, etc. that make the cake a cake rather than some other form of baked good; non-negotiables are the essential ingredients that allow the cake to exist at all, such as eggs, flour, and milk. We all have our own preferences, and it’s important to be aware of them in yourself so you can then articulate them to your partner(s).
If you and a partner have already engaged in a sexual encounter, or if you’re in the middle of one, it’s also important to find ways to ask for feedback. How you and a partner do this will look different depending on your relationship and the situation. Some language that I have heard is helpful includes: “How does this feel? Do you like it when I…? I noticed you just moved—were you not into what I just did?” Doing so will better facilitate communication and help you understand some of your partner’s wants, needs, and non-negotiables. A key part of asking for feedback is then learning how to best incorporate that into the relationship. This way, we’re closing the feedback loop and showing our partner that we listened and that their needs, wants, and non-negotiables are important to us.
For example, if your partner mentions they want to try something new sexually, it’s nice to begin by just validating their vulnerability in asking for it. This can be as simple as saying something like, “Thanks for letting me know what you want to try. I know that can be hard.” Then you can check in with yourself to see if it’s something you’d also be excited about trying. If it is, then you both can explore how to work it in next time. The more you can try to normalize communication and feedback during sexual encounters, the less awkward it will feel. This doesn’t have to be forced; it can be a fun and continual process of learning from each other.
To understand your own wants, needs, and non-negotiables, it’s helpful to know what certain words mean, including but not limited to transgender, polyamorous, bisexual, gender non-binary, monogamous, hookup, etc. Understanding these words and what they mean to you and a partner can help reduce confusion regarding what you each want and need from the relationship.
“What are the top pieces of advice you can give to a young adult who is currently sexually active but not in a monogamous relationship?”
—Third-year graduate student, Uniformed Services University, Maryland
As we mentioned above, the most important thing is to understand your own boundaries, wants, needs, and non-negotiables in sexual encounters. This will help you have the most healthy and pleasurable sexual experience possible.
Discussing these things with a casual partner may not always seem like the easiest thing to do, but it’ll ultimately ensure that you’re having the types of sex that you want to be having and that you’re on the same page and approaching the situation with the same expectations. Honesty from the beginning (especially with casual sex) can help mitigate hurt feelings or jealousy in the future.
Another piece of advice to people engaging with different sexual partners is sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention. Communication is important with any type of partner and that applies to discussing STIs. If you’re engaging with new partners regularly, it’s best to use safer sex practices and get tested for STIs every six months and/or with every new partner. To get tested, go to your student health centre, a local health clinic, or your health care provider. You can also find STI testing recommendations on HealthLinkBC.
Barrier methods such as external and internal condoms can decrease the risk of STIs. Also, if you’re having the type of sex where someone can get pregnant, it’s worth thinking about what type of contraception works best for you and your partner(s).
If you’re interested in learning about different barrier methods and contraceptive options, check out Bedsider. Also, look at the health services website for your college or university to find out if it offers barrier methods or contraception consultations. Knowing where you can go for information regarding safer sex on your own campus will be key to having and sustaining healthy sexual experiences.
Also, a lot of campuses have specific offices or student organizations that are more knowledgeable about particular groups of people. For example, an LGBTQ+ office or a group like the Queer Students & Allies may have more info about queer sex than the health services website would.
American College Health Association. (2016). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary. Retrieved from http://www.acha-ncha.org/docs/NCHA-II%20SPRING%202016%20CANADIAN%20REFERENCE%20GROUP%20EXECUTIVE
Association of American Universities. (2015, September 3). AAU Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct (2015). Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/key-issues/aau-climate-survey-sexual-assault-and-sexual-misconduct-2015
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