Valentine’s Day reminder: Consent comes FIRST

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner and the Jian Ghomeshi trial wrapping up (after what seems to have been an absolutely disastrous time for the prosecution), I thought now was a good time for a friendly reminder:

In any sexual encounter, consent is mandatory, and crucially, CONSENT COMES FIRST. It is not something that is implied after.

This means that, say, if a famous Canadian TV/radio personality punches or slaps a woman in the face and then chokes her, without her express consent to this activity as part of their relationship, then it doesn’t matter if she went to a BBQ or a park with him later. It doesn’t matter if she sent him e-mails, or wrote him a love letter, or kissed him goodnight. If she did not give her consent to the violent act(s) he committed on her person PRIOR to the violence occurring, then the famous Canadian TV/radio personality who punched/slapped/choked her has committed assault.

o-sexual-assault-canada-570_0Because that’s how consent works. It’s about making sure that everyone involved in a physical interaction WANTS this contact to occur. Consent is not something you negotiate after the fact, and unfortunately, by focusing on what Ghomeshi’s accusers did and said AFTER he allegedly* assaulted them, the line of questioning pursued by his defense lawyer Marie Henein is setting (or rather, continuing) a horrible precedent and sending a dangerous message to would-be predators: it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Except you don’t actually need to ask for forgiveness either, if you (or your lawyer) can successfully discredit and invalidate the experiences of the other person.

Based on the way this trial has played out so far, in the Canadian legal system, it’s apparently fine to force violent and/or sexual acts on another person without their consent, so long as you can manipulate, coerce, convince, or at least CONFUSE them enough after the fact that their behaviour and communication with you (for example, in e-mails, which Ghomeshi was very careful to keep all these years) may imply that consent was given. Even if you don’t have any evidence that your accuser actually consented to being touched/hit/raped/choked BEFORE you did these things, their behaviour afterwards will provide enough “reasonable doubt” that you will probably get off scot-free, without you even having to take the stand yourself (your complainants, sadly, won’t be so lucky and they will be required to endure days of verbal harassment at the hands of your lawyer while their actions, reputations, and lives are picked apart by the court and the media).

So Ghomeshi’s complainants maintained contact with him after the alleged* assaults. Why is this surprising? Why does this invalidate their claims that he never received permission to touch them the way he did? Is it so outrageous to think that a woman would be so shocked about being hit in the face or choked by a well-loved, intelligent, and ostensibly feminist Canadian celebrity that she would try to convince herself it hadn’t happened, or try to smooth things over by doing whatever she could to “fix” the relationship? Is it any surprise that in a culture that constantly reinforces the idea that women are responsible for maintaining peace in relationships and responsible for the violent actions of others that the complainants may at first have wondered if THEY had caused the problem? In a culture where “negging” (insulting a woman in order to undermine her confidence and make her more likely to sleep with you) is a common tactic used by pick-up artists, are we really surprised that its natural extension (i.e. moving from insults to actual assaults) can produce the same result–a hurt woman who feels the need to redeem herself in the eye of her attacker?

Instead of asking ourselves why Ghomeshi’s complainants didn’t comport themselves like the “perfect victims” after the fact, what we should be asking is this: is it still possible to want to behave politely, even lovingly, to a person who has seriously wronged you?

If you have ever stayed with (or gone back to) a person who has physically, sexually, or emotionally abused you, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever hooked up with a guy after he “negged” you, you know the answer is yes. If you have continued to believe your lying child even though you have blatant proof of their dishonesty, you know the answer is yes. If you have ever given even MORE money to a scam artist contractor because you’ve given them so much already and they’ve promised they’ll actually finish the job this time, you know the answer is yes.

Does YOUR behaviour mean that the abuser wasn’t abusive, that the negger wasn’t insulting, that your child didn’t lie, or that the scam artist didn’t steal money from you? Of course not! So why can’t Lucy DeCoutere’s overtly friendly behaviour towards Ghomeshi AND the idea that he assaulted her co-exist?

Once we’ve stopped obsessing over questions about everything that happened afterwards, we can move on to the only question that should really matter: did Ghomeshi have his complainants’ permission to violently strike and/or choke them before he placed his hands on their bodies? If the answer is no, he is guilty of assault, whether he is convicted or not.


*I use the word “alleged” because at the time of writing, Jian Ghomeshi has not been convicted of assault (and it is likely he will not be). That said, personally, I believe the three women who have accused him in court and I believe the other women, both anonymous and named, who have spoken out about Ghomeshi’s violent behaviour in the media.


Why both childhood vaccines AND informed consent should be mandatory

is-your-child-vaccinated-vaccination-prevents-smallpox-chicago-department-of-healthVaccines save lives, and protect hundreds of millions of people from the suffering caused by debilitating, often deadly, and very preventable illnesses like polio, smallpox, and measles. Vaccinating your child is not only the right thing to do for THEIR health and safety, it also protects vulnerable members of society (very young infants, immune-compromised individuals, etc.) through herd immunity. You would not be allowed to play Russian Roulette with your child, nor hand them a loaded weapon and send them to school, so you likewise should not be allowed to be so cavalier when it comes to serious and deadly viruses.

In short, I believe that protecting children and society from preventable illness through the use childhood of vaccinations should be mandatory for Canadian families.

So why do I think signed informed consent for the vaccinations administered at schools should be mandatory as well?

When I first began to consider the idea of mandatory vaccinations for children I was surprised to find that while I did not believe in parents using the health and welfare of their child as a test of the strength of their ideology/religion/pseudo-science based health fears, I was very uncomfortable with the idea of schools or other public bodies vaccinating children without at least having parents sign something saying they understand what’s going to be happening.

I know that underlying this discomfort is my ever-present and mostly unfounded general anxiety about “slippery slopes”–if power is taken from parents in this medical matter, will parents still be able to have a say in other medical issues that affect their child? We all know parents who have had a sick child, refused to accept the original diagnosis/proposed treatment given to them by a first doctor, agitated for a second opinion, and turned about to be right. In a medical system staffed by well-meaning but chronically overworked healthcare professionals, a parent’s right to fully understand (and, if necessary, question) their child’s diagnosis and proposed treatment may be the child’s best bet for a positive outcome. All this being said, as one of my friends pointed out over dinner the other night, there is a big difference between mandating safe, effective, and scientifically-backed childhood vaccinations, and just letting doctors run willy-nilly over the rights of child patients and their parents. “Slippery slope” fears are usually just that–fears.

My real reason for believing that parental consent should still be required prior to vaccinating a child is simply that kids are generally not in a very good position to advocate for themselves, or to inform health professionals about their medical history. Though I don’t agree with this BC family’s reasons for wanting to decline a diphtheria vaccine for their 14-year-old daughter, the fact that “mature minor consent” is considered enough to vaccinate a child in school is a bit troubling, simply because not all “mature minors” are aware of adverse vaccine reactions in their history (or at the very least, may require a special vaccine made using a different compound), and those who are aware of issues may not know how to declare them.

It’s not that I don’t trust 14-year-olds to be competent participants in their medical care per se, it’s that the conditions under which a 14-year-old may take the initiative to go to their doctor to privately discuss a health issue, and the rush-rush and very public conditions under which I remember being pulled from class in junior high for my tetanus booster are very different. If, as the young girl in the article claimed, the nurse did not even ask about any history of adverse reactions before administering the vaccine, how can any kind of informed consent be claimed? If the adults in control of the situation (i.e. the schools and nurses) do not take the time to ask the required questions about medical history/conditions and give young people a safe and confidential place to answer them, there are few 14-year-olds who would feel comfortable putting on the brakes and declaring concerns (and most of our laws surrounding appropriate conduct and use of positions of trust and authority when it comes to minors seem to recognize this).

But why does it matter? you may ask. Vaccines are perfectly safe and completely necessary. That is absolutely true. And yet, there are still a lot of parents (like the ones in the CBC article, and the anti-vaxxers I sometimes see protesting downtown, or misinformed celebrity parents like Jenny McCarthy or Kristen Cavallari) who, for whatever reason, are NOT comfortable with vaccinating their children. Though their beliefs and concerns are (in my and science’s opinion) crazy, even dangerous, the fact is that these parents and their views do exist. Pulling their 14-year-old out of class and vaccinating them without prior notification or taking adequate steps to ensure informed mature minor consent only serves to fuel the paranoia that vaccines are some kind of “conspiracy” by Big Pharma and the government to poison kids or control their minds or do god knows what else to them.

So what to do? How about sending a form home with students prior to vaccinations, explaining what viruses the vaccine is for, what the dangers of these viruses would be WITHOUT vaccination, listing the ingredients of the vaccine, and explaining that the levels of mercury, etc. contained in the compound are normal and safe? Then, the form can ask if there are any medical conditions medical staff need to know about or that may require the child to receive a vaccine with a different compound (for example, one that doesn’t use egg if the child has an allergy, etc.). If “mature minor” consent is to be used, the child can be given these forms instead and, now that they have been fully informed in a low-pressure situation, can sign for themselves.

We shouldn’t have to defend a safe medical tool that has saved billions of lives, but for some reason we do. And because we do, we may as well be proactive in our approach, making sure accurate information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines is in the hands of parents and kids before fear-mongering misinformation has a chance to spread.