May is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in Canada. Sexual assault is something we are concerned about because some of the women we serve have experienced sexual assault from their partners.

Yes, sexual assault can occur in marriages and intimate relationships. In 2011 in Canada, 17 percent of sexual assaults against women were perpetrated by intimate partners (husbands, common-law partners, boyfriends).

Sexual assault is defined as sexual contact with another person without that person’s consent. Consent is when someone agrees, gives permission, or says “yes” to sexual activity with another person. Consent is always freely given, and all people in a sexual situation must feel that they can say “yes” or “no” and that they can stop the sexual activity at any point.

At the heart of consent is the idea that every person has a right to personal autonomy—the right to not be acted upon by someone else in a sexual manner unless they give that person clear permission. It is the responsibility of the person initiating the sexual activity to get this permission.

At Women’s Crisis Services, we raise awareness about consent because some traditional gender roles and some cultural values imply that marriage means consent. Some people believe that, because they are in a marriage or in a committed relationship, they don’t have to ask for or give consent. But even in a marriage or intimate relationship, sexual activity without consent is sexual assault.

We care deeply about consent for a few other reasons. One reason is that we are noticing that sexual assaults are taking place at younger ages. And another reason is that we are noticing that sexual assaults are getting more violent.

Part of our work involves raising awareness about what healthy intimate relationships look like, and part of this discussion includes consent. We speak in schools, community centres and other venues in Waterloo Region. And we help our women understand the difference between consent and sexual assault. Some of them have been sexually assaulted but have not known it. They simply feel humiliated, or ashamed, and feel that they can’t make decisions about their own bodies. We teach them they have the right to say no to any sexual activity initiated by their partner.

We also help the women in our care who have experienced sexual assault from their domestic partners to get the help they need. We have valued community partners in the community that we refer women to who have experienced sexual assault.

Canada has a broad definition of sexual assault. It includes all unwanted sexual activity, such as unwanted sexual grabbing, kissing, and fondling as well as rape. This is why raising awareness about consent is so vital to us. Consent is all about communication.