Consent Action Week, which takes place in the last week of January, allows University of Guelph community members to discuss consent and increase understanding of sexual violence.
For Melissa Conte, newly appointed as sexual violence support and education coordinator, it’s a dialogue she has been engaged in for close to two decades and one she remains committed to.
“Sexual violence and consent are part of an ongoing dialogue — and one we need to be having as much as possible,” she said. “It’s an uncomfortable conversation but it’s an important conversation.”
Conte, who is completing her PhD in sociology, has worked in sexual violence prevention since she was 16 years old.
“It is my life’s passion,” she said. “For me, the work is so important and it’s also ongoing. I always say the dream is to live in a world where sexual violence is non-existent.”
That day will come, she said, when everyone understands what consent, healthy relationships, safety looks like in different contexts. She hopes consent as a norm will one day be a reality, not just on post-secondary campuses, but in larger society.
‘Extensive knowledge… in the area of sexual violence’
Jan Klotz, associate director of Student Wellness Services, said narratives about sexual violence have been changing over the past decade. Conte agreed, adding, “We are not just talking about violence and trauma anymore. We are talking about consent, survivorship, healing and embracing the idea that what we assume healing looks like, isn’t the same for everyone.”
This week, U of G will be among several universities hosting a webinar with acclaimed feminist author Roxane Gay to explore survivorship, letting go of guilt and blame, and celebrating healing and self-love.
Conte works with sexual violence survivors and those impacted by sexual violence to coordinate supports, resources and accommodations following experiences of sexual violence, all ensuring survivors’ safety.
“Melissa has extensive knowledge and background in the area of sexual violence that, combined with her passion, will aid in supporting survivors and creating meaningful educational experiences for students on campus that will help in shifting the culture,” said Alison Burnett, director of Student Wellness Services.
Conte said U of G has historically had a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual violence, including proactive education and training for faculty, staff and students.
“The yearly programming focuses on sexual violence education and prevention for all campus members, and some of the work is put together by a peer-support team – SAFE – that does on-the-ground sexual violence education,” she said.
A first point of contact for survivors
The University offers survivor-centric supports and coordinated care for students through the Student Wellness Office. Conte stressed that a survivor is not required to disclose their experiences to access timely and coordinated responses.
“We have strong relationships with community members such as Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis, Victim Services, and the Guelph-Wellington Care and Treatment Centre for Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” she said. “U of G also has a stand-alone sexual violence policy for students.”
Conte will be the first point of contact for survivors, providing crisis intervention, emotional and practical support, referrals, and assistance in navigating services and judicial processes. She will also provide resources, referrals and confidential support to U of G community members working with individuals impacted by sexual violence, and will develop, deliver and evaluate sexual violence education and prevention training across campus.
“This is not a new position for Student Wellness, but it does work with several departments on campus and with community partners,” Burnett added. “It is an integral position for supporting survivors as well as providing leadership in relation to sexual-based violence on campus.”
Before joining U of G, Conte worked at Carleton University on anti-violence and social justice initiatives.
“I am really looking forward to building relationships with students, faculty and staff on campus, and working collaboratively with the Guelph community to address any gaps and build new opportunities for sexual violence prevention, education and policies.”
She said issues of sexual violence should be addressed in a timely matter focused on the survivor’s needs and healing. Coordinated responses are important because they ensure that the survivor does not have to tell and re-tell their story.
“Coordinated efforts also allow for survivor-centric circles of care,” Conte added. “I am here to support people impacted by sexual violence in ways that are safe and comfortable for them.”
Support, resources and training related to sexual violence can be found on the Student Wellness webpage.
Anyone can refer themselves or a friend to the Sexual Violence Support and Education Coordinator by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org