Pearl Nieuwenhuis, one of two Christian Reformed chaplains at the University of Calgary’s Faith and Spirituality Centre, participated recently in the annual Sex Week sponsored by the Students’ Union Wellness Centre and Women’s Resource Centre. Nieuwenhuis was part of a panel discussion called “Consent Through the Lens of Religion.”
“It’s a sexual and gender wellness week,” Nieuwenhuis explained. “Throughout the week there are all sorts of events and seminars and workshops. The whole campus is invited to participate in a variety of ways.”
Nieuwenhuis said that when the Faith and Spirituality Centre was asked to participate, a couple of younger interns suggested a panel on consent. They had put one on at their own church and thought, Why don’t we do this with an interfaith panel? “It was initially about sexual consent, but the way [the organizers] brought it to us was, Can we talk about consent and healthy relationships and how do we set up safe spaces in our community or in the places we do our vocation and honor the voice and perspective of the vulnerable in our communities?” she said.
The panel consisted of five people, including a woman from the Sikh community, a woman from the Muslim community, a priest from the Antiochian Orthodox faith, a Rabbi from the Jewish faith, and Nieuwenhuis representing the Protestant Christian faith.
“There were about 30 people who came, and each panelist was asked to talk a little about fostering healthy boundaries and communication and where we maybe have encountered issues around lack of consent,” Nieuwenhuis said.
Nieuwenhuis said that while the event did not offer a lot of time for questions and discussion, many deep and vulnerable conversations took place during the group’s short time together. The Muslim representative talked about the difficulties sometimes faced by women in her faith when trying to disclose incidents of violence or abuse to leaders in their community. Nieuwenhuis explored parts of her own faith journey as it related to being a woman who felt called to leadership positions in a church environment that tended to favor men for those roles. The Orthodox priest commented on the fact that God never forces himself on us—he is, in fact interested in a consensual relationship with us.
Caitlin Hamilton, a student who attended the event, was impacted by the shared perspectives of other faiths. “The perspectives of the women on the panel were very powerful to me,” she said. “I so rarely have heard women speak from a place of leadership in faith-based spaces. I was also touched by the vulnerability of the panelists in their experience of consent in life, of experiencing and feeling safe/unsafe in their lives and their faiths.”
“I know that a ‘sex week’ put on by a secular institution can maybe get the ire of people of faith up because there is the impression that the emphasis is on . . . encouraging people to have sex whenever they want,” Nieuwenhuis said. “But I feel so grateful for the topic, especially the topic of consent, because [the organizers] were saying, Please can we talk about this? Can we be open in our relationships about all the things that make us vulnerable and the things that we desire and the complications of it? It doesn’t mean it’s all going to be fixed, but at least can we be open and honest about it? And I think, oh my goodness, if that’s the ‘secular’ society saying that’s what we want, how good is that! I’m just really grateful that they’re open about it and willing to talk about it.”