Labelled as an epidemic, sexual violence is an issue that has been garnering increasing attention in the last few years, especially at post-secondary institutions. Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz sparked a movement in 2014 when she began carrying her mattress around campus as “an artistic expression of the personal trauma” and a means of protest against the university’s response to her sexual assault. Survivors and supporters have bravely been speaking out in higher numbers over the past few years, attracting more coverage in Canadian and international media.
However, some believe that this issue is not as significant as recent media coverage suggests. They dismiss the notion that this is a widespread problem, criticize policy reforms as harmful, and claim that campus rape culture is merely a “myth.” My engagement with this issue confirms my belief that these claims hold little truth. Campus rape culture is a very real, extremely harmful problem that demands our attention. Uniting due to a necessity for change, many students such as myself have been involved in ongoing activism and/or organizing to oppose rape culture and campaign for the implementation of effective sexual violence policies at post-secondary institutions.
As a member of the SFPIRG (Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group) Street Team at SFU, I have been involved in activism to support the work of the SFU Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPS Centre) Working Group, whose members are currently organizing and advocating in the hopes of making the creation of a SVPS Centre at SFU a reality. Though I was previously aware of the issue of sexual assault, this engagement–which included a town hall event hosted by the Street Team to discuss this issue at our school–has further opened my eyes to the true magnitude of this problem and the harsh realities that survivors face, especially when attempting to navigate the tough bureaucratic systems of university institutions. It is clear that Canadian universities are in dire need of policy changes and more comprehensive resources to better support survivors and ensure the safety and wellbeing of school communities.
The truth behind the numbers
If rape culture was a myth and estimates of sexual violence were highly inflated, as some claim, then the number of sexual assaults would be as low as university reporting statistics suggest. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the United States, “91 per cent of colleges reported zero incidents of rape in 2014,” and a CBC report shows that “sixteen Canadian post-secondary schools have received no reports of sexual assault for six years in row.” While this may seem positive, these numbers are actually worryingly low due to the fact that they are inconsistent with studies that indicate that one in five women are sexually assaulted during their time at university. UBC’s campus security statistics show that only thirteen assaults were reported in 2015; however, the manager of the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) at UBC, Ashley Bentley, shared with our town hall attendees the fact that the UBC SASC handled over two hundred cases that year. It is clear that reported sexual assaults are only a fraction of the true incidents of sexual violence that take place, both on and off campuses.
Report statistics can be confusing: “a low number or a zero could mean a lower rate of sexual assault at that institution, but it can also mean a school is not doing enough to encourage reporting.” Many post-secondary institutions do not have appropriate services that make it easy for survivors to report, for these reports to be tracked, or even clear directions for survivors seeking support. Combined with the heavy psychological weight and social stigma that rape culture places on survivors, a perceived lack of campus support discourages survivors from reporting. This is one of the many reasons why support centres are so integral to combating this issue of rape culture and sexual violence. University communities need accessible, low-barrier, safe spaces for survivors to turn to, like UBC’s SASC. Whether someone wants to learn about consent and healthy relationships, explore the possibility that they have experienced sexual violence, or get help with navigating the school’s bureaucracy to report sexual assault, UBC’s SASC is available to provide all of this and more for the daily range of one to nine individuals that come to the centre for support.
Challenging rape culture and breaking down barriers
I have encountered claims that universities do not need these support centres or policy reformation because this is not a social or cultural issue. Proponents of this claim instead argue that this is a purely criminal issue. This claim does not hold up under scrutiny. It is clear that rape culture’s social influence is responsible for dangerous attitudes and campus environments that contribute to the prevalence of sexual assault. The pedophilic, pro-rape chant during UBC’s frosh week in 2013 and similar “rape chants” at other Canadian universities reveal disturbing attitudes that contribute to this epidemic. And these attitudes are not something that the criminal justice system is suited to handle on its own. Those who assert that the issue of sexual assault should only be dealt with in court, on an individual basis, also often disregard the fact that the judicial system routinely fails to protect survivors. The recent case of Brock Turner illustrates this well.
Furthermore, many reporting procedures and policies, or lack thereof, are flawed. Survivors who belong to certain marginalized communities may feel uncomfortable interacting with law enforcement authorities due to a number of issues (such as racism), so resources should be available to ensure that they are better equipped to more comfortably navigate the criminal justice system and/or pursue other avenues of support. Graduate students who have been harassed or assaulted by professors they work under can also be at risk if they report, potentially facing significant academic problems if they choose to get the law involved, problems that universities fail to protect them from without clear policies in place.
That’s not to say that reporting sexual assault is a breeze for anyone: not only do survivors face social stigma, they’re also met with bureaucratic barriers. So many barriers, in fact, that York University student Mandi Gray is pursuing a human rights complaint due to her university inappropriately subjecting her to “intense bureaucracy” daily for six months following her report of rape. UBC has also been criticized for failing to respond to sexual assaults in a timely and appropriate manner: more than six women reported being sexual harassed or assaulted by a graduate student, but it took the university more than a year and a half to expel him.
These survivors’ stories are among countless others who suffer while attempting to navigate post-secondary bureaucracy. Gray says: “we report, and our reports are not taken seriously, or we don’t report and feel silenced,” and many others echo her criticisms. This current movement against sexual violence is powerful, because survivors are exposing the ways in which they have been silenced not just by social stigma, but by post-secondary institutions as well. The practice of school administrators inappropriately discouraging survivors from reporting is an insidious one. Survivors at Manitoba’s Brandon University have been required to sign a “behavioural contract” that similarly silenced them, a practice the university has only recently deemed inappropriate and agreed to discontinue after outrage and activism led by the campus group We Believe Survivors. It should come as no surprise that survivors on campus so rarely disclose, when many have been met with this treatment by their schools—institutions that should have an obligation to protect them. Fortunately, survivors and supporters have been demanding an end to this, and it seems that these calls for action are finally beginning to be taken seriously.
British Columbia has introduced the Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act, which will come into force in May 2017. This is significant, for it will make it mandatory for post-secondary institutions in B.C. to implement sexual assault and misconduct policies. However, there is still work to be done.
Though B.C.’s new Sexual Violence and Misconduct Policy Act is an important step in the right direction, it has the potential to fall short in certain ways. West Coast LEAF states that the act “defines misconduct too narrowly and sets a high standard for finding sexual misconduct where the distribution of intimate images or videos is concerned.” This organization is urging post-secondary institutions to implement stronger policies to ensure that survivors are effectively protected.
Furthermore, the introduction of stand-alone policies should not bring organizing and other forms of engagement to an end. We must scrutinize task forces and policy reforms to ensure that they are survivor-focused, accountable, well-enforced, and appropriately meeting the needs of our communities. At our town hall event, Professor Lara Campbell stressed that the process of policy creation and reformation should involve ongoing consultation with university groups. I also believe that this is an integral aspect of change: at a panel event late last year, I learned of the effective ways in which Vancouver Community College partnered with Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW) to include the campus community in organizing and reformation efforts.
It is encouraging to see local campus communities organizing and engaging in advocacy, awareness, and consent education campaigns and making the effort to consult with their student bodies in the process. As Malika Baratova, a member of SFU’s Women’s Centre Collective, noted at our event, organizing shows that the student body cares about each other and this issue. Students of Capilano University, one of the sixteen schools with zero reported sexual assaults for six years straight, are fortunately conscious of the fact that underreporting suggests underlying problems, and have taken steps to assess the needs of their community by hosting a Sexual Assault Awareness Week this past February. The pledge campaign to support survivors and the creation of a SAPSC at SFU is also notable, as is the #consentmattersSFU campaign. As Kaayla Ashlie of the SFU SAPSC Committee says, we need “ongoing educational campaigns to really shape the culture of SFU, and what is acceptable and not acceptable on this campus.”
Last month, WAVAW organized a Feminist Frosh Week, kicking off this school year with “a call to end rape culture.” A variety of events took place on campuses across the Lower Mainland. It is disheartening to hear of the barriers survivors face in post-secondary institutions, but uplifting and inspiring to see the change taking place. Together we can unite and organize to end this campus epidemic of rape culture. Ongoing preventive education and awareness campaigns, dialogue, and organizing, combined with activism efforts to effectively reform policies, are all key to combatting harmful untruths about sexual assault and making progress towards creating real change.
By Afifa Hashimi
Special thanks to town hall panellists Professor Lara Campbell, Kaayla Ashlie, Ashley Bentley, and Malika Baratova, as well as Marion Roberts for facilitating.
* All views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and don’t necessarily reflect the views of CYH.