Sexual Violence on Campuses – What Can Be Done? Part 1

September 21, 2018 - 9 minutes read

The fall semester at U of M began with the bombshell announcement of multiple ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty. Meanwhile, the Student Counselling Centre is said to be receiving an average of five sexual assault-related cases from students per week. Unfortunately, the University of Manitoba is not alone, with similar circumstances found at university and college campuses across North America.

Leading into Healthy Sexuality Week from September 24-28, UMSU interviewed advocacy organizations Our Turn and Justice For Women for their thoughts on ways to address sexual assault and its underlying issues within the context of an educational institution.

Part one of the interview features Connor Spencer, Director of Mobilization of the National Our Turn Committee. Part two will feature Vatineh Magaji and Karan Saxena fromJustice for Women, and will run next week.

Could you highlight some of the dynamics that make sexual violence so pervasive across post-secondary campuses?

Our Turn: Academia and academic spaces historically have been places of exclusion, both built and upheld bywhite men. To this day campuses are still places where hierarchy is very visible, and power dynamics between students, graduate students, teaching assistants, and professors are all very real. Universities do not treat campuses as work places, and avoid putting the proper work safety policy, procedures and resources in place to protect students, tailored to the reality that students are actually quite vulnerable. This, on top of the rape culture – where prevailing social attitudes both normalize and trivialize sexual violence in the community – that exists across campuses leaves us with a lot of history of violence that needs to be addressed and unpacked on campuses before we can begin to change towards cultures of consent.

It’s important as well to note that sexual violence is inextricably linked to racial violence, colonial violence, and transphobia; we cannot begin to properly address sexual violence without also committing to address other forms of violence.

Please describe some of the best practices created in recent years to mitigate sexual violence on campuses, and how these can be implemented at the University of Manitoba.

Our Turn: I think there is a lot of work happening right now by students at the provincial level in Quebec that could work as a model in Manitoba as you folks push for changes in your own legislation. The Students’ Society of McGill University has done incredible work drafting a Gendered and Sexualized Violence Policy internal to their own student union which is the first of its kind – something we hope other student unions will look at as well. Elsewhere, the Dalhousie Student Union pushed for reforms to their university sexual violence policy and they went from a 54% on the Our Turn scorecard to a 92% – currently the best in Canada. That being said, I think the student survivors on your campus are already the ones who know what needs to be done. Consulting them, and making more spaces for their voices to not only be heard, but for them to be leading anti-sexual violence work on your campus is the most effective best practice.

Multiple studies have shown that compared to other crimes, sexual violence maintains a stigma that inhibits self-reporting by survivors. A 2014 survey by Statistics Canada found that as little as 5% of sexual assaults are reported to police when the perpetrator is not a spouse. In your opinion, what are some of the obstacles that discourage self-reporting by survivors, and how can these be addressed?

Our Turn: One of the largest barriers that survivors face is fear that they will not be believed if they come forward. This is why it is incredibly important what language and practices are used in campus reporting measures. How this can be addressed? First, speak to the survivors on your campus about their experiences with reporting. Did they report – why or why not? What can be changed to make reporting better? Work with the survivors to make those changes. Second, start identifying and addressing the rape culture that exists on campus. That same culture is the one that blames survivors for their assault.

By addressing the larger culture on campus, you can make an impact on whether survivors will feel they can come forward in a safe manner that they can control. Finally, make concrete changes to your university policy. Even small amendments like the addition of immunity clauses, face-to-face protections, and rape shields – rules preventing cross-examination of a survivor’s past sexual behavior, which can lead to victim-blaming – will make a huge difference.

The development of social media and dating apps have had a profound impact on the way the current generation of young people socialize and cultivate relationships. Some voices argue this has fueled a type of hook-up culture that can obscure traditional notions of dating, thereby making young people more vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment. Would you agree or disagree – and why?

Our Turn: This is not a hard ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. This time brings challenges and new tools just like any other. I find social media and dating apps make us more vulnerable but also more protected at the same time. We have many more platforms available to us now to have conversations, to receive information, and to learn from each other and our experiences. But this has also opened up a new platform for violence to occur: when we speak of sexual violence on campuses we need to make sure we include sexual violence that happens online.

However, social media has also been, and continues to be a really important tool, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement. One aspect of the impact of social media I want to mention quickly that hasn’t been analyzed as much as the fueling of hook-up culture is the emergence of call-out culture, wherein oppressive behaviours and language are actively challenged. That is still relatively new and something we are still figuring out how to deal with in our communities.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to discuss or draw attention to as part of UMSU Healthy Sexuality Week?  

Our Turn: I’d recommend that folks who are interested in reading more on this subject check out Kai Cheng Thom on accountability and the justice system; writing by Tarana Burke, the creator of the #MeToo movement; an in-depth piece by Maclean’s on campus sexual violence in Canada; and a CBC investigative story on the complex nature of non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality in sexual violence cases.