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.
As part of 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 violence 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, and can be read here. Part two below features Vatineh Magaji and Karan Saxena from Justice for Women (JFW).
Could you highlight some of the dynamics that make sexual violence so pervasive across post-secondary campuses?
JFW: Crossing over into the world of higher education is a period of immense growth for a lot of students. It can mean first time independence, exposure to new experiences, newfound responsibilities, and unfamiliar stress. Some of these new experiences can be poorly navigated by students due to lack of exposure to appropriate educational materials, making them vulnerable to acts of sexual violence.
Sexual relationships of any kind are a major factor in many students’ lives – instead of avoiding the conversation or turning a blind eye to this aspect of our existence it’s necessary to shine a spotlight on the issue of sexual violence so that everyone is able to identify it, know their rights, and hopefully eradicate it.
Please describe some of the best practices created in recent years to mitigate sexual violence on campuses, and how can these be expanded upon and/or implemented at the University of Manitoba?
JFW: Similar size universities in Canada are taking steps to makes their campuses more equipped to deal with disclosures of acts of sexual violence and responses that support survivors. At McMaster University, there is a Sexual Violence Response Coordinator on staff to act as a starting point for people who are unsure of where to start after an act of violence has taken place. The University of Toronto has a Tri- Campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre that is dedicated to education and assistance to students, faculty, and staff. UBC has a similar Sexual Assault Support Centre, and we believe similar services ought to be present on the University of Manitoba.
Ongoing education through workshops to student groups is a step that UMSU and the university have jointly taken, but expansion of that effort to include more of the student body at-large, and faculty members, is a measure with great potential to have preventative effects. The introduction and continued efforts of groups on campus like Red Frogs and St, John’s Ambulance at different events also plays a hand in curbing instances of sexual violence of all types.
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?
Some of the stigmas and discouraging factors that survivors of sexual assault can face that prevent self-reporting are the fear that they will not be believed; concern about damaging their reputation and prospects for furthering their career or education; and the concern regarding the amount of time and effort that police reports take with no guarantee that the outcome will be helpful to the survivor. Some of these issues are institutional in nature so changing them to better support survivors would involve a change in the very structure of the processes themselves.
In the interim, improved access to support for survivors is one way to address the intersectional aspects of reporting sexual violence – for example, how members of minority groups are more often survivors but have less access to help. Through counselling services, guidance through the reporting process, and unraveling some of the rape myths that each individual may harbor, we can encourage survivors to report acts of violence and help them remain as comfortable as possible through the reporting process.
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 violence and harassment. Would you agree or disagree – and why?
Sexual harassment and assault occur when there is a lack of consent in a sexual act. In our opinion, the continuation of non-consensual sexual acts can be attributed to a lack of knowledge on what consent is, thereby lowering the chances that a perpetrator faces consequences. “Hooking-up” has existed before the introduction of dating apps and will probably exist after apps become obsolete, but the ideas of mutual respect and understanding of other people’ boundaries is a concept that stands the test of time. Blaming dating apps, while they are often used to perpetrate acts of sexual violence, takes away from the fact that some people still don’t understand consent, and perpetuate rape culture. Before we look at dating apps, we need to address the root causes of sexual violence.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to discuss or draw attention to as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Week?
Ultimately, we want to extend our support to survivors of sexual violence – we believe you. If people want to help drive forward a culture of consent on campus and in our world, the best way to go about doing that is by dismantling the rape myths that they may hold. This creates an environment that helps survivors feel comfortable coming forward and reduces the occurrence of how acts of sexual violence can be minimized or casually dismissed.
We also want to emphasize how important it is for everyone to believe survivors. The number of accusations that are deemed “false” in nature are so small that we should not be withholding things such as support and counseling for survivors on the basis of a mere possibility that allegations could be false. When we say believe survivors, we don’t mean shaming the respondents of an allegation. If an act of sexual violence is reported then it’s for the investigators to decide whether or not it’s true, not the general population. When we force survivors to convince us time and again by repeating what has happened to them, we create an environment that is detrimental to them and their wellbeing.