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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2015

Breaking the silence

Confronting rape culture on Canadian campuses

[Justin Van Leeuwen/JVL photography Ottawa]
[Justin Van Leeuwen/JVL photography Ottawa]
Critics say that rape culture is growing on our campuses, as it is in the rest of society, and that if university authorities really want to stem the tide it’s high time they stop the avoidance behavior and speak openly about it.

“On campus, the first reaction that administrators often have is to wonder how they can manage the situation in a subtle way, without doing too much harm to the organization and without attracting media attention. That’s a mistake. Sexual violence is everywhere, not only on campus,” says Anne-Marie Roy, national deputy chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.

Roy knows what she’s talking about; last year she spent months in the eye of a storm. In February 2014, while president of the student union at the University of Ottawa, Roy publicly denounced a degrading conversation that five other students had about her on Facebook. At the time, her institution was mired in scandal after two members of the university’s hockey team were investigated for a sexual assault alleged to have taken place during a trip to Thunder Bay.

“Conversations like that, even if held in private, are inappropriate and unjustified,” Roy says. “Rape culture is omnipresent in our society, even if many people don’t actually know what it is. Rape culture is a series of actions or jokes that trivialize sexual violence. Accepting this behavior only serves to endorse it and make it spread.”

University of Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson agrees. She was part of a working group on respect and equality that the university’s administration set up in the wake of the scandal. Johnson shares the opinion that university leaders across the country should open their eyes and admit there’s a problem.

“Universities are part of society. Administrations need to recognize that sexual violence is a problem in society. But universities are afraid. They want to say that they don’t have that kind of violence on their campus. They don’t want to be known as Rape U. So they wait until it explodes,” says Johnson.

In her opinion, institutions such as the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University have shown real leadership by setting up working groups. “Sexual violence is a complex topic. Sexual violence can be student on student, professor on student, staff on staff. It is more complicated than a couple of bad boys. It is a broader problem and issue than that.”

The statistics are telling. According to several studies, one woman in four has been a victim of rape since leaving high school. That doesn’t mean they’ve all been raped while attending university, but it is true for a large number. On U.S. campuses, there’s even a term — “the Red Zone” — to designate the days between orientation and Thanksgiving break when young women are most at risk of being sexually assaulted.

“The last national survey on student rape on campus was conducted in 1993. Nobody has been able to get funding since to have a new one,” says Charlene Senn, a psychology professor at the University of Windsor who’s an expert on sexual violence on campus. She notes also a lack of hard statistics on attempted rape or sexual harassment.

In November 2014, less than 10 Canadian universities had a policy on sexual violence on campus. Not much has changed almost a year later with the majority remaining mute with only a small number of exceptions.

The University of Windsor has distinguished itself since 2010 by financing an initiative called Bringing in the Bystander that teaches students to recognize when trouble is brewing and how best to step in and try to stop it.

“When the program was put in place, the public relations department was worried. They were concerned that by talking about sexual violence, parents wouldn’t want to send their kids to our university. Every campus has this problem and being in the forefront on prevention makes us, if you ask me, one of the best places to go to university,” Senn says.

She recently published the results of a promising study in the New England Journal of Medicine, involving nearly 900 first-year students at three Canadian universities. Over the course of a year, half attended classes about preventing sexual assault, while the other half received only pamphlets to read at home.

The Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women was designed to teach young women how to recognize factors that could put them at risk of being sexually assaulted by someone they knew. A year later, the students who attended the classes showed significantly lower exposure to rape or attempted rape than the students who didn’t. The study is the first to quantify the effectiveness of prevention as a tool.

“It is about bringing social change on a broad scale. Most men are not violent. Most men do not prey on women. We all have a responsibility,” notes Johnson. “For men who are not violent, it might provide the occasion to get involved. Men are often surrounded by sexism. There is pressure around them to act a certain way and they might feel isolated.”

CAUT executive director David Robinson said it’s important that everyone in the university community join together to fight sexual violence on campus.

“It is the obligation of the employer to ensure the workplace is safe and free from harassment and violence. However, academic staff associations need to hold employers to account while ensuring that any sexual assault and harassment policies that are developed follow principles of natural justice and due process,” he said.

Over the past year, the relentless media scrutiny of cases of misogyny and sexism at Dalhousie University and the University of Ottawa has helped fuel the debate about rape culture in ways that many say marks real progress.

“It’s now being talked about openly,” says Roy. “When I started giving interviews, journalists put rape culture in quotation marks. Now it’s an accepted term. There’s still a lot of work to do, but at least universities are asking questions and cases are being reported.”

Reporting sexual harassment and assault is by no means easy, however. It takes a lot of courage. Roy herself was a victim of intimidation, just as other women who denounced rape culture on campus.

“Women still face formidable barriers. Many times, the first person they tell tends to minimize what happened even if it is said in a very nice way,” adds Johnson. “And if victims don’t feel believed, very often they will not press any further. That is rape culture. All those barriers still exist. The best data we have is from Statistics Canada. In Canada, less than 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported and it is surely far less for sexual harassment. Victims expect compassion, but get blamed instead.”

Senn agrees. “What is most challenging is that people presume I try to get women to report. It is not the case. Until the system changes further, I will not tell them to report. They have to decide for themselves and they have to anticipate that reporting will make things worse.

“It is a systemic problem. Even if they complain, the cases are easily dropped by the police or the Crown. And even if it goes to trial, women are often slandered beyond belief. Judges accept all kinds of improper questioning. Some defense counsels make it their work to push back on women’s advancements. There is not much incentive to report.”

At least for now there’s prevention, says Senn. “We can’t do prevention in an hour. It is enough to start a conversation. We need to help the victims, to offer options, accommodations and services to them. We need to adopt policies that can bring more justice to the victims.”