Epidemic of Sexual Violence on Canadian Campuses

Author: Filzah Nasir

Over the last week, two incidents have spurred the University of Ottawa to make headlines across the country.

A leaked Facebook conversation showed several prominent student leaders at the University having an explicit discussion in which they threatened to sexually assault and rape Anne-Marie Roy, President of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO).

A few days later, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended after an allegation of sexual assault was revealed to school administration three weeks after the incident. The team’s coach, who had been aware of the allegation, has also been suspended with pay.

The incidents at the University of Ottawa can be added to a growing list of such incidents taking place in campuses across Canada. Earlier this semester, an engineering student group at McMaster University known as the “Redsuits” was suspended after the discovery of a songbook which contained explicit content promoting misogyny and violence against women. Last semester, a group of students at Saint Mary’s University were heard chanting songs that promoted rape. The same chant was heard on the other side of the country at the University of British Columbia.

These are just the incidents that made headlines in one school year. But they are not isolated incidents and to brush them off as such would be a huge mistake. These incidents contribute to the prevalence of rape and assault on campuses and reveal precisely how unsafe university campuses are for women.

In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that 4 out of 5 female students on university campuses face violence in dating relationships. Act Now to End Violence Against Women reported that only 6% of sexual assaults are reported to the police.

In case it wasn’t yet clear: sexual assault is an epidemic on Canadian campuses. The incidents at the University of Ottawa, McMaster, SMU, and UBC reveal exactly the attitude which has been created towards sexual assault on campuses. Namely, these incidents make it clear that sexual assault isn’t simply being condoned on campuses, it’s being actively promoted.

Consider this: the University of Alberta reported that 80% of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. This statistic forces us to change the way we think about sexual assault. These crimes are not committed by hooded strangers hiding in bushes, the perpetrators are friends of the victims and very often they are our fellow students. We cannot begin to challenge assault on campuses without acknowledging this uncomfortable truth: perpetrators of sexual assault are a part of our campus communities.

Given this undeniable reality, the incidents at the University of Ottawa and the chants in the McMaster songbook as well as those sung at UBC and SMU can be seen in a different light. These incidents all promote and normalize sexual assault. They send a dangerous message to the perpetrators that exist amongst us: that sexual assault is normal, that their friends agree with them, that the general population believes the acts described in the conversations and songs are okay and that sexual assault is a common practice among people.

While the students involved in these incidents may represent a tiny portion of the student population, we have to consider the role that the rest of the community played in creating an environment that normalized the book’s existence. We also have to consider the real danger that the book and its contents pose to student safety on campus. Given the low rates of sexual assaults that are reported, the even lower rates of convictions and the high amount of victim-blaming that occurs when someone steps forward, there is no question as to why perpetrators feel safe that they will not get caught. But we cannot change the statistics around sexual assault without changing the way we think and report on the issue.

Victim-blaming — a common practice in which police, media and the general community attempt to claim the actions of the victim were what caused an assault to occur. Most of these tend to focus on how potential victims should change their behaviour in order to lower “their risk” of being assaulted. But if we remember that over 80% of sexual assaults are committed by people that the victims know (and indeed consider as friends or romantic partners) it’s clear that these tactics are completely ineffective. After all, if one does not go out alone but with a trusted friend, how would they know that the friend is perhaps a predator? Furthermore, these suggested tactics also place the burden of preventing assault on the victim – not on the community as a whole. This contributes to the low rate of assaults that are reported. In many cases, survivors walk away feeling they are somehow responsible and could have prevented the act.

In order to lower sexual assault rates on campus we need to take preventative measures that challenge the root cause of assaults. This will happen through educating ourselves on how common assault is, how it happens, and the role that bystanders can play, either in allowing it to occur or in preventing it. It also needs to be accompanied with an intensive program educating students about what consent is and what consensual sexual activity looks like.

But until these incidents are actually addressed as symptoms of a culture that normalizes and promotes sexual violence, university campuses will continue to remain an unsafe space for one-half of the population.