Everything old is new again

And that is not a good thing when the subject is attitudes about sexual violence.

In 1989, I was a 35-year-old second-year law student at Queen’s University. That fall, the Women’s Centre, working with the Sexual Assault Centre of Kingston, joined a national anti-rape campaign known as “No Means No.”

While, of course, the campaign had many supporters, it also attracted considerable opposition. In October, some male students in Gordon Hall residence hung bedsheet banners out of their windows, on which they had written such clever quips as “No Means Kick Her in the Teeth,” “No Means More Beer,” “No Means Tie Her Down” and “No Means Do It Harder.”

Women organized to demand that the bedsheets be removed and the instigators be held accountable. The university’s response was silence.

Boys will be boys

The story quickly became a national one. At Homecoming Weekend, traditionally a time of wild parties, excessive drinking, and offensive behaviour by some (mostly male) students and alumnae, the residents of Gordon Hall were brought gifts of beer by older alumnae who wanted to show their support.

The student newspaper carried running arguments between those who saw the signs as hateful, misogynist and pro-rape and those who thought the signs were just an example of boys being boys.

Some women, including me, formed an ad hoc group and undertook a number of clandestine actions designed to bring attention to the issue of sexual assault on campus. When, after a month, there had been virtually no official response by the university administration to the signs, on November 9th, about 50 of us occupied the Principal’s office, presenting him with a list of demands. I was proud to be part of that occupation with my teenage daughter.

A few improvements were made, and then attention shifted elsewhere when, on December 6, Mark Lepine gunned down 12 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

Ongoing tensions

In the intervening almost 30 years, some things have changed for the better at Queen’s, although the university, like many others, has continued to downplay the reality of sexual violence on its campus and to turn an overly forgiving eye towards the behaviours of, in particular, students in the engineering school.

There have been periodic flare-ups of tensions when particularly offensive events take place as was the case, for instance, in 2013, when the emergency lights/buttons on campus were intentionally misused by students in order to get a special bar for their Queen’s jacket, creating safety issues for those who needed to use the emergency call system.

All of which brings us to official Queen’s University move-in day on September 3rd of this year, when thousands of undergraduate students move into the university’s residences and nearby private rental houses and apartments, and those of us who live in Kingston know not to go anywhere near the campus because of the glut of parents’ cars dropping off their kids.

Can’t you take a joke?

At some point that day, a bedsheet sign appeared. Hanging outside a house in the student district of Kingston, it said “Daughter Drop Off,” a message that was repeated in spray paint on the driveway.

I was away when the bedsheet made its brief appearance – it was removed after complaints were made to both campus security and city police – but when I heard about upon my return to town, I felt absolutely exhausted and demoralized. Decades of activism, education, negotiation, being reasonable, and still there are people who think this kind of sign is funny?

Offensive as the banner was, I was almost more discouraged by the number of people who commented on social media that this was a joke; that no one was going to drop their daughter off at that house; that we (I guess that means anyone who is trying to end sexual violence) need to get a grip and, even more importantly, a sense of humour.

I have a great sense of humour, actually, and part of that is knowing when something is or is not funny. Signs that promote rape culture – already rampant on university and college campuses across the country – are not funny. Period.

There is a bright light in this story for me, albeit a personal one. My 16-year-old grandson was among those who protested the bedsheet at a demonstration organized for the day after it was hung up.

Maybe we can have some hope that things will eventually change for the better.

One thought on “Everything old is new again

  1. My granddaughter is in Grade 12. She is in the process of considering which universities to apply to this year. I intended to take her on a tour of Queen’s. How lovely, I thought, to have her this close for those few years. Now the thought of what she might be exposed to makes me retch.

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