“Who’s to say it can’t happen to me?”

These words, from a student at Western University last week, should serve as a powerful and plaintive reminder that we need to do more — much more — to end the rape culture prevalent at post-secondary institutions in this country.

September is when many communities across Canada hold Take Back the Night events to raise awareness about gender-based violence, including sexual violence. It’s also when thousands of young people head to college or university. This year, many of those students, having spent last year learning online, arrived with particular enthusiasm and excitement about enjoying campus life for real rather than virtually. Pandemic protocols notwithstanding, they planned to experience orientation week, beer pong and some party life before settling down to school work.

As last week’s news headlines made clear, that excitement quickly evaporated for students at Western University, after reports of multiple sexual assaults surfaced. While information is still sparse, Western has confirmed that a number of disclosures of sexual assault appeared on social media and that the university received four unrelated reports of sexual violence.

“It’s our home”

With at least some of the assaults reported to have taken place in residence, many young women who live there are frightened. One first-year student told the CBC:

“We feel like we have to watch our backs . . . . It’s everywhere on campus, it’s in our building which is our home.”

Sexual violence on post-secondary campuses is nothing new. In September 1989, while I was a law student at Queen’s, students posted violent and threatening posters in their residence windows to show their disdain for a rape awareness campaign during orientation week. After unsuccessful attempts to get a meaningful institutional response, a group of us took a list of demands into the principal’s office and refused to leave. Much of what we called for more than 30 years ago has not yet been implemented, with the result that women remain at risk on that and other campuses across the country.

Who’s responsible?

Carina Gabriele, a former resident advisor at Western, didn’t mince words when she talked to the CBC’s Matt Galloway about sexual violence at colleges and universities:

“Every single sexual assault, every single case of gender-based violence that occurs is a policy failure. It’s a result of people with power not prioritizing this issue and the lives of survivors.”

Existing complaint/disclosure/reporting processes are a big part of the problem. The protocols are often complex and require any staff person to whom a student discloses an incident of sexual violence to report that disclosure and, thus, automatically begin a formal investigation. Survivors who are looking for support and validation but not a formal process are left with no one to turn to other than friends and social media.

But even that can have consequences. A few years ago, I spoke with a first-year university student who had gone to her department head to seek an extension for an assignment, citing an incident of sexual violence by one of her professors as the reason. She had no plan or desire to make a formal report, but two months later, she received an official letter from the law firm hired by the university to manage her “complaint,” advising her that a private investigator employed by the law firm would be contacting her for an interview. The letter contained a warning — carefully worded but nonetheless threatening-sounding — that the student was not to talk about what had happened with anyone. She felt she had no choice but to meet with the investigator, was terrified that if she told anyone — even a friend or her mother – she could face legal consequences and worried about her academic future at the university once the professor was informed.

Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia are the only provinces that require post-secondary institutions to have sexual violence policies and procedures. Without such institutional structures in place, there is little to no consistency or accountability for survivors of sexual violence who turn to their school for assistance.  There is no systems-wide education or training about what sexual violence is or the need for a trauma-informed response and no consistent way for survivors to receive emotional or legal information or support.

“It’s not just a one-off conversation”

Proper education and protocols for what to do after an act of sexual violence has happened are important, but post-secondary institutions need to do the work so there are fewer of those acts to begin with.

Farrah Khan, Manager of Ryerson University’s Consent Comes First Office and Co-director of Courage to Act, a national project addressing and preventing gender-based violence at post-secondary institutions, had this comment in response to the current situation at Western:

“We have to look at gender equality, look at how students are dealing with sexual violence and listen to students. It angers me so much that students have been speaking out about this for decades.  We have to talk about the culture of misogyny, white supremacy and oppression that creates the roots on which all these forms of violence are built. It’s not just a one-off conversation.”

There’s no going back

Thousands of students at Western walked out of classes on Friday to protest misogyny and rape culture and to support survivors of sexual violence, with one participant declaring there would be no going back.

While the spotlight is shining on Western for the moment, all post-secondary institutions need to pay attention. No one should ever again have to feel like Stephanie Sparks, who described how she felt after she reported being sexually and physically assaulted in her residence at the University of British Columbia in 2013:

“It was like living in a really bad nightmare every day.”

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