[content warning: Although it contains no overt or graphic details, this piece discusses sexual violence on and off campus.]
It’s not a stretch to say that the developed world is in a series of cultural moments regarding sexual violence. The #MeToo movement has now made global waves, with iterations touching down in Japan, Sweden, China, and India, each with their unique obstacles.
However, as many people have noted, this work is not new. People with training in gender and women’s studies, sociology, law, social work, applied psychology and more – as well as people that witnessed and/or experienced sexual violence – have been labouring with these concerns in mind for years, if not decades.
“I want to recognize the work that has come before this current political moment,” says Robyn Ocean, the Sexual Violence Prevention and Peer Support Coordinator for Trent University. “Communities have been fighting to be heard, to change the justice system, and to make positive social change.”
As the Sexual Violence Prevention and Peer Support Coordinator, she works on sexual violence prevention education and support for sexual violence survivors, as well as oversees the Peer Support Program on campus.
“The position reports to the Student Wellness Centre, and works closely with student affairs, the colleges, housing, and other student services, as well as with student associations, faculty and staff,” Ocean explains, while also noting that her work collaborates with the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre in the city. “It’s important to collaborate in order to have different voices helping to build a culture of consent.”
Ocean finds the increased awareness of sexual violence very encouraging. She notes that sexual violence prevention education and consent education is increasing in both post-secondary schooling as well as before.
Julie S. Lalonde also provides sexual violence education. Based in Ottawa, Ontario, she works with Hollaback Ottawa, Draw the Line, and her alma mater, Carleton University. She also travels to give presentations in offices and schools. She gave a presentation titled “Drawing the Line on Sexual Violence” in Gzowski College’s Gathering Space on March 16.
Lalonde states she refuses to discuss the legal definition of sexual assault because it can be used to excuse behaviours that are legally ambiguous and/or that contribute to rape culture.
“Some people want to know what the legal definition is, so they know what they can get away with,” she explains. “If the law is your baseline, that is telling. Our baseline should not be “not criminal.””
Instead, Lalonde emphasizes the legal definition of consent, which can be found in the Canadian Criminal Code, subsection 273.1. Consent exists only when it is voluntary; sober (enough to make one’s own decisions); enthusiastic; and not assumed by previous action and/or power dynamics.
According to the provincially-funded Draw the Line initiative, one in three Canadian women and one in six boys will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. Between one in two and one in five trans folks will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, with the statistics being unclear due to whether participants reported themselves or were out as trans or non-binary at the time of reporting. Women under the age of 25 show the highest rates of sexual assault and criminal harassment (i.e. stalking, threatening). One in four women experience workplace harassment.
Lalonde notes that although there are male sexual assault survivors, one whom she works with on a semi-regular basis as an educator, sexual violence does have a gendered nature that cannot be ignored. This is especially true when considering that most perpetrators are men.
“Most perpetrators are men, but most men aren’t perpetrators,” she comments.
Furthermore, intersectional approaches to sexual violence show that women of colour, especially black and Indigenous women, are highly susceptible to sexual violence. Lalonde notes that colonial violence and sexual violence have a strong historical relationship.
So, what can post-secondary students do to help create a culture of consent, and prevent sexual violence?
Participate in the Student Voices on Sexual Assault Survey
This February and March, the provincial government has launched a survey for post-secondary students to complete called the “Student Voices on Sexual Assault Survey.” It has been sent out in increments as universities and colleges have cleared the survey with their research ethics boards.
“The purpose of the survey is to gauge the prevalence of sexual violence among post-secondary students, and to assess how resources are used,” Ocean says. “The survey aims to learn more about sexual violence supports, services and reporting processes at campuses, as well as perceptions of consent and the experiences of survivors of sexual violence.”
Full-time students aged 18 years old or older can voluntarily complete the survey through their institution email account, and are entitled to a $5 electronic gift card upon completion.
Understand their institution’s sexual violence policy and resources
Get to know what the institution’s policies are and how they work. In a workplace scenario, these are listed within Human Resources. The provincial government has mandated that universities and colleges have stand-alone sexual violence policies.
“The Trent Sexual Violence Policy was developed by a committee that included students, student leaders, staff and faculty; students made up the majority of the committee,” Ocean continues.
Trent’s policy emphasizes education, disclosure, and reporting as both means for preventative measures and for survivors to choose a route of action with which they are most comfortable.
“We are aware that it may sometimes be difficult for a survivor to decide what options they wish to pursue, so we have put together an information sheet which explains the different choices available,” she explains.
In accordance with this, other university student resources regarding sexual violence are available through the Student Wellness Centre in Blackburn Hall. These include Health, Counselling, and Accessibility Services.
“During Orientation Week, the dons, along with our partners in the Colleges and Student Wellness Centre, facilitate Draw the Line training for students which is a program designed to help educate the campus community about sexual violence prevention,” states Jen Coulter, the director of Housing Services at Trent.
According to Coulter, 41 residence dons are available for 1649 students living in residence this academic year (2017-2018).
Residence dons also go through rigorous hiring processes, including residence and campus conduct screening and multiple interviews, before participating in training sessions ahead of and during the academic year. The relatively new position of Residence Life Education Coordinator oversees student staff training.
“Dons have direct access to a college residence life coordinator (CRLC), a full-time professional staff member, who lives on campus and is on call 24/7,” says Coulter. “The CRLC on call is supported by an on-call Housing Services manager, the director of Housing Services, and AVP Students.”
Trent’s Sexual Violence Policy is scheduled for review every three years, with the next revision coming in October 2019.
Act against the bystander effect
Lalonde’s presentation emphasized that more than policy will be needed to prevent and account for sexual violence.
“We have to push people and demand more,” she says. “Fundamentally, everyone deserves to feel safe. Full stop.”
The bystander effect refers to when the presence of others hinders an individual from acting to help another person in need. It is related to the psycho-sociological occurrence of “diffused responsibility” in group or mass situations.
Lalonde acknowledges that there are social and systemic reasons why it is challenging to confront (potential) perpetrators, but small actions can change someone’s experiences drastically.
“What puts people at risk for sexual assault is being in a room with a rapist, and being isolated,” she says.
If you see someone in a concerning situation, check in with them as if you would for a friend to interrupt the situation and make yourself a witness to any questionable behaviours. Removing the compromised party and/or ending the situation should be the end-goal, whether that means making up an excuse to leave the bar or calling people out for harassment.
“My hope is that with this increased awareness, people are focused on ensuring that every sexual encounter is fully consensual, and part of the prevention education for students includes how to ensure you have enthusiastic consent,” says Ocean. “Ideally, sexual assault would cease to be an issue in our society.”