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The Right Words: How We Talk About Sexual Violence

Written by
Elizabeth Mitton
and
and
April 21, 2022

This article is a follow-up. Read the first article here

This article discusses sexual violence.

The Right Words: How We Talk About Sexual Violence

So far in this series Arthur has provided readers with a timeline of the events following the investigation into the alleged druggings and sexual assaults that occurred at Western University’s orientation week in September of 2021 and the response of the London Police Service. As mentioned at the end of that article, many unanswered questions remain as to what actually happened that weekend, and one of the questions that remains unanswered is: was this incident so widely publicized because of the outrage at the alleged incident itself? Or was the outrage attributed to the fact that it has taken an alleged incident as major as this to finally instigate large-scale investigations into the ever-present rape culture that has dominated Western’s campus for years? Is this incident reflective solely of the alleged druggers and sexual assault perpetrators on campus, or can this issue be analyzed through a wider lens of the pervasiveness of rape culture across Canadian post-secondary institutions? 

In this article, Arthur will discuss the Western incident on an incident-specific level, considering student and administrative perspectives, including contention surrounding the language being used and students responses on social media, followed by contextualizing this incident on a societal level, discussing the prevalence of sexual violence across the campuses of various Canadian universities. 

***

Language choice surrounding sexual assault allegations and publications is critical. Toronto-based grassroots collective FemiFesto, which advocates for the proper protocol when reporting on sexual violence in the media, reiterates this necessity in their Use the Right Words guide;  

Reporting on sexual assault means finding not only the language but the context and sensitivity to communicate a trauma that is at once deeply personal and yet a matter of public policy; immediate and yet freighted with centuries of stigma, silence and suppression. 

The language that Western university’ administration has chosen to employ when referring to this incident has been a point of contention among students and administration. As TikTok creator and McMaster student @mandaround summarized in a video posted to TikTok on September 13, 2021;  “People are up in arms about how Western has chosen to address the situation. Many are angry at the terms being used such as “gender-based violence” rather than “sexual assault” as they believe they are downplaying the situation at hand.” Less than a week later, Western’s Gender-Based Violence & Survivor Support Case Manager, Tamara Will, published a statement explaining this language choice; 

Western uses the term gender-based and sexual violence to encompass all forms of violence our student's experience. Gender-Based & Sexual Violence refers to any act that targets a person's sexuality, gender identity and gender expression. This includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism, cyber harassment, and sexual exploitation. I have heard concerns about why Western does not use the term "rape". This term refers to penetrative assault and excludes those who've experienced other forms of harm.

Arthur reached out to Tamara Will directly regarding this investigation for a potential interview, specifically asking for the university’s response to the claims that the university’s language choice when referencing the situation diminishes the severity of the alleged assaults. Western’s Executive Director of Editorial Strategy & Media Relations, Marcia Steyaert, responded to that email asking for specific questions, which were eventually responded by Roxanne Beaubien, Western’s Associate Director of Stakeholder Relations. Beaubien echoed Will’s statement;

To answer your question about terminology, gender-based and sexual violence is a more inclusive term that acknowledges the trauma and harm caused by any type of sexual violence. Instead of diminishing the severity of any type of assault, it instead encompasses all forms of sexual assault.

In an attempt to gain more clarity of the language chosen to refer to the situation, Arthur reached out to Trent Philosophy Professor and The Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics, Kathryn Norlock. When asked for her opinion on the language, Professor Norlock explained that Western’s administration’s choice to employ the more inclusive term is justified, stating;

There is nothing lacking in severity about the word “violence.” So while “gender-based violence” is indeed inclusive, it does not work to diminish the severity of particular experiences. Sexual assault and rape are the right words for some and not all experiences of gendered violence, and victims of sexual assault need recognition. So victims and advocates are right to attend to sexual assault and rape. But…rape culture includes sexual harassment as well as other misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic behaviors. Harassment is not the same as sexual assault but can do serious harm, real violence, to individual bodies for gendered reasons, so “gender-based violence” is a good term, inclusive as well as severe.

This situation, according to Western students online, includes a campus culture of misogyny and aggression, so the ways that violence is both sexualized and gendered are problems. The university’s job is to take up all the calls to address community- and climate-wide problems as well as incidences of sexual assault, so the more inclusive term is appropriate for the university to use.

However, language choice wasn’t the only subject of backlash the university received from students. During the weeks following the alleged incident, social media platforms, TikTok in particular, were teeming with video footage of student outrage. In one TikTok video, calling out Western’s President Alan Shepard in front of a crowd of students on campus, one student speaker was quoted saying;

Alan Shepard, do you know what it’s like to be unsafe - not just feel unsafe - but actually be unsafe where you live? Do you know what it’s like to walk past the site of the most traumatic experience of your life everyday just to get to class? If your answer is not to either of those questions, then I don’t want to hear another word from you about safety. 

This statement was followed by crowd cheers of “Stop this violence, no more silence.” The student speaker - identified on TikTok as Teigan Elliot, co-president and co-founder of The Red Zone research team at King’s University College and sexual assault survivor - continued;

Why were we thrown into classes this week when many of us could barely function? Why was same-day counselling not available immediately and why are you now trying to solve this with increased security, increased policing, soft-watch security and police do nothing while we try to disperse crowds? You think more is going to help?

In the same TikTok video clip, a new speaker - presumably a member of the university’s administration but who remains unidentified at the time of publication - took to the microphone in front of the crowd of students, emphasizing changes the university had made to policies the previous year; 

The incidents of the past week  and you being here today tell us that you do not feel safe. The university has updated its gender based violence policy in May 2020, making to better reflect and make transparent the process for getting support and for filing a complaint.

Yet the overwhelming consensus from students on social media is that the university’s efforts up until and immediately following the alleged incident were inadequate. 

So what changes have been made to Western University’s policies since the alleged incident in September 2021 and do experts think these changes are enough to address a culture of rape that has pervaded the campuses of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions for years? Stay tuned for the third and final instalment in this series to find out.

B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish
Written By
Sponsored
B!KE
Statement House
Theatre Trent 2022
Arthur News School of Fish

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