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Western University via uwo.ca

Western Responds to Campus Rape Culture Crisis: Individualized Responses to a Structural Problem

Written by
Elizabeth Mitton
and
and
May 27, 2022

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

Content Warning: This article discusses sexual violence. 

Western Responds to Campus Rape Culture Crisis: Individualized Responses to a Structural Problem
Western University via uwo.ca

So far in this series, Arthur has created 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 explored the perspectives and responses from Western’s students and administration as well as the London Police Service. As evidenced by students’ responses on social media and the subsequent walkout that ensued, students felt that the university’s efforts up until and immediately following these events were inadequate. 

In this final article, Arthur will delve into the policy changes that Western University has implemented since the alleged incident, get an expert’s opinion on whether these changes are enough to protect Western’s students, and contextualize this issue as a phenomenon not solely unique to Western, but as an issue that is reflective of Ontario’s campus-wide rape culture crisis.

There have been a few key questions guiding this series and Arthur’s investigation; was this incident, in which it is alleged that up to 30 female students were drugged and sexually assaulted on campus, 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 perpetrators on campus? Can this issue be analyzed through a wider lens, reflective of a mentality of rape culture across the campuses of Canadian post-secondary institutions? While Arthur may not have all of the answers, this article strives to shed light on this ongoing crisis and provide resources and information to help raise awareness and protect students. 

Sexual violence is an unfortunately familiar phenomenon across the campuses of Canada’s, specifically Ontario’s, colleges and universities - and Western is certainly no exception. In fact, it’s a front-runner. The results from Ontario’s Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey (conducted in 2018), which was “intended to provide information about how students perceive, understand and respond to sexual violence, as well as how institutions address sexual violence,” revealed startling results among Western’s student population. 

Among the 20 universities and 23 colleges that participated (that’s a total of 43 Ontario post-secondary institutions), Western University held the following standings: 

  • Highest percentage of “disagree” and “strongly disagree” responses (64%) on the Knowledge of Sexual Violence Supports, Services and Reporting Procedures
  • Highest percentage of sexual harassment experiences disclosed (71.6%) and lowest percentage of no sexual harassment experience disclosed (28.4%)
  • Highest percentage of non-consensual sexual experience disclosed (32.4%)
  • Second highest percentage of “very dissatisfied” and “dissatisfied” responses (27.4%) on the Satisfaction with Institutional Response to Sexual Violence Index (behind Conestoga College with 28.9%)
  • Second highest percentage (82.9%) of respondents who witnessed sexual violence or the potential for sexual violence (behind Queen’s University with 85.8%)

You can explore these results in the summary report (published in March 2019) here

This data points to something that many in the community have long known to be true - this campus is experiencing a rape culture crisis. The university has frequently been mentioned in the news for parties displaying signs (often made out of bed sheets) that the CBC says “glorify rape culture,” featuring messages like “Queens Girls Spit, Western Girls Swallow,” “If Your Girl Goes to Western, She’s Not Your Girl Anymore” and “Our Roommate is a Virgin Pls Help.” According to the CBC, the signs have become an annual tradition since Western students began celebrating “FOCO” (fake homecoming) in September 2016, when the university’s official homecoming was pushed to October. This decision, made by Western’s then-President Amit Chakma, was in response to unsanctioned and disruptive parties which often took place in the street adjacent to Western’s campus, Broughdale Avenue. In a May 2016 press release, Chaka stated that “moving Homecoming is only one of the means by which we will be encouraging students to find safer forms of entertainment.” According to the media release from Western’s Media Relations;

The University [rolled] out a targeted campaign in the fall to ensure that students understand the legal and safety risks they are taking when they host or attend large parties, including possible repercussions under Western’s Code of Student Conduct as well as the dangers of binge drinking.

The media release also mentioned increased academic pressures due to deadlines and exam preparations and less favourable October weather as factors that the university’s administration hoped would dissuade students from attending. Whether the switch from September to October made any difference in students’ attendance is unknown, but what Arthur does know is that the shift from one month to the next doesn’t generally do much for first-year student safety at parties  - thanks to a phenomenon known as the Red Zone. 

The Red Zone is defined as “a period early in a student’s first year at college during which she may be at higher risk for unwanted sexual experiences.” In fact, RAINN.org, “[American’s] largest anti-sexual violence organization, reports that “more than 50% of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November,” with most assaults occurring between midnight and 6am on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Psychology Today reports that “for 90% of victims of sexual assault, the perpetrator is a friend or an acquaintance” and highlights the consumption of alcohol, which “typically has been consumed by the perpetrator, the victim, or both” as factors which point to post-secondary sexual assaults often occurring in the context of partying. 

An October 2021 article published by Western’s newspaper, The Gazette, reported that for Western (and most other post-secondary institutions), the Red Zone encompasses multiple student activities such as orientation week (which is when these alleged druggings and assaults occurred), school sanctioned activities, concerts, FOCO, homecoming, and off-campus parties. 

In the article, author Rebekah Rodrigues speaks with Sara Ahmed and Teigan Elliot, co-presidents and co-founders of The Red Zone research team at Western’s King’s University College, AnnaLise Trudell, Manager of Training and Research at Anova Women’s Shelter and Sexual Assault Counselling Services in London and Western sociology professor Dr. Jordan Fairbairn to discuss how this phenomenon affects students on campus, particularly during parties where the consumption of alcohol is prevalent. 

It is important to note that alcohol consumption is not an excuse for sexual assault. As Trudell explained, while there are certain effects that can occur while under the influence of alcohol, it cannot be used as a cop out for a lack of responsibility, “because we know that when you drink and you drive you are very much responsible for your actions in spite of the alcohol.” So what is the solution? Prohibiting alcohol sounds unfeasible, and according to Teigan Elliot, it’s not alcohol that’s the problem; 

It's not that drinking is bad. It's not that partying is bad. It's that our rape culture and our party culture at Western has become really entangled with each other…And so when all of that is happening in this condensed short period of time... it becomes a really messy, dangerous situation for people* who are more likely to be targeted by sexual assault.

*It is important to note that not all sexual assaults and gender-based violent acts are perpetrated on women. Others, including men, and especially members of the LGBTQ2S+ community are also at an elevated risk for gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV). 

The Red Zone isn’t a new idea - articles surrounding this phenomenon have been published for years, as early as 2006. Perhaps the realization of this pattern of violence is what prompted the Ontario government to introduce Bill 132, the Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan Act (Supporting Survivors and Challenging Sexual Violence and Harassment), in 2016. The Bill mandated that every post-secondary institution in Ontario would develop a sexual violence policy that; 

a) addresses sexual violence involving students enrolled at the college or university;

b) sets out the process for how the college or university will respond to and address incidents and complaints of sexual violence involving students enrolled at the college or university, and includes the elements specified in the regulations relating to the process;

c)  addresses any other topics and includes any other elements required by the regulations; and

d)  otherwise complies with the requirements set out in the regulations.

The Bill also required institutions to include student input in the development and revision and/or amendment of the policies. Each institution would have to review its policy “at least once every three years and amend it as appropriate.” 

While the legislation was certainly a step in the right direction, the government received backlash from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance (henceforth referenced as OUSA) in 2018, who, along with “survivors and experts in the field have voiced their concerns over the lack of clarity, timelines, and detail within Bill 132 and affected regulations, as well as a lack of ministerial oversight.”

Since that backlash, the Ontario government has consulted with OUSA and in 2021, amended sexual violence reporting protocols at Ontario post-secondary institutions. Proposal 21-MCU001, which sought to amend Ontario Regulation 131/16 under the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act, was approved on September 16, 2021. The regulation requires that any student who comes forward with allegations of sexual assault will not be subject to discipline regarding the institution’s drug and alcohol use policies at the time of the incident and will not be asked “irrelevant questions” by either staff or investigators, such as the student’s past sexual history or sexual expression. The province said that these amendments must be made to institutions’ policies by March 31, 2022. 

So what other changes have taken place in regards to Western University’s sexual violence policy have been made since the alleged O-Week incidents in September 2021? Arthur reached out to Western’s Gender-Based Violence and Survivor Support Case Manager, Tamara Will, directly for a potential interview about these events. 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, who provided the following statement via email in early February; 

The second phase of the gender-based sexual violence awareness training for residence students is underway now. Approximately 4000 residence students took the online portion of the training that was held in September, and they are currently completing a 90-minute workshop that augments the online training. Due to the pandemic, it is being held live online but will move to in-person when it is safe to do so. This will be completed by mid-March. Once a thorough examination of the effectiveness of the training is completed, the online portion will be rolled out to the entire student body.

The training is part of a suite of measures Western has undertaken to strengthen student safety on campus. They include:  

Once we have the recommendations from both the Action Committee, and the independent reviewers, we expect there will be additional steps taken to continue to enhance the safety and security of our students and our campus.

While Beaubien did respond to a direct question regarding the administration’s choice in language when referring to the alleged incidents (discussed in the previous article) and the status of mandatory sexual violence awareness and prevention training for all Western students, Beaubien failed to respond to the following questions; 

Why did it take an overwhelming number of alleged assaults (multiple reports claim at least 30 students were victims, alleging they were drugged and sexually assaulted) circulating social media to implement a new student action plan when it is evident that rape culture is a phenomenon the university has been dealing with for multiple years?

[Based on the online response and student walkout - full coverage on that can be found in the second article of this series] Clearly, students do not think that the situation was dealt with quickly enough and don’t feel that increased security is an effective response to these alleged incidents. Do you feel the types of supports and policy changes outlined in the new student action plan and St. Joseph's partnership are enough to protect and support Western’s students?

Can you elaborate on the decision to conduct an independent review into these incidents and if there have been any findings and subsequent policy or procedural changes thus far?

On February 2, 2022, the Gender-Based and Sexual Violence Action Committee submitted four interim recommendations (pending submission of the Committee’s final report) to Acting President Sarah Prichard which proposed the following

1. “Prepare students and parents/caregivers for transition to campus” by informing students of university policies before they arrive on campus (through additional content being added to admission letters), and by providing them with opportunities to engage with the university’s values once they arrive. Admission letters should specifically;

  • “Require completion of GBSV education modules by new students before they arrive on campus, and make this mandatory for all incoming students, including those in Residence and all who participate in Orientation Week activities”
  • “Develop a structure to continue offering first-year students in Residence mandatory in-person, facilitated skill-building sessions as a follow-up to the online learning (as conducted in 2021-22), and make this available to all incoming first-year students”
  • “Commit to providing free menstrual products in all campus washrooms, and include a statement to this effect in admission materials to demonstrate that the University has an inclusive stance on those who menstruate (i.e., this is positioned as a specific indicator of the value of gender inclusivity)”
  • “Add content directed to parent/caregivers related to GBSV and social inclusion, and link this content to Student Experience’s “Community Connections” program

2. “A collaborative and coordinated process for hiring and training Sophs and others providing guidance/peer mentorship to new students,” specifically by including “Western’s GBSV prevention and response staff and the GBSV support coordinator…on Soph/student leader recruitment, hiring, and training committee(s)” and by developing new training modules both online and in-person tailored for Sophs and mentors which are based on existing disclosure support training which 

  • “…would be developed in collaboration and consultation with the University Students’ Council”
  • Would consult the “Society of Graduate Students and other relevant community members…on aspects of training involving graduate students and, potentially, other groups of student mentors”
  • Would also consult “The Centre for Education & Research on Violence Against Women & Children and other partners…for content, evaluation strategies, etc.”

3. “Enhance Housing support staff in Residences from start of term” by adding Health & Safety Advisors in residences to “engage with students, provide educational conversations, address and document behaviour, and escalate concerns as necessary.” The Committee further recommended that this program be reviewed at the end of the Winter 2022 semester to assess its efficacy and argued for the development and/or revision of a comprehensive staffing model to ensure the demands of on-campus students can be met 24/7

4. “Add additional GBSV staff to Student Experience” to aid the university in “tackling GBSV on campus” and supporting students who have a history of violent and/or sexual and traumatic experiences by hiring “at a minimum: One (1) additional GBSV support case manager; one (1) additional GBSV prevention and education coordinator” 

It is important to note that the Committee stated that “these recommendations were submitted as interim suggestions for action, pending submission of the Committee’s final report in late March/early April.” In that final report, readers were told to expect “accompanying strategies for ongoing evaluation and quality improvement processes and indicators for each proposed recommendation.” 

While the report was anticipated for late March/early April, Arthur was unable to find any published copy of it or confirm that it has been released. Furthermore, the GBSV Action Committee’s Meeting Outcomes webpage, which provides “the latest update on the Committee’s work” hasn’t been updated since March 25, 2022, with the only update for that date listed as;

The primary purpose of this meeting was to review and begin revisions to a first draft of the committee’s final report. The committee is on track to submit its report to President Shepard in early April. 

Arthur reached out to Beaubien to confirm whether or not the final report has been submitted, and received the following response; “We expect the reports and the formal response to the reports to be available in May, but we don’t have an exact date at this time.”

Of course the biggest question in regards to all of these policy changes is “will they be enough?”. Arthur spoke to Trent Philosophy Professor and The Kenneth Mark Drain Chair in Ethics, Kathryn Norlock to get her opinion on whether she feels these types of supports and policy changes are enough to protect and support Western’s students, or whether this GBSV trend is reflective of a society-wide rape culture mentality, and if so, what can be done? Professor Norlock explained;

I think the supports and policy changes are a necessary start in the Western context, but most of them only respond on individualized bases to incidents. Increased security might help shift their campus climate, especially in the short run, but there are university campuses with less security that don’t seem to have a worse climate, so it’s not like a rape culture is causally due to insufficient responders. Consent-education is good, but no one who uses drugs to render a victim unconscious is merely confused about what consent means.When a climate is so bad that ordinary members are telling the press they do not feel safe and do not go places alone, then the solutions also have to be culture-wide. The leaders and organizations have to announce their interest in changing this culture to new members and old, which is not what any university wants to do, but which this one may have to do. Prevention and concerted action on the part of groups has to be the mission and not just an add-on. Bystander training, organization of groups and helpers, volunteer buy-in, and visible, well-known, accessible policies and complaint procedures are all going to be important to actually shifting a traditional culture.

A culture-wide eradication of gender-based and sexual violence is certainly no easy feat, and unfortunately one that cannot be discussed in one three-part series. If readers should gain anything from this collection of articles, it’s that individuals are responsible for their actions, but the communities and cultures that raise them are also at fault, and until our society, our institutions,undergo the necessary steps to address and change this culture, all students can do is take care of themselves and look out for one another. Stay safe out there.

If you are a sexual assault survivor or would like to know more, these websites may provide support: 

Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime

Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres

Peterborough Police’s Victim Services Unit

Peterborough Police’s Survivor Toolkit

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