Rape culture on campus: How do we correct the system?

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We are entering Sexual Assault Awareness Month across Canada as the 2013/2014 academic year comes to a close. After the year we've had, the timing could not be better.

Remember last fall, when the mainstream media was horrified at Frosh week "chants" that promoted "non-consensual sex"? Just as everyone was ready to come crashing down on St-Mary's, news broke that the same was happening at the University of British Columbia.

We were once again outraged in early 2014 when students at the University of Ottawa were under the microscope when a "sexually explicit chat" against a student leader was uncovered. Shortly thereafter, the university's hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault.

It's clear to the folks who've been doing anti-sexual violence work for decades that in order to end rape culture, we need to call it out; we need to be consistently outraged; we need to demand better.

But we're not going to eradicate sexual violence on campus by focusing solely on the actions of students. We must also call out the complicity of university and college administrations.

In 2007, I took on the now infamous fight of trying to get a sexual assault centre at Carleton University. That year, the campus was the target of a horrific sexual assault that rocked the community and brought the media to Carleton's doors.

The university responded immediately with a call for increased security measures and a strong statement that this was a horrific, but isolated, incident and that security was their top priority.

In late 2008, Jane Doe sued Carleton University for damages and the university responded with a legal defense statement that stated that Jane Doe "failed to take appropriate or any action for her own safety" and that "she was not keeping a proper lookout for her own safety."

When students got wind of the lawsuit and blew the story up, Carleton settled the lawsuit with her one day before a planned rally. They refused to apologize for their statements, issued a vague statement about the issue being "resolved" and moved on.

In the years that I spent advocating for the voices of survivors on campus, I rarely encountered resistance from the student body. The campaign was stalled, derailed and incredibly labour intensive because of the administration's opposition to the issue.

And so, I look on with incredible envy to my fellow organizers in the U.S. The White House has recently identified campus sexual assault as a federal priority and has sunk resources and energy into the initiative. In doing so, they've called out, by name, 55 campuses that are under investigation for their mishandling of sexual assault cases.

This type of leadership is unfathomable to me. Sure, our federal government identified sexual assault on campuses as a funding priority recently, too. They made a big statement about recognizing the leadership of students and wanting to put money in their hands to make a difference. The caveat, of course, is that you needed non-profit status in order to apply, which most grassroots groups don't have. The initiative was also specific to public education campaigns and engaging students, which, unsurprisingly, made it nearly impossible to use the funds for the type of advocacy that is necessary to creating systemic change.

Rape culture is not simply perpetuated by students. It's also perpetuated by the actions, and often inaction, of administrations.

Take "rape chants" for example. Terri Chu, an engineering school alumnus, witnessed firsthand the way that sexual violence was excused in her engineering department on the basis of being a school "tradition." "School administrators have a big role to play in ending the misogynistic subtext and damaging behaviour of 'school spirit.' Though they don't officially play a role in student organized events, school resources are used tacitly sanctioning this behaviour.  Each engineering discipline has their own club supported by school budgets. "Tradition" is no excuse for poor behaviour." 

Administrators are the gatekeepers to many of the mechanisms needed for systemic change on campuses. As Anaïs Cadieux Van Vliet, a Montreal-based activist told me, you can have the most engaged student groups on campus, but if the administration doesn't allow you to sit at the table, change can be an incredibly difficult. "Administrators have the power, and regularly, the mandate, to monitor, implement and alter policies and procedures. Policies and procedures are only as valid as their application, which administrators are in charge of."

By refusing to speak out loudly against sexual violence on campus, administrations are perpetuating stigma and shame. Survivors are isolated and perpetrators hear the message that there are little to no consequences for their behaviour. Each incident is treated in isolation and swept under the rug as quickly as possible. Universities believe that speaking about sexual violence will affect their retention rates and enrollment rates; the two biggest concerns of universities who see students as dollar signs.

And yet, when these incidents come to light, administrations have an opportunity to show real leadership and accountability.

Andrew Bretz, a professor at the University of Guelph saw this first hand a few years ago in another incident of rape chants. Although the President's office released a statement condemning the chants, they failed to follow up with any tangible education or training. When reflecting on the incident, Professor Bertz feels "disappointment that a golden opportunity for teaching and learning was missed."

This "golden opportunity" presented itself many times over the past academic year with the incidents at St-Mary's, UBC and the University of Ottawa, among others.

Yes, we need to hold students accountable for their actions. We need to educate students about consent, healthy relationships and ways of being effective bystanders. We need to challenge rape culture within the student body. But we must also recognize the ways in which administrations are often the biggest barrier to challenging rape culture on campus. Until we can hold administrations accountable, rape culture will remain as ubiquitous on campus as overpriced cafeteria food. 

Julie S. Lalonde is an award winning social justice advocate based out of Ottawa. She works with various women's organizations on the issues of sexual violence, reproductive justice and feminist gerontology. You can follow her rants about rape culture, Canadian politics and VW Beetles @JulieSLalonde

Photo: flickr/runner PL

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