Just two days ago, I published an article detailing my concerns about having heard misogynist lyrics being played loudly on campus during frosh week at UBC. The song, which was played at a booth run by an off-campus nightclub, right near the Student Union Building, described — repetitively — being here “for the bitches and the drinks.” I expressed my frustration at having to be exposed to such misogyny in this environment, especially when we know that sexual assaults (especially those facilitated by drugs and alcohol) and sexual harassment run rampant on so many post-secondary campuses.
Shortly after I posted my article on my blog, national news services began sharing coverage of an egregious frosh-week incident at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, which involved 80 student orientation volunteers leading a chant that promoted underage sex and rape. Every major newspaper and television station in Canada has carried the story, featuring interviews with SMU students, SMU frosh leaders, the SMU president, women’s centre and sexual assault centre staff, and concerned community members.
While there have been a predictable number of individuals who have dismissed the incident as a mere moment of “juvenile ignorance,” or, as former SMU student union president Jared Perry put it, something that just happened “in the heat of the moment,” many have been quick to condemn the behaviour. SMU president Colin Dodds, in an interview with CTV Atlantic, expressed his shock at the situation, even apologizing to the family of Rehtaeh Parsons (the Halifax teenager who took her own life after being sexually assaulted and viciously taunted) for the likely impact it would have on them.
Despite my anger at the situation in Halifax, I also felt somewhat relieved. While my article about hearing misogynist music was referenced in a GlobalBC article about SMU and rape culture on campuses, what happened at SMU wasn’t happening on my campus. I mean, if the worst thing that happened at my campus at frosh week was an off-campus nightclub blasting a song about “bitches and drinks”, rather than student representatives of a university actively cheering about underage sex and sexual assault, then it couldn’t possibly get worse, right? Right?
Late this evening (September 6), my university’s student newspaper, The Ubyssey, published an article revealing that the exact same thing had happened during the Sauder Business School Frosh, the “long-running three-day orientation organized by the Commerce Undergraduate Society (CUS).” Not only was I appalled to know that the same chant apparently had a long history of being used at frosh events here at UBC, but even more appalled to hear the reactions of the FROSH co-chair and other students. Co-chair Jacqueline Chen reported to The Ubyssey that previous complaints had been articulated about the chant, but that its use during frosh week had not been prohibited. Rather, Chen says, “We let the groups know: if it happens during the group, it has to stay in the group.”
Beyond the disgust and shock that I feel towards the fact that this chant is clearly widespread among university campuses (and who knows which other university frosh weeks have also used it), I am quite literally sickened by the attitudes towards this chant. Rather than the seeming-remorse and regret expressed by SMUSA president Jared Perry, UBC students who participated in the chant do not seem particularly concerned with the fact that it was brought to light. Indeed, unlike what we heard at SMU, the UBC students interviewed seem perfectly aware of the troubling and offensive nature of the chant, but opted to keep it under wraps, or argued that it was fine since it was only chanted in less-public areas.
I am going to make it very clear why this is a problem: using secrecy to legitimize violence and sexism is precisely the tactic used by abusers and assailants themselves. Suggesting that things are “okay” so long as they are not brought into the public eye is exactly how domestic abuse continues to be perpetrated and excused. Informing people to “keep a secret” is one of the top tactics used by abusers to silence their victims.
It is reprehensible that the same rhetoric and the same dynamics of power are being used in this context.
It is shocking that at UBC, a place when students will be excused from classes on September 18 to attend events at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — which focus on the legacy of horrific abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools — that callous and casual attitudes towards sexual violence are being openly flouted.
As a survivor of sexual assaults, including one that occurred on the UBC campus, I am tired of this.
As someone whose research focuses exclusively on language and its importance to cultures of sexual violence, I am tired of this.
As someone who wants a safe campus community, for my colleagues, for my mentors and supervisors, and for my own students, I am tired of this.
I am tired of living in a world where even the youth that we expect will be educated leaders of the future are engaging — and actively encouraging others to engage — in the mockery and dismissal of violence.
UBC’s motto is “Tuum Est,” which translates to “it is up to you.”
It is up to the UBC students who participated in this chant, to take true responsibility for their behaviour, and to understand why it is not even remotely something to joke about.
It is up to UBC, as a institution, to draw a line in the sand about what kind of behaviour will and will not be tolerated on campus.
It is up to UBC, as a community, to come together to stand against sexual violence. We must empower our students to call each other out when they hear or observe statements or actions that support or condone violence, so that this chant does not get simply pushed back underground, to be repeated again outside of the watchful eye of the university. We must offer support to those who may have been re-traumatized by this kind of behaviour.
For nearly four years, I, like many other students, have proudly called UBC my home. It’s time to make it feel safe again.
Lucia Lorenzi is an interdisciplinary artist as well as a 4th-year PhD candidate in the Department of English at The University of British Columbia. Her research examines the aesthetics and politics of silence in narratives of sexual violence. This article originally appeared on Lucia’s blog, The Body Politic. It is reprinted here with permission.
Photo: flickr/UBC Library