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Rape Culture on Campus

By now, many of us have heard about the sexual assault that occurred at Stanford University, the perpetrator who got off easy in part because of his great swim times, and the victim statement that was read across the world. The story broke at a time when universities across Ontario are in the process of creating new policies regarding sexual violence. In March, the Provincial Government passed Bill 132, which requires universities to create new standalone policies addressing sexual violence on their campuses. As university administrators both at my own institution and across Ontario work to create these policies, I find myself thinking about the Stanford victim statement, and all students closer to home who are survivors of sexual violence. When I think about all of the pain this crime has caused, I find myself wondering if we are doing enough.

Think of four women in your life, perhaps friends or members of your family. Statistically speaking, at least one of those women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. This is a grim reality that women and girls must face every day, but the risk is that much higher for young women attending post-secondary education, where rates of sexual violence are as high as one in two at some American schools. University is meant to be a time for growth and learning, but far too often sexual violence transforms it into a time of pain and fear. The pain doesn’t just end once the assault is over, but is rather perpetuated both by the response from the survivors’ peers and by a justice system that continues to fail survivors. So why does this happen? How can we make it stop? Unfortunately, the problem is much larger than anything a single policy, law, or school can eliminate. It is a problem of culture, more specifically, rape culture.

Rape culture refers to the attitudes in which society at large normalizes sexual violence and punishes the victims, instead of the perpetrators, for the crime. These attitudes are so ingrained in our everyday life that we often aren’t even aware of its existence. This issue is pervasive, persistent, and global. Rape culture can be heard in pop music lyrics like “I know you want it” and in “edgy” jokes made about rape. It is seen in advertisements that depict violence against women, and in internet comments threatening rape. Rape culture is perpetuated when the first question a survivor is asked is “What were you wearing?” or “How much did you have to drink?” and by a justice system in which less than 5 percent of rapists see jail time.

Campus rape culture is a highly complex issue that needs to be addressed in a multi-faceted, intersectional, and survivor centric approach. The creation of these policies is an excellent opportunity for universities to make significant change on campuses across Ontario. Universities need to be held accountable for what they put into these policies and how they use this opportunity for growth. There should be safe spaces on all campuses for survivors to find resources and support; and in-depth training for any and all front line staff who may be working with survivors. I would like to also see a bigger focus put on preventing sexual violence and ending rape culture, rather than just the response to incidences. While it is great to know that conversations about consent are being integrated into the public school curriculum, we cannot allow education about healthy sexuality to end there. All students attending post-secondary school should receive mandatory education in consent and sexual violence prevention. This would ensure that all students, regardless of what previous education they have received, would be equipped with basic information about what constitutes healthy sexuality. We must foster a culture of consent on campus where all students are informed about consent, rather than just the self-selected few who choose to attend optional events and courses. As individuals, we must continuously learn about sexual violence prevention and think critically about the ways our actions could contribute to rape culture. Be critical of the media you consume and question the actions of peers who perpetuate unhealthy ideas about sexuality.

Most importantly, we must, as institutions and as individuals, take a stand against instances of rape culture and sexual violence in our communities. We need to make it clear that we have no tolerance for such matters and we will not be silent in the face of injustice. For such a large cultural shift to occur we need everyone to be engaged and involved in the movement for change. It is time for universities to shift from a culture of rape, to a culture of consent where only yes means yes.

Sarah Wiley
OUSA Steering Committee Member
Vice-President Education, Waterloo Federation of Students