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  • Helayna Raffaele

“Sorry” Doesn’t Cut It

Analyzing Sexual Assault in Canadian Universities

Author: Helayna Raffaele


Content Warning: discussion of sexual assault.

The Government of Canada prides itself on the ways it represents sexual assault — their webpage detailing “sexual misconduct myths and facts” making a prime example. The site shamelessly milks the friendly Canadian trope by linking its own criminal code as an exemplary way to dispel sexual assault myths.

But if Canada is as utopic as it claims to be, why do Canadian universities continue to fail in protecting their students? In 2019, a poll conducted by Statistics Canada concluded 71 percent of Canadian postsecondary students experienced or witnessed unwanted sexualized behaviours within a school-related setting.

To understand why, I took to researching two Canadian universities with some of the most high profile sexual assault reports: The University of Western Ontario and the University of British Columbia. The verdict? Their policies are as performative as Canadian kindness itself.

University of Western Ontario (Western)

A run through Western’s SA* policy makes clear that the university focuses more on responding to formal reports than implementing preventative measures. Several steps detail their “response to disclosure” with an emphasis on protecting the victim from further danger. While this is great, it’s not enough. A system that relies on victims coming forward does not account for the majority which feel they cannot.

Roughly eight percent of all sexual assaults receive a formal report — making it the most under-reported crime in Canada. This is largely attributed to incredibly low rates of conviction. Since sexual assault does not always produce physical evidence, trials are often reduced to a recounting of events and guilt being proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The interpretation of this law, though meant to be objective, has proven easy to influence throughout the history of Canadian law.

Outside of their policy, Western has supposedly committed to providing prevention education — but with minor details on how they are enforced and who actually attends. What these programs entail and who is required to partake in them is completely up to our imagination.

Unfortunately, I imagine said programs to be unsubstantial, given the nature of Western’s notorious fraternity, or “frat,” culture. Most Canadian universities have subpar, if not non-existent, fraternities. They’re there, but we could live without them. Unlike the majority of Canadian universities, students actually attend and rave about Western frat parties. As a York U student myself, I’ve never felt the need to party at a York frat (which apparently does exist), but didn’t pass up the chance to at Western.

From what I remember, one of the frats let my friends and I in at the expense of having a dick drawn on our hand in Sharpie. Yes. A literal used-textbook-looking-doodle dick. I brushed it off and thought nothing much of it because I was in it to have fun and gain the university experience of binge drinking and blackouts. The ratio of women to men was no less than 3:1, with a preference for fresh first years. The place was crowded, the booze was free, and no ID was necessary. The combination of a sexually suggestive environment and free alcohol drastically increases the likelihood of “party rape” — the most common form of sexual assault in universities. Though many first years, myself included, take their chances given that the environment is so normalized.

Now let me be clear: frat culture alone is not to blame for Western’s alarming statistics. Many argue them to be a bi-product of larger systemic issues (e.g. toxic masculinity) as opposed to an issue in and of themselves — though it is undeniable that the environment created within them harbours ideal scenarios for sexual assault.

Western frats are no strangers to negative headlines. During Western’s most recent “FOCO” — one of the school’s two homecomings — a large bed-sheet banner read “Queen’s girls spit, Western girls swallow.” Students dismissed criticisms by claiming that the slogans were “a joke.” But in reality, the statement sexually objectifies female students who attend Western and Queen’s University; it establishes an expectation for women to perform oral sex and demeans those who do so. The same event has had similar signs with sayings like “if your girl goes to Western she’s not your girl anymore,” and “19 to have a drink, 18 to get your bean flicked.” As belabored by Hope Mahood in Western’s The Gazette, these statements reduce female students to a sexual stereotype — which subsequently reduces their safety.

The University of British Columbia (UBC)

The west coast university’s SA policies present familiar issues. In addition to prioritizing reported cases, UBC illustrates a limited understanding of sexual assault as a whole. According to section 2.1 of their policy:

“Sexual Misconduct” includes sexualized violence and refers to any sexual act or act targeting an individual’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened, or attempted against an individual without that individual’s Consent.

While there is no denying that sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression are often targets of sexual assault, this definition erases the additional factors at play. For instance, women who identify as Indigenous, non-white, and/or living with a disability often experience significantly higher rates of sexual assault in opposition to their white, able-bodied, and/or male counterparts. Regardless, few policies and resources cater specifically to these communities, only further jeopardizing their safety.

Ironically, UBC’s policy does partially acknowledge the previous facts within section 1.2 — specifically, referencing “racialization, age, family status, religion, faith, ability, disability, national or ethnic origin, Indigeneity, immigration status, socio-economic status, class, and language” as experience-shaping factors. So why doesn’t the policy acknowledge this within its definition of “sexual misconduct”? This creates a major discrepancy within the document, leaving the extensive list to appear incredibly performative. It’s worth noting that Western’s policy exclusively refers to SA as a gender-based issue, also reducing its complex nature. Overall, the policies between the two schools are quite similar with a priority on reporting and a limited understanding of sexual assault as a whole.

Also in the likes of Western, UBC fraternities have their own share of allegations and toxic frat culture. According to The Ubyssey, UBC’s student newspaper, “all UBC fraternity members are required to take a yearly course on consent, bystander intervention and healthy masculinity from the Sexual Assault Support Centre.”

Regardless, several of the school’s frat students have faced highly publicized allegations within the past three years alone. In 2018, Mathew Aaron Shufelt was sentenced to 21 months in prison for assaulting his friend as she slept. The following year, professors publicly accused several fraternities of drugging, and potentially assaulting, their students. Though it doesn’t stop there, as another frat member sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl and remained unscathed.

Fortunately, as a direct result, UBC has finally taken a step in the right direction by choosing to permanently ban “open social events” in fraternities. This new policy still allows invitation-based parties, making the effort only one of many to come in reducing sexual assault on campus. Though at the very least, frats can now be held liable for those they choose to invite.

The verdict

Both the University of Western Ontario and the University of British Columbia present similar issues within their SA policies: they’re report-focused and reduce the spectrum in which sexual assault can occur. While both show vast improvements from decades past, there is still a long way to go in both understanding and preventing sexual assault in Canadian universities. Canada is not exempt from the conversation on the basis of the friendly Canadian trope.

In order to reduce sexual assault across all Canadian universities, each institution must work to shift the social climate of campus life. By no means is this a simple task, though it certainly cannot be achieved by limited policies and a lack of awareness. Students and staff alike must be better equipped with prevention and intervention awareness beyond a classroom setting. Shifting this issue towards hegemonic discourse will allow effective change to be possible. Policies can only do so much and are overall largely performative — but education and discourse are the actions which make these policies effective.

*SA = sexual assault

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