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Challenging sexual assault on campus

Chantal Sundaram

December 27, 2014

There has been a series of horrific media stories about frosh or sports chants that glorify rape, with a high profile investigation into the Facebook jokes about sexual violence directed at the President of the University of Ottawa Students' Union by male members. And most recently, the Facebook snapshots sent to the CBC showing posts by male students in Dentistry at Dalhousie joking about using chloroform to have sex with women.
This last incident has spawned a Twitter campaign called #DalhousieHatesWomen, pointing well beyond Dentistry students to the institution as a whole, including its administration, where “it’s easier to be charged with plagiarism than it is to report sexual assault.”
At the Université du Quebec à Montreal, in mid-November, activists apparently part of a Facebook group called “Les Hysteriques” pasted stickers on the doors of three professors at the university with the slogans “zero tolerance!” and “Politique 16,” the section of the university’s rules that deal with sexual harassment. “I think what’s happening at UQAM is that women are fed up,” said Sue Montgomery, a Montreal Gazette reporter who recently co-started the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported and came forward as the victim of assault herself.
There is no doubt that the celebrity maelstrom around Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby has shed a light on a long reality still downplayed in society at large. But what’s the solution? These are not just bad apples. There is systemic tolerance for a culture of both rape and general subordination of the role of women in society.
Individual responsibility
When I was a university student in the 90s, I knew about “rape culture,” although that’s not what we called it then. As students we were warned about rohypnol, the “date rape drug,” about self-defense, about the fact that consent matters. The message seemed to be that it was our own responsibility to protect ourselves.
And it was a world of mixed-messages. Women’s sexuality and sexual liberation were more recognized than ever before because of the “second-wave” women’s movement of the seventies. Now, in the third wave and looking beyond, were we living in a post-feminist age, when previous abuses, expectations, and objectification could be understood differently because we had the perceived social power to rise above them?
In The Social Basis of the Woman Question, Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai warned about claims of “free love” without challenging the capitalist system that oppressed women: “Only the fundamental transformation of all productive relations could create the social prerequisites to protect women from the negative aspects of the ‘free love’ formula. Are we not aware of the depravity and abnormalities that in present conditions are anxious to pass themselves off under this convenient label? Consider all those gentlemen owning and administering industrial enterprises who force women among their workforce and clerical staff to satisfy their sexual whims, using the threat of dismissal to achieve their ends.”
More recently there have been claims we live in a “post-feminist” society where women should embrace their own sexual objectification and commodification—which Ariel Levy effectively challenged in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
The state
In the 90s, debate became polarized around pornography and censorship. Those of us who were (and are) opposed to state censorship, and the hypocritical and selective way it is always used, opposed the idea that a state ban on pornography was a solution to the objectification of women and sexual assault. It wasn't about concern that censorship is not "sex-positive," but that giving more power to the state would not address the problem and would create others, like the censorship of LGBTQ pornography. We thought: there’s got to be a better way to directly confront the return of normalized sexual harassment and assault on university campuses.
We started a popular discussion about why it is so hard to report. A key moment was publicizing the case of Jane Doe, who spoke publicly on a number of campuses. Jane Doe sued the Toronto Police for intentionally using women, including herself, as bait to catch a so-called "balcony rapist." She used her case to speak out and educate about systemic sexism in policing and in the entire justice system. And we mobilized young women, and some men as well, to march in Take Back the Night and International Women's Day.
More recently the Slutwalk protests (emerging after a Toronto police officer said women could avoid sexual assault if they didn’t dress “like sluts”), the viral hashtag #beenrapedneverported, and the campaign for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women have all exposed the state’s complicity in violence against women, and why many survivors of assault don’t report to the police.
In the mid 1990s the Canadian Federation of Students launched the “NO means NO” campaign on campuses across the country, to raise awareness and combat sexual assault, acquaintance rape, and dating violence. It was electric at the time: a visible and public pushback that made conversation necessary.
On the one hand, that campaign sparked more official outreach about sexual assault by university administrations. Unfortunately, it also morphed into something very different in the hand of university administrators. At the University of Toronto it became a campaign with slogans like “Sex needs consent” and “Sex should be fun,” in a bid to be more “sex positive" than the so-called negativity projected by the slogan "No Means No"—at least as perceived by administrators.
But while sex-positive messages do have a place, the fundamental message about sexual assault must be unambiguous and clear. We live in a capitalist society that warps sexual, psychological and basic human perceptions in so many ways, and a clear message is needed to cut against this. It is estimated that four out of five women who are sexually assaulted do not report due to feelings of humiliation or the fear of being re- victimized in the legal process. A few years ago the CFS relaunched the “NO means NO” campaign on campuses in English Canada. This was indispensible to help confront the rise of “men’s rights” groups on campuses, and the increasingly open harassment of university women on social media, campus sports, and orientation events.
In late November, The Toronto Star launched an investigation into how colleges and universities across Canada are dealing with sexual assault. The Star spoke to several women who said they felt unsupported when they turned to their schools and had to fumble through a bureaucracy without a clear path. The Star found that most schools reference sexual assault once in their wider student codes of conduct—lengthy documents that also deal with plagiarism or bomb threats—or harassment policies.
University administration
Another hidden truth is that harassment policies have gone through another morph at the hand of university administrations. Rather than focusing on sexual harassment, violence, and assault, a growing number of these policies have morphed into “civility policies,” to enforce a “respectful workplace.” Don’t we all want a workplace free of “bullying,” “psychological harassment” and based on “mutual respect”? The problem is, none of these things are legally defined anywhere, whereas protected grounds against sexual harassment and discrimination are defined in Human Rights legislation, and with good reason.
Does that mean that other types of harassment and bullying that may intersect with gender and other protected grounds should not be grounds for protection in legislation and by unions? Not at all, but those terms can easily blur the lines. “Bullying”, “respect” and “civility” may have implications for systemic forms of oppression, but they can also be turned on their heads in the hands of administrators who want to quash dissent, and in universities and colleges to quash academic freedom. Many of these “harassment” policies in the university system are now a perversion of what they originally were intended to be; the same is true of student codes of conduct that treat sexual harassment on the same level as plagiarism.
Women’s liberation
We can’t rely on institutions funded by public money but which are also increasingly driven by corporate interest and corporate management models—like the CBC and universities and colleges—to defend the best interests of employees and students. They are all charged to investigate themselves and will find face-saving solutions. Legislation, the judicial system, the police, university policy—all of it can be forced to be more accountable, and should be, but not as an end in itself.
It is up to labour unions and students’ unions to actively and publicly oppose a wider culture that tolerates harassment and rape. Ultimately we need to get rid of the capitalist system that relies on sexism to pay women less at work and nothing for domestic labour, which objectifies and commodifies women’s bodies and controls women’s reproduction, and that does nothing to end the epidemic of violence against women.

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