As the news stories regarding the offensive banners that frat boys put up at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., unsurprisingly stream in and are condemned for reflecting rape culture, it is important to remind ourselves in Canada that rape culture permeates our university cities as well.
Having a conversation about rape culture may be particularly uncomfortable so soon after universities gleefully welcomed fresh-faced first-years. But, having this conversation is vital for several reasons: Rape culture did not go away, students’ safety is invaluable, and there has been a decline in mainstream conversations about the sexual violence women face in university. Citizens in general and students in particular cannot revert to sweeping rape culture and systemic attacks against women under the proverbial rug.
Just last year at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy was the target of violent misogynistic comments from her colleagues, two members of the men’s hockey team were charged with sexual assault (the charges have not been proven in court), a song sung on a law school field trip that reflected rape culture offended students, and a young man attempted to enter 50 dorm rooms, succeeded in getting into eight of them, and was charged with one count of sexual assault and one count of breaking and entering. Last year at Carleton University, a man was charged with three counts of sexual assault involving young women in elevators (the charges have not been proven in court).
And these are the instances that were reported and gained mainstream visibility. Imagine those that went unreported or did not garner the same amount of attention.
At times, it seemed that the University of Ottawa’s reputation — avoiding “bad” publicity — was more important than meaningfully addressing the sexual violence, slut shaming and sexism women are subjected to on campus. At other times, the burgeoning conversations about women’s experiences on campus dealing with rape culture was decried as both an “obsession” and an “overreaction.” However, those arguments do not reflect:
Expert opinions that rapes and assaults are pervasive on campuses but remain under-documented because the institutional systems to deal with such cases are inconsistent and flawed: The fact rape and sexual assault remains underreported because women fear the university’s response and have a warranted, general lack of confidence in university authorities and the police; The fact that around one in five women will be sexually assaulted as students.
That being said, progress has been made. The University of Ottawa assembled a task-force and it made 11 praise-worthy recommendations.
However, as thousands of new and returning students flood back, it is important to verbalize (again and again and again) our opposition to rape culture, the desperate need for ideological and institutional change, and women’s right to safe spaces.
I urge all students and those affiliated with universities to continue to demand change and to speak up if you see manifestations of rape culture, sexual violence, or slut shaming, whether it is a chant, song, or banner, the use of date rape drugs, blaming women for being raped or assaulted, or shaming women for practising their sexual autonomy. And demanding change and speaking up cannot stop when welcome week comes to a close.
Rape culture and violence against women need not be inevitable; it need not be a part of women’s university experiences.