Fear and frustration hang over London, Ontario, where many people discuss four formal complaints of sexual violence reported to Western University and sharing unconfirmed rumors about broader sexual assaults. Members of the Western community say they feel unsafe, especially young women and other vulnerable groups.
Alan Shepard, the university president, has said that Western disappointed its students and their families, stating: “What happened last week is really unacceptable … We clearly have a cultural problem that we need to address.. “
Among the new measures that the university will adopt is the launch of a working group to address sexual and gender-based violence, providing mandatory training on sexual violence, consent, and personal safety for all students in residence and hiring 100 new “security ambassadors”.
Responding to this stressful situation has been complicated by COVID-19 restrictions and protocols. However, these accusations of assault cannot be explained in light of the pandemic, nor are they unique to one institution.
Changing the culture of rape
Sexual attacks occur as regularly as the changing seasons at universities and colleges across the country. Frosh, or orientation week, in early September is when sexual and gender-based violence is especially rampant. Despite decades of research showing the links between these activities and incidents of sexual and gender-based violence, are still held every year.
It’s a chilling reflection of how our society normalizes this kind of violence, which has become part of the unofficial campus curriculum.
Highly sexualized representations of campus party life that validate the culture of rape has been immortalized in popular culture for decades, even in the iconic Animal house (1978). One scene shows a drunken young man staring at an inebriated and incapacitated young woman, while a comic devil on his shoulder uses graphic terminology to urge him to have sex with her and adds, “You know she wants it.”
Though dated, this film has shaped popular ideas that associate sexual conquest and predatory behavior with youth rites of passage on college campuses.
Student-led activism and ongoing feminist challenges to this aspect of campus culture have led to changes in the vein of frosh activities, many of which include presentations on sexual consent and mental health. However, reports of sexual assault, rape, and gender-based violence continue to occur during the frosh week.
Toxic campus culture
Two years ago, as a medical anthropologist with a background in human sexuality, I conducted a qualitative research study on Western University’s sexual culture and the institution’s response to incidents of sexual violence. I interviewed 23 students and seven members of the administrative staff. Participants described the project as “timely” given that two assaults were rumored to have occurred during the first week of school that year.
A young woman commented:
“I found out that it happened to freshmen, I think, so it was crazy. You literally just got to school, your parents let you go and being sexually harassed is very sad. “
Participants also indicated that despite widespread violence on campus, little appears to have changed to prevent it. University policy on gender and sexual violence it has been reformulated several times in recent years, most recently in 2020. The policy is expansive, inclusive, and seeks to address cultural issues as well as everyday social experiences to curb violence within our campus. And yet the incidents continue.
In fact, survey data from a year prior to my study by the Ontario Council of Universities indicates that a A staggering 71 percent of Western University students reported being sexually harassed. Among those who reported being attacked at the 20 universities included in the survey, 18 percent of the events occurred in the fall semester just before school started.. Students who indicated that they had had one or more experiences of sexual assault were also asked to describe the perpetrators. For this question, the most common category selected by respondents was “other student” (49.5 percent).
‘I don’t think they see … what’s happening’
Intended to orient new students toward campus life, orientation week typically morphs into a wave of substance-fueled parties that include sexual violence.
As one student who participated in my research said:
“Literally all the guys in my res (residence) were saying ‘let’s see how many bitches we can fuck in the first week’, like in Oweek, which is disturbing.”
Equally concerning are the predatory behaviors of men who fool young women during orientation week events and yell at them from their vehicles, which has occurred in recent years. Several students discussed this, including this young man:
“During the last Oweek I was a soph (orientation leader) and there were guys in cars coming to freshman events, pulling up next to them, revving the engine and asking, ‘Who wants to go for a ride? ‘”
The first week of college novelty for students unfamiliar with campus life. and guidance leaders assigned to them, was raised by many participants as a trigger to make orientation week unsafe, including this woman:
“I don’t think they realize it, the people who run Oweek, the staff, the sophists. I don’t think they see any of this happening and sofs just got to know their froshs … I think people are comfortable with their sofs, but I don’t know if in that time frame someone will feel comfortable enough to reach out and say, ‘This is what happened.’
The aggressions of the orientation week persist because they are normalized as part of the university culture and because Gender-based violence continues to occur within society at large..
They also persist because Many institutions are slow to make the structural changes necessary to address the toxic problems that make campuses unsafe.. No school wants to be associated with rape or violence. But until postsecondary institutions recognize and respond to the indisputable fact that robberies occur regularly on their campuses the students will continue to suffer, as will the reputation of the institutions.
How could universities and colleges improve campus security?
- Cancel the orientation weeks or radically restructure the way they are managed. This includes hiring well-trained support staff to assist campus representatives in charge and mandatory gender and sexual training for freshmen, as well as faculty and staff.
- Introduce year-round bans across campus alcohol, which plays a role in sexual assault on campus.
- Create a full-time SGBV advisor who works in partnership with senior management, other allied task forces, campus police, and the broader student body.
- Improve relationships between campus police, campus health services, and allied services in the broader community to reduce fears related to disclosure and promote survivor-focused healing initiatives.
- Include statements on the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence in every campus course, similar to the widespread adoption of equity, diversity and inclusion policies in the curricula of Canadian postsecondary institutions.
- All messages on sexual and gender-based violence must be inclusive, intersectional and based on a survivor-centered approach and Informed principles about trauma.
- Courage is also required, as suggested by one of my study participants: “Doesn’t learning start with safety? … I think it is fundamentally about institutional courage ”.