An Open Letter to VanCity Buzz regarding “Where to hook up at UBC”

To the editors at Vancity Buzz,

There are a few things I can count on at the start of every school year: struggling to navigate my way through rapidly-moving crowds on the busy walkways that were blissfully barren during the slow summer months; enduring long, languid line-ups at every student service building and food outlet; hearing the cheery sounds of music and chatter from the frosh-week booths that crop up all over campus. There is, of course, yet another predictable yet infinitely more frustrating and exhausting series of events that now seems to accompany the beginning of the academic school year: events or articles which seem to fantastically misunderstand that certain aspects of sexuality and campus life are perhaps not the ideal subjects for misguided attempts at satire or sensationalized clickbait.

We’ve seen our fair share of problematic publications come out of universities in recent years, from the sexist and racist chants contained within an Engineering songbook at McMaster University to articles from the Western Gazette TA Article – CTV (UWO) and The Ubyssey – How To Tell if Your TA Likes You (UBC) whose poor attempts at satire about seducing Teaching Assistants were swiftly condemned by students who work in these positions. All this comes, of course, in the wake of a larger discussion of incidents of harassment and assault on college and university campuses, one that continues to be a priority for many campus communities, particularly at this time of year.

While I often take a hard line on these publications and often swiftly call them out, a recent article by Lauren Sundstrom at Vancity Buzz gave me more pause than usual. In her piece “Where to Hook Up at UBC,” Sundstrom offers brief descriptions of what are alleged to be the top five places to have sex on campus. Prefaced by a brief disclaimer about consent, namely that it is imperative and that no means no, Sundstrom declares that while UBC may have achieved prominence in global university rankings, one of its unique strengths lies in the beautiful public spaces within which to hook up. Rounding off the top five places (which include, not surprisingly, libraries and washrooms, as well as the Aquatic Centre and the cliffs by Wreck Beach) was a strange and uneasy surprise: the graduate lounge in my own department. Sundstrom conveys information from a pseudonymous tipster named “Jonathan” that the English Department Graduate Lounge is an excellent place for hook-ups, given its relative isolation after hours.

hookup

            Many have been swift in their condemnation of the piece and its reference to the space. Far from merely tiring of the puerile humour of such frosh-week-style articles, which many critics will claim is “mere sensitivity” and the inability to take a joke, the criticism targets serious concerns about this type of public representation of and unsolicited invitation into a space that represents not only part of a professional environment and workplace, but a safe hub for a particular group of community members.

Admittedly, I have a bias about this space. I have been a member of the English Department for nearly six years in my capacity as a doctoral student, and I enjoy the comfort and convenience of the lounge every week as I enjoy a bite to eat between classes and engage in lively discussion with my colleagues and friends. Slightly-dated décor aside, the lounge is a space where design invites openness: the entrance to the room is constructed of glass, which allows passersby to see who is around. I cannot count the number of times I have seen a friend sitting at the table and have stopped by to chat when I would otherwise simply proceed onward to the computer lab; this gives me joy. Faculty members pass by and we wave. There is a modicum of privacy, too: the two couches are almost entirely obscured by a floor-to-ceiling shelf in the middle of the room, which allows a brief nap in semi-solitude. This is a space I have come to love. Recently, a few of my colleagues and I organized an impromptu shared lunch in the space; some faculty and staff joined us, and it was a lovely moment of community building.

Yet, it is also a space that makes me feel uneasy, a sentiment that I would never wish my other colleagues to have. Yet, in light of this article and its implications, I fear that some might. Several years ago, I was sexually assaulted in this same graduate lounge, by a former friend who had briefly and unexpectedly returned to campus. What distressed me most about what happened was the knowledge that aside from this one individual who had made the choice to enact harm in a space that so many of us consider safe, I had always felt at home there. It is not only about the physical space, of course, but about the community members who help to shape that space. Indeed, respect is a mandate of the lounge: clean up your dishes. Don’t leave food in the sink drainer. Refill the water jug. Pay for any tea or coffee you use.

But now, I’m fairly certain that I am not the only one who feels unsafe in that space, and the irony of having a space opened up without its occupants’ consent does not escape me, as both a survivor and a community advocate around issues of violence. It also does not escape me to think of what it means to offer unsolicited advice to disrespect community spaces, particularly in a university that occupies the unceded lands of the Musqueam people. It does not escape me that not all workplaces would be subject to such disrespect, including, I suspect, the workplaces of Vancity Buzz employees themselves. It does not escape me that such an article may cast undue and uncalled-for aspersions on members of the department, who conduct themselves with respect for others. Indeed, many of us have banded together to articulate our problems with Sundstrom’s article, whether through comments on Twitter, Facebook, on Vancity Buzz’s website, or through private emails to both Sundstrom and your editorial staff. Others have pointed out similar issues with Sundstrom’s other article regarding hook-up spots at Simon Fraser University, one of which is a washroom reserved for people with disabilities.

If we ought to have learned anything in the past few years, it is that conversations about consent, about sexual violence, and about safe spaces on university campuses and in workplaces are nuanced and that they require both careful thought and accountability. Consent is about more than “no means no.” Indeed, as demonstrated by numerous consent-focused campaigns in recent months and years, it’s about affirmative and enthusiastic consent. This isn’t to say, of course, that people have never unwittingly or accidentally walked in on others engaging in sexual activity. Indeed, sex in public places may be a thing for some people, but the basic rule of sex with healthy boundaries is this: don’t get anyone involved who doesn’t want to be. This is not about prudishness or the condemnation of sexuality, which I’m certain other critics may charge the complainants with. Rather, it is about the reality that when articles point out — indeed, promote — the enjoyment of the participants in sexual activity over the safety or the access of the people who work and live and rest in particular spaces, this violates some of the most basic concepts of consent.

After a day off from work, I will again return to the department on Friday to enjoy tea and conversation in the lounge with its orange chairs and its terribly-bright floral tablecloth. I will, however, now carry with me into that space a distinct sense of unease and worry, as well as a heavy knowledge that its boundaries were breached by someone who has likely never even stepped foot into it nor has met the vibrant community of individuals who call that space a little home away from home.

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14 comments

  1. Excellent letter, Lucia. If it doesn’t start discussion about what is happening in our universities and colleges, then I hope at least it exposes the kind of absolutely shitty “journalism” that I saw in that Vancity Buzz article. Seems Sunstrom didn’t give an ounce of thought on the lingering after-effects her ill-conceived poke at sexual humour would have not only on students active in those school areas, but also on those who’ve suffered sexual assault in the past in what was supposed to be a tranquil sanctuary. You’ve also raised the same question that few, if any, can answer: if foe is friend, and friend is foe, who are we to trust? I think a lot of young women in particular have a hard time with this one, and I don’t blame them one bit. If anything, it’s due to the continued barrage of disrespect against women (from both men and women themselves) that the skewed mentality on equality and understanding of sexual abuse remains skewed to this very day. I hope that more women like yourself pull the curtains down of what things appear to be, and how they actually are. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting! I’m hoping that it will open up a conversation as well, especially on such simple issues of professionalism and respect of others’ spaces. It seems such a simple argument to grasp, and yet…sigh. Thank you for your encouragement.

  2. I am so glad that you chose to spoke out about this. As the victim of sexual harassment (which also happened somewhere I thought I was safe), it appals me that VancityBuzz finds this kind of article tolerable. Even more appalling is Drex’s lax attitude about it. Drex said it “rubbed a few UBC English alum the wrong way,” but I think it rubbed far more than “a few” the wrong way, and certainly not JUST English alum. I don’t even attend UBC (and never have) and I am offended by the article.

    1. Hi Brianne. Thanks so much for reading and for commenting. I’ve also heard from many (staff and students at both UBC and SFU, as well as members of the public at large) that they are exhausted with this article, not only because it’s a lazy approach to the issue of healthy sexuality on campus, but also because it directly impacts spaces and reputations of spaces in a professional environment.

  3. Yuck. Your open letter surely confuses sex with unsolicited sex or abuse. “Where to hook up at UBC” does not mean “Where to rape at UBC” or even “We encourage you to have sex in the English Department”. To have an education, and particularly belonging to the English Department, with no sense of humour, to grasp the nature of the original article is surprising. Not everything written out there is to encourage “rape culture”, attack your beliefs, promote abuse of women or disrespect to spaces and communities. Perhaps you should also read http://ubyssey.ca/blog/25-places-people-have-had-sex-on-campus-at-ubc474/ written a year ago by the Ubyssey and realize most people actually do have sex in places you might find objectionable, and do so with pleasure, and willingly.

    1. Yuck. Your comment surely ignores the inherent disrespect of telling people that others’ private workspaces are places to have sex. I encourage people to have awesome, healthy sex, and am not naive to the fact that people on campus have sex in places other than their dorm rooms. Yet, to have the ability to read this article, with little sense of the basic principles of respect, is surprising. Not everything written out there is to ruin your fun, to support your belief that people with critiques are devoid of humour (although we do prefer more well-executed humour that this article), or to ruin your readerly jollies. Perhaps you should realize that many members of the UBC campus – students especially – are not so foolishly disrespectful as to take over others’ private spaces for their own pleasure.

    2. I thought furthering your education WAS actually ABOUT education! So your saying its just about sex and alcohol. What a waste of money.

      1. Hi Woodsie,

        Furthering your education by way of university or college is the point. It’s not a waste of money. These are young people away from home for the first time with a new sense of freedom and they are exploring sexuality. That’s natural and a part of growing up… so what I believe this author is sensitizing her readers to, are some of the dangers of reducing those experiences into a “hook-up” article that glosses over the realities of rape-culture on campuses.

        Her education and writing about rape-culture is useful I’d say. Not a waste of money.

        Thanks for your time. peace.

  4. While I don’t necessarily agree with all the points in your article I do see how the sexualization of your work place by someone who has no relationship or understanding of it can feel threatening.

    One of my first newspaper jobs involved a sexualized parking lot, where I would often arrive to sex acts and drug use taking place just behind the bushes by the front door. Surrounding that was an air of violence, and I one day, I witnessed the broad-daylight assault and attempted van-napping of a nurse just walking through to her car.

    If people want to have sex in public, and take on the legal risk of that, more power to them, but I would dread having some writer highlight the hidden areas around my current workplace, lest that atmosphere arise again.

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