university

Campus Sexual Assault: the Educational Experience I Never Wanted

The University of British Columbia University Sexual Assault Panel‘s report, which provides recommendations for both the university’s stand-alone policy as well as their sexual assault action plan, goes to President Martha Piper today, and it will have its public release at a date soon to be determined. I have spent the past three months working weekly with a group of excellent and committed UBC faculty members on this report. We have all put in more hours than originally anticipated, and in the last few weeks in particular I have been living and breathing this report every single day. This has been difficult, and I must emphasize, completely voluntary work. It has been work that comes with more costs than it does rewards.

And there have been costs for me, ones that I cannot even yet fully grasp.

While it has been a choice to go public and to advocate for change around sexual assault in educational institutions, it has also changed my life irrevocably, and not always for the better. I have given up my privacy. In many cases, I have given up my dignity: the most traumatic incidents of my life have become fodder for trolls on the internet. In being such a vocal critic of universities, I have also potentially signalled my liability as an employee in academic spaces. I do not have the protection of job security or the academic freedom that comes with a tenured position. I have tried to do all of this work while also balancing my research and my teaching. It is financially precarious, emotionally and intellectually arduous, and often frighteningly lonely.

In doing this work, I have also lived and re-lived some of the most humiliating and traumatizing incidents of my life. It is no coincidence that of the six incidents of sexual assault I have experienced since 2002, five of them have taken place on the campuses of educational institutions, UBC included. As is evident by so many of the stories coming out in the press, educational spaces are ones in which violence often goes un-checked, or worse, covered-up. Policies are lacking. Resources are non-existent or understaffed. Education around responding to disclosures is not always present or consistent. In the past three months, as I have had to give more thought to how UBC should be better equipped to respond to reports and disclosures of sexual assault, I have thought about my own assault that took place at UBC more than five years ago, one that I pushed as far into the recesses of my mind as possible so that I could focus on my doctoral degree.

I should say that deciding not to deal with that sexual assault more or less succeeded. To the outside world, anyway. In the years after my assault in 2011, I received federal funding for my scholarly work; I became a Liu Scholar at the Liu Institute for Global Issues; I presented my work at numerous national conferences; I’ve published in top journals in my field; I’ve become a consultant on national and provincial anti-violence initiatives; I’ve sat on countless panels, given countless interviews, written countless articles. I passed my doctoral defence with only two typos as revisions. My C.V., which details the past six years of my doctoral career, reads almost flawlessly, as if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen.

A few weeks into the spring term of 2011, just over a year into my doctoral program, I was sexually assaulted in the graduate lounge of my department, by student who had recently graduated from the program. I will spare you the preamble and the gory details, not because I am ashamed, but because they don’t particularly matter, and I am, despite my public persona, an intensely private person. But what you need to know is that I was terrified. Having someone’s arm crushing your sternum, and very nearly your throat, will do that do you. And afterwards, I was lost. I sought help at the Sexual Assault Support Centre, which, at that time, was located at the back corner of the old Student Union Building, right on the edge of what used to be MacInnes Field. In order to get to the front door of the SASC, you had to walk through and past all of the SUB’s garbage and recycling bins. I hope I do not need to explain that the fact that accessing support services adjacent to the building’s trash disposals made me feel as though I, too, was trash. Having tried to report sexual assault during high-school (and getting nowhere) and reporting stalking in my time at SFU (and only getting a rape whistle and a pamphlet), I knew that I wasn’t about to try yet again to receive any sort of justice. So I said nothing. And I did my work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been assaulted, and as it turns out, wasn’t the last. Somehow, violence can take on a strange sense of ordinariness. It becomes a thing that just happens before you get back to work.

Except when you dream about it. Except when it affects every single moment of your life. Except when you’re in crowds, or small spaces, or big crowds, except when you don’t have a seat close to the exit in the room, except when someone frightens you. Except then.

If this is the way things are for me, I want things to be different for others.

Truthfully, I want to live in a world where sexual violence doesn’t exist at all, but if that can’t happen, I want to live in a world where survivors of sexual assault are supported and believed, and where there are robust systems of accountability for both perpetrators and institutions. I believe that the judicial system is flawed, and that we need better options for education and rehabilitation.

I know that I don’t have all the answers.

But what I know is this: I want to live in a world where my fellow survivors and allies do not have to file human rights complaints (Mandi Gray – York University, Glynnis Kirchmeier – University of British Columbia) against their institutions because they are being failed; where we do not have to go to the media because the schools we attend will not listen otherwise. I want to live in a world where survivors do not feel as if they have no choice but to drop out of school, as recently happened at Simon Fraser University. I want to live in a world where survivors, like Lizzy Seeberg, do not take their lives because they are, as Rehtaeh Parsons’ father put it regarding his daughter’s suicide, “disappointed to death” by systems that re-traumatize and re-violate survivors.

I know that the report will not fix everything.

Nor will the policy. Nor will all the blue phones in the world. Because horrible things still happen. Nor do I think everything at UBC is broken, either. There are many good people working in a complicated and often-broken system, one that is ultimately dependent on the fact that a university is not simply a place of learning, but also a business. There are already so many front-line workers (those at the SASC in particular, under the leadership of the incredible Ashley Bentley) and staff members who provide services to sexual assault survivors at UBC every day.

There are UBC faculty who have signed the petition demanding better for their students, and apologizing for not having done enough. They organized a fantastic day of discourse and dialogue around sexual assault in February of this year. I am grateful especially to other students who are doing such amazing work: the ones who worked tirelessly in the decades before I even arrived on campus, the ones who I have stood with in my own time as a student, the ones who take up the torch now. This journey has connected me to so many of you, not just at UBC, but across the country, and although we have come together under such awful circumstances, I am so glad and grateful to know you. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. I know it’s such hard work. I keep a fire for you in my heart, always.

At the end of the day, I am not a faculty member, nor an administrator, nor a politician. I do not hold exceptional power within the UBC system. I am just a person who has been fortunate enough to hear stories that have been disclosed to me in whispers and private messages and phone calls. I am humbled by those stories, even as they keep me up at night, worried. I am just a person who has gone through some extremely difficult experiences, ones that I don’t care for anyone else to have to go through. That these experiences have occurred in the context of my schooling is painful; painful because school has otherwise been a place of joy for me, painful because sexual violence formed part of a curriculum I had no desire to have delivered to me. I have, as Raymond M. Douglas writes in his book On Being Raped, gained knowledge, but “not the sort that does you, or anybody else, any good. When I was raped, I learned things about myself and the world I live in that it would have been far better not to know. And for most of my adult life, the knowledge has been killing me” (4). I could have happily gone through my educational career without these particular insights. I could even have written my dissertation on representations of sexual violence without the added expertise of lived experience.

Having finished my PhD, I now leave the hallowed halls of UBC behind, hoping that in some small measure, they have become a better place for survivors because I and others have spoken up, and because panels like the one I was privileged to be a part of are doing the work that they are doing. I am aware of the fact that the increased scrutiny of the university’s response to sexual assault has been a nightmare for students, faculty, staff, and administrators alike.

51OmLU9LfHL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But I don’t think that the fact that UBC is currently under pressure to respond thoughtfully is a bad thing. Following the publication of his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Jon Krakauer faced incredible amounts of backlash by the town of Missoula itself, by the University of Montana, and by the police force. As reported by Jacob Baynham on Outside Onlineone woman left this comment on Krakauer’s Facebook page: “I am so disappointed in the title of your book,” said one woman on Krakauer’s Facebook page. “I hate to see a lovely town’s reputation get destroyed.” But as Krakauer points out, Missoula is just one example of the epidemic of sexual violence across America. Missoula could just as easily be Stanford, could just as easily be here in Vancouver. But the conversation sparked by such intense scrutiny has, at least as far as is being reported, created actual change. After a town hall forum in Missoula, Baynham reports that Krakauer was asked if he’d send his daughter to the University of Montana. “I would,” he said. “I think the university is safer now than most schools. Missoula is a lot better than most places. You have this big problem, but you’ve gone a long way toward fixing it.”

I think that the University of British Columbia can be a Missoula: not the school to be made a painful and humiliating example of, but the school that paves the way for comprehensive change at all levels of administration and campus life, and does in a way that does not simply prioritize supporting sexual assault survivors because it will look like a better strategy for fundraising. Call me an idealist, but I think it’s possible. And there are so many people, myself included, who want to make that happen. There are countless people with whom our panel consulted of the course of our work. The university’s draft sexual assault policy has been released, and both campus and community stakeholders are invited to give feedback here.

But for now, I take my leave from my alma mater, look for brave new worlds. There is so much anti-violence work out there to do, and I will continue to do it. May the development of the UBC sexual assault policy and the action plan be an honest process, tempered by humility and by courage. For all of the survivors of sexual assault who live and work at UBC: I love you, I am in awe of you, I believe you.

Much luck and much love,

Lucia

The Western Gazette Gaffe: On Holding Student Journalism Accountable

It’s that time of year again: as the dog days of summer wind down, Canadian universities are preparing to welcome a whole new cohort of incoming students. The now-empty quads and concourses will soon be abuzz with throngs of students kicking off the start of their university careers with the wide array of activities and services designed to ease their transition into the post-secondary experience. From BBQs to clubs days, from pub nights to residence and faculty-specific orientations, students are being introduced to both the academic and extra-curricular cultures specific to each university campus.

Yet, the start of the 2014-2015 school year isn’t necessarily footloose and fancy-free. Numerous post-secondary institutions in Canada are still dealing with the fallout of many notorious incidents on their campuses in the previous school year.

Image from the Ubyssey's  coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.

Image from the Ubyssey’s coverage of the rape chants at UBC-Vancouver.

  • In September 2013, both Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia came under fire when student orientation leaders were discovered to have led students in rape chants and anti-Indigenous chants as part of “team-building” exercises, chants which ultimately were found to have been a part of some orientation traditions for many years. In the wake of condemnation by both the public as well as university administrators, many student leaders resigned, and others were compelled to take part in anti-violence training.
  • From April 2013-October 2013, a total of six sexual assaults on female students occurred at the University of British Columbia. The perpetrator responsible for these attacks remains at large.
  • In January 2014, the McMaster Redsuits (students from the McMaster Engineering Society) were suspended over a FROSH songbook that included “around 25 cheers and includes multiple references to violent rape, murder, incest, bestiality and sex with underage females. It is also rife with misogynistic and homophobic slurs” (Campbell & Ruf). The suspensions have barred the MES from participating in 2014 Welcome Week events.
  • In Feburary 2014, a female candidate in student elections at the University of Ottawa, Anne-Marie Roy, was the target of sexually explicit commentary by fellow students. As Diane Mehta of The Canadian Press reported, these messages “included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.”
  • In March 2014, the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team was suspended over allegations of a sexual assault perpetrated by two of their players. As the Ottawa Sun’s Danielle Bell reports, the head coach was aware of the sexual assault, but failed to report it to university officials: as such, the team has been suspended for the 2014-2015 season, and the coach has been dismissed. Recently, the two players – David Foucher and Guillaume Donovan – have both been charged with one count each of sexual assault.

Clearly, it’s been a tough year, for students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. Addressing issues of sexual violence and the normalization and trivialization of sexism and racism has been a complex undertaking. In addition to sanctioning student leaders who promote sexism (even under the guise of “jokes”), and rightly punishing students who commit acts of sexual violence, several universities have put together task forces in order to try and create best practices for addressing these issues, including an increase in the availability of safety measures and support services for students, staff, or faculty who have been harassed or assaulted.

Given the widespread coverage that the past year’s incidents have received, I had been hopeful that FROSH 2014 would take on a different tone, and that undergraduate students would be encouraged to create community and solidarity – to break the proverbial ice – around anything but sexism, objectification, harassment, or violence. 

Yet, as this school year begins, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and administrators at a Canadian university are finding themselves dealing yet again with a student-led initiative that uses sexual harassment as a basis for creating a welcoming environment for incoming students.

Screen shot 2014-08-26 at 7.33.51 PM

As part of their special FROSH-week edition, the undergraduate student newspaper at Western University, The Western Gazette, included a “satirical” article written by Robert Nanni, entitled “So you want to date your TA?” Among the “tips” that Nanni provides, he suggests that students a) Facebook “stalk” their TAs and get to know their personal interests; b) dress provocatively in order to gain attention; c) use office hours in order to score alone time with their TA. Finally, Nanni writes, students should know when to stop their pursuit of their TAs: they may have to resign themselves to not getting laid. After all, “they may not be giving you head, but at least they’re giving you brain. Don’t be too disappointed though – after all, there’s always next term.” 

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they're still professionals with a job to do - a job they take very seriously.

Professors and Teaching Assistants may be chili-pepper worthy on RateMy Prof, but they’re still professionals with a job to do – a job they take very seriously.

Shortly after the article’s publication on August 20th, teaching assistants, alumni, students, and professors alike expressed their staunch criticisms of the piece. A commenter named Kelly writes: “This is disgusting. Teaching Assistants are employed, as experts in training, by universities to facilitate student learning. It is a job, and this kind of behaviour from students is not tolerated and should not be encouraged. I would report a student immediately for inappropriate behaviour like this. As a teaching assistant and PhD Candidate, I find it insulting and inappropriate to publish this, because it implies a lack of professionalism from TAs and undermines their authority and knowledge.”

Another commenter, “TA/Adjunct,” commented: “As has been mentioned, many TAs at Western are women who must battle against a sexist university culture that insists they are not as smart as men, or that they are only here because they have something to prove. I’ve seen this with my female colleagues many, many times. Too many to count. I was also on the receiving end of very unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances by a student. It put me in an unbelievably precarious position, even more than I already was a low paid TA.” 

Despite the backlash against the article (including a letter penned by Dr. Janice Deakin, Western U’s Provost & VP-Academic), the paper’s editor-in-chief, Iain Boekhoff, maintains that the article is, quite simply, a piece of satire, despite compelling evidence (especially by TAs themselves!) that the satire fails miserably in hitting any sort of humourous mark. 

The problems with the article have already been well-commented on, and I agree wholeheartedly with the criticisms. TAs are professional members of the university community, ones who are bound by a series of professional codes and boundaries, and who deserve much more than being objectified and sexualized by the students they are meant to teach and mentor. 

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed that Boekhoff refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the criticisms, the seriousness of sexism and harassment, and to acknowledge that perhaps, the paper might have erred in publishing the piece. Even though he maintains that this is an opportunity for the paper to learn and do better in future, he stands by the piece being published, and refuses to take it down from the website. However, there are two main reasons why I’m really disappointed in Boekhoff’s reaction, and why I think his statements do a disservice to university communities: one, they resort to the tired old stereotypes of those who dare to call out sexual harassment and sexual objectification; two, because they make excuses for a lack of accountability within the campus community, and within student journalism more broadly.

As reported by Mike Donachie in the Metro News, Boekhoff dismisses the outrage as the product of a small group of clearly over-reactive individuals: “I had one complaint late Sunday night which is after three days of people losing their minds on Twitter,” he said. “This thing is entirely Twitter.” I can’t say I’m surprised that Boekhoff would choose to say that the measured criticisms, including those by prominent professors and community members, are tantamount to people “losing their minds.” After all, the discourses of “craziness” are so often-applied to those who protest against harassment and sexism that it is almost to be expected. When news of the rape chants broke last year, there was an incredible amount of condemnation of the complainants on the basis of their apparent “lack of reason,” namely that they were oversensitive, unable to take a joke, or simply so unstable that they would take offense even at the most mild forms of humour. Not to mention, of course, that Twitter activism has often been maligned in the same manner, that those who react to incidences of sexism are merely keyboard warriors, whipped into a hashtag-fueled, emotional frenzy, who have nothing better to do than point out the fault in seemingly-innocuous media. By creating a divide between “official” complaints and those offered on the website’s comment section and via Twitter, Boekhoff is essentially suggesting that there are less legitimate (and therefore, less reasonable) forms of complaint and criticism – forms which ultimately, are not to be taken as seriously.

In an interview with Zoe McKnight at the Toronto Star, Boekhoff turned his attention yet again to the ways in which his critics simply lacked a sense of humour or an adequate interpretive lens: “The role of the student press is different from the role and standards of the mainstream press … Students view things from a different vantage point than adults or university administration.”

In suggesting that the role of the student press is different than that of mainstream media outlets, Boekhoff is seemingly suggesting that student writers and editors are not professionals who are capable of being both respected as well as being held to account in the same ways as “real professionals” are. However, student newspapers are not underground or anonymous zines, nor are they views expressed on personal blogs or webpages. They are organizations that are funded by students’ tuition fees, and ones that thus bear strong affiliations with the universities themselves. And so, when the employees and students of the institution on your masthead have a serious issue with the content you’re presenting, especially when it so clearly contravenes the policies of safe workplaces, it is deeply unprofessional to pull the “we can’t be held accountable like the grownups/professionals are” line. This is not to say that university papers, including their individual writers and editors cannot ultimately choose to stand by their work, no matter how profoundly others disagree. Yet, in asserting that they ought not to be held to the same standards, they thus also give up the right to be given the same respect as professional media outlets, which is an insult to the hundreds of committed student journalists and editorial team who work to produce these papers. 

Student newspapers, just like student-led orientations, organizations, and athletics teams, are a vital part of a thriving campus community. A university newspaper provides not only a way for students to keep on top of the current events on their campus, and an opportunity for budding journalists to cut their teeth in the business, but also gives students a way to expose the problems and issues within the community, and in doing so, keep the community accountable. Indeed, news of the rape chants at UBC were first broken by Arno Rosenfeld, a reporter with The Ubyssey, who conducted a thorough series of interviews and investigations into the issue, even after the story had been picked up by major news outlets. Because the staff of these papers are students’ peers and representatives, there is an powerful bond of trust that goes along with working in student journalism: student reporters often have connections within the campus community that outside media do not, and the peer-bond can often make these reporters and editors feel more trustworthy. 

In pointing out the issues with FROSH orientation events, or athletic teams, or student organizations, or student newspapers, critics, especially those from within the campus community, are rarely out on a mission to collapse, defame, or destroy these parts of campus culture. We are not rallying to eliminate Greek life, protesting to shut down all Orientation events, or stopping the presses at university papers. Rather, we are recognizing that these parts of campus culture are important enough, and provide enough positive sources of community-building and leadership that we want to work together to ensure they aren’t made unsafe by misguided and deeply offensive articles, racist or sexist chants, or actual instances of sexual violence, harassment, or sexism.

Works Cited

Bell, Danielle. “2 Ottawa U hockey players charged with sexual assault.” Ottawa Sun. 22 Aug. 2014.

Chapman, Julia, and Cory Ruf. “McMaster student group suspended over ‘sexist, violent, degrading’ songbook.” CBC. 23 Jan. 2014. Web.

Donachie, Mike. Western University student newspaper runs article on how to ‘stalk’ teaching assistants.” Metro News. 25 Aug. 2014. Web.

McKnight, Zoe. “Western University paper stands by controversial article.” Toronto Star. 26 Aug. 2014. Web.

Mehta, Diane. “Ottawa student leader denounces ‘rape culture’ on Canadian campuses.” CTV News. 2 Mar. 2014.

Nanni, Robert. “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” Western Gazette. 20 Aug. 2014. Web.

PSAC Local 610 Executive. “So you want to treat your TA like a human being?” PSAC610.ca 26. Aug. 2014. Web.