sex positivity

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.