Todd Diemer on Unsplash

Addressing sexual assault as a systemic issue in universities

By:
Tasheal Gill (IG: @tashealgill)

(Content Warning: sexualized violence, institutional harm)

We have many blind spots when it comes to addressing sexualized violence, and one of them has to do with the fact that we don’t want to think about the perpetrators. 

We don’t want to realize that they are people who walk within our midst, existing amongst our loved ones, friends, and family members. 

We are in denial because it is a hard truth to accept. We don’t want to admit as a society that our culture creates rapists by normalizing victim-blaming and violations of consent. 

The focus on individuals doesn’t necessarily help us understand the problem’s systemic nature, and instead perpetuates rape culture.

Rape culture exists when sexual violence becomes normalized and excused in society.

In an interview conducted by the National Sexual Violence Resource centre, researchers asked people to explain why sexual violence occurs, and interviewees discussed individual’s internal motivations.

They described sexual violence as the result of a perpetrator’s moral or psychological failing, and a “victims” inability to ensure their safety. 

These sentiments perpetuate victim-blaming since the focus is on “don’t get raped” or “don’t get sexually assaulted”, as opposed to shifting our view to the more important conversation of “don’t sexually assault” and “don’t rape”.

The social context and inequity also failed to surface in the conversation.

Through this lens, solutions to sexual violence are limited to punishments for perpetrators and self defence classes for women, when in fact, our focus should be on dismantling social hierarchies and institutions that perpetuate and promote violence. 

One of the biggest institutional offenders of this perpetuation are universities. 

Recent surveys estimate that up to 26 per cent of female college students and 6 per cent of male college students experience sexualized violence prior to graduation. 

In general, female college students are more at risk than their male counterparts to become a “victim” of sexualized violence. 

In contrast to popular belief, the majority of campus sexualized violence occurs between people who know each other. The terms “acquaintance sexual assault” and ”acquaintance rape” describe this dynamic between perpetrators and “victims”.

Strangers commit 19 per cent of sexual violence. 39 per cent of sexual violence transpires between acquaintances, while current or former intimate partners represent 33 per cent of cases. Up to 6 per cent of sexual violence involves more than one known perpetrator at a time.

 The social contexts of fraternities have also been identified as contributing to campus sexualized violence. For example, some scholars find associations between fraternity membership and the acceptance of rape myths and or attitudes of sexual aggression toward women.  

Furthermore, sorority members have been found to be at greater risk than non-sorority members to be sexually assaulted.   

 The vast majority of sexualized violence are not reported to the police, due to multiple barriers created within larger systems, which oftentimes leads to stigmatization, and do not protect the safety of survivors. 

Recently, three former UBC Thunderbirds football players have been charged with criminal offences related to an alleged sexual assault that happened in 2018. 

University RCMP said they were called to a residence on Acadia Road around 4:30 a.m., on Nov. 5, where a woman reported she’d been sexually assaulted by three men.

 Following an investigation led by the RCMP’s Major Crime Section, police said Trivel Pinto, 25, Tremont Levy, 26, and Ben Cummings, 24, have all been charged with one count of sexual assault.

The vice-president of UBC, Ainsley Carry said in a statement that the accused were no longer students at the university. 

 Carry added that all varsity athletes must sign a varsity code of conduct. As well, all athletes must attend mandatory education sessions with the school’s Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office.

 Sexualized violence has not only been normalized in university institutions, but also within sports culture. This particular incident of sexualized violence is just an evolution of broader rape culture.

 According to the Sexual Assault Support Centre at UBC (SASC), the organization had attempted to reach out on numerous occasions to offer educational and preventative training to UBC sports teams in 2018, the year in which the assault occurred, but were met with a lack of response. 

SASC has declared in an Instagram post that “this incident of sexualized violence [was] not only the failing of three single individuals, but the wider system from which their actions were learned, normalized, and perpetuated to the detriment of the communal safety of all students on campus."

With this sentiment in mind, it is important to advance towards a larger, systemic framework that centres on inequity. Without this frame, the conversation around sexualized violence runs the risk of positioning incidents as anomalies or unfortunate phenomenons. 

 There needs to be a continuous advocacy for radical systemic transformation at an institutional level that addresses sexual violence as systemic, which goes beyond a few educational sessions with UBC. 

Institutions hold a high responsibility in taking radical steps towards redressing rape culture on campus, especially within the realm of varsity athletics. 

Some food for thought in how to tackle sexualized assault at a systemic level: 

  • Teach consent: consent should be an important part of all children and teenagers’ sex education. We need to distill the idea that sex is a conversation, in which you pay attention to signs and look for enthusiastic, freely given consent from the other.
  • Normalize asking for consent: Asking your partner “can I do this?” or “are you enjoying this?” doesn’t kill the mood. It allows people to vocalize their boundaries and pleasure. 
  • Stop enabling rapists through rape jokes and victim-blaming: by minimizing the crime and placing the blame on the victim, these habits rationalize rapists’ crimes and provide them with justification. They validate their behaviour rather than questioning it. 
  • Fight toxic masculinity: by creating a model of manhood that isn’t tied to power and violence and by giving men access to mental health services without stigma. 
  • Make it a national priority: after civil wars, many countries organize National Commissions for Reconciliation, to address the crimes that have been committed and allow different sides to air their grievances and allow for the building of a new world together. We need to recognize the centuries of violence that have been committed towards women. Such a committee would show national and political commitment to fighting sexual violence and allowing the nation to move forward.

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Tasheal is a screenwriter and poet who believes creativity fuels true happiness. She is studying her first year of Film Production at UBC. Tasheal first discovered her passion for telling stories when she typed up old manuscripts for her dad at the ripe age of 9. Ever since, she has fell in love with the art of storytelling. Tasheal is an Aquarius who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism and enjoys binge-watching Frasier on a regular basis. Find her on instagram at @tashealgill

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