By Courtney Webster
Close your eyes, clear your mind, and take a deep breath. You are going to need all of the inner strength that you can get for this one. Are you ready? Let’s begin.
Think of five people in your life. These people can be male, female, gender fluid, or gender unidentified or undisclosed. These people can be family members, friends, colleagues, neighbours, or your favourite barista at your beloved coffee shop who always remembers your order. Just think of five people.
Do you have your five? Okay, now brace yourself for the next step, because it is not going to be pretty.
Open your eyes, take another deep breath, and read the following statement carefully.
- One in five women experience sexual assault while attending a post-secondary institution (Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario [CFS-O], 2015).
One in five. Remember those five people you were just thinking about? One of those people could be living proof of that statistic.
Now tell me that this statement does not evoke some sort of visceral reaction from deep within your core. Tell me that those numbers do not matter. Tell me that those people do not matter. You can’t, can you? So then tell me this – what are post-secondary education (PSE) institutions doing to prevent these numbers from climbing? What are PSE institutions doing to support survivors of attempted or completed sexual assault? More importantly, perhaps, what are they not doing that they could be doing?
The Current Situation
While the sources conducted for the purpose of this blog do not all share the same statistics as the CFS-O (2015) regarding the number of individuals who have been or will be sexually assaulted while attending PSE institutions, the numbers are all similarly staggering. Here are a few other statistics gathered from various sources:
- According to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s action plan, “It’s Never Okay”, developed to combat sexual assault on university and college campuses, one in three women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime (Government of Ontario, 2015);
- Studies over the past few years in the United States and Canada have estimated that 15 to 25 per cent of women had experienced some form of sexual assault during their time at school (Mathieu & Poisson, 2014)
While issues of sexual violence and harassment are not confined strictly to college and university campuses, it is a pervasive problem that must be addressed. There is a need for institutions to establish both prevention and intervention programs to reduce the incidence of sexual assault, while also providing effective support services for survivors (Cares et al., 2015). The objectives for PSE administrators and leaders should be to combat sexual violence on campus and foster a culture of respect, inclusion, and civility (Napolitano, 2015). The goal for all institutions and those working within them must be to be proactive, not merely reactive.
In a study conducted in 2014, researchers found that 16 PSE institutions in Canada of 87 surveyed have received zero reports of sexual assault for six consecutive years (Ward, 2015). While a low number of sexual assault reports might seem encouraging, researchers believe the numbers could unfortunately be indicative of an unsupportive campus climate in which students do not feel comfortable or safe reporting their assault (Ward, 2015). It is essential that administrators of PSE institutions understand and recognize that reporting a higher number of incidents could be suggestive of an institution in which survivors feel safe reporting, as well as one that is effectively tracking and monitoring data regarding sexual assault (Tamburri, 2015).
What is Being Done?
“It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment” is a 2015 document released by the Government of Ontario to address sexual violence across the province. One of the chapters within the action plan focuses on policies that are to be instated across Ontario PSE institutions. Many on-campus incidences of sexual assault occur within the first eight weeks of classes, thus as of September 2015, all PSE institutions were mandated to participate in a province-wide awareness campaign (Government of Ontario, 2015).
The goals of this action plan with regard to sexual assault on campuses are to:
- introduce legislation that requires all post-secondary institutions to adopt a sexual assault policy to be renewed every four years;
- ensure campuses have clearly stated complaint procedures and response protocols, effective training and prevention programs, and services and supports for survivors available 24/7;
- require all PSE institutions to publicly report on incidence of sexual violence
- support initiatives to reduce sexual violence and harassment;
- ensure that all students have information about preventing sexual violence and harassment and are informed of resources and supports, starting during orientation week and continuing through the year (Government of Ontario, 2015).
This action plan and its implementation indicate significant progress being made on the issue of sexual assault and reporting on campuses. In a previous investigative study conducted by The Toronto Star (Mathieu & Poisson, 2014), the researchers found that only nine of more than 100 universities and colleges had adopted a special policy to address sexual assault. While the majority of institutions had a line or a brief statement included in one of their other policies, they did not have a specific one regarding sexual assault, reporting, or preventative strategies.
Moreover, while the majority of the PSE institutions reported that they had on-campus security cameras, patrol cars, and emergency phones, these safety measures did not take into account the violence that occurs in residences or between students who know one another. While these measures might increase the feeling of safety on campus, they might not actually increase the reality of that safety (Mathieu & Poisson, 2014).
What Needs to be Done?
Now, these sources have all focused on sexual assault on women, but I want to make it clear that sexual assault does not happen to solely to women and that is why I asked you to think of five people, without specifying whether they had to gender identify in one way. I am not proposing that universities and colleges create special support programs and policies specifically for women, but for any individual who has ever felt threatened, unsafe, or has been assaulted.
Future research must consider all individuals, regardless of gender identification, sexual orientation, race, religion, or ability, and how they are impacted by sexual assault, both as survivors and as perpetrators. Further research will also need to be conducted to address the effectiveness of the “It’s Never Okay” action plan, as well as to ensure that it is being implemented.
It is time to foster a culture of care and safety within all post-secondary education institutions. For some students, PSE is a dream come true and an exciting adventure. We cannot allow that dream, that adventure, to become a nightmare.
One in five. We have work to do.
Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario. (2015). Turning the Page: A New Chapter for Ontario’s Post-Secondary Students (2015). Retrieved from http://www.cfsontario.ca/downloads/CFS-2015. LobbyWeek-Web.pdf
Cares, A. C., Banyard, V. L., Moynihan, M. M., Williams, L. M., Potter, S. J., & Stapleton, J. G. (2015). Changing attitudes about being a bystander to violence: Translating an in-person sexual violence prevention program to a new campus. Violence Against Women, 21(2), 165-187.
Government of Ontario (2015). “It’s Never Okay”: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/document/action-plan-stop-sexual-violence-and-harassment
Mathieu, E., & Poisson, J. (2014, November 20). Canadian post-secondary schools failing sex assault victims. The Star. http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/11/20/canadian_postsecondary_schools_failing_sex_assault_victims.html
Napolitano, J. (2015). “Only yes means yes”: An essay on university policies regarding sexual violence and sexual assault. Yale Law & Policy Review, 33, 387-402.
Tamburri, R. (2015, April 10). Ontario moves to combat sexual violence on campus. University Affairs. http://www.universityaffairs.ca/news/news-article/ontario-moves-to-combat-sexual-violence-on-campus/
Ward, L. (2015, November 23). Schools reporting zero sexual assaults on campus not reflecting reality, critics, students say. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/campus-sexual-assault-survey-1.3328234