Monday, September 1, 2014

What Are We Doing in Canada to Prevent Sexual Assault on Campus?

Recently in the U.S., the Federal government has taken a strong zero tolerance stance on sexual assault. The introduction of Title IX has caused universities in the U.S to take a more pronounced, principled position with regard to the matter. Title IX is a part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that protects people from sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal monetary assistance. In contrast to the U.S., in Canada, sexual assault is a matter dealt with by the state and is not left in the hands of universities to judge the fate of the victim or the perpetrator.

In the U.S., a sexual assault survivor can choose whether they would like the incident managed by the university or the state. In Canada, universities are not left with the arduous task of deciding the fate of the victim or the perpetrator. Since the introduction of Title IX, universities in the U.S. have now created prevention, education, and awareness programs to help shine light on what is tragically affecting one in four women during their time at post-secondary education.

This increased intervention in sexual assault on university campuses made me wonder -- are we doing enough in Canada to prevent similar outcomes? Are we doing enough to prevent sexual assault and ensuring the safety of young women in our country? Very few universities in Canada offer any sort of education surrounding consent, definitions of sexual assault, resources or awareness about the matter. In addition, very few universities even have sexual assault centres or sexual assault counselors at the university. Does this mean that sexual assault does not exist on Canadian campuses?

According to statistics on Canadian campuses published on the York University website, 29 per cent of female undergraduate students in Canada report incidences of sexual assault. The majority of rape victims are between the ages of 16-24. As well, nine out of 10 incidents have an emotional effect on the victim. According to Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault can include problems such as the development of: post-traumatic stress-disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, self-harm, suicide, depression, flashbacks and sleep disorders. With so many young women affected across our nation, and the risk of many tragic effects, this is clearly an issue that must be addressed.

If we have identified that this is a problem, it is necessary then to take measures to prevent these incidences from occurring. These measures could include the development of sexual assault centres at every university. In addition, universities should implement a sexual assault education program during orientation week. This could include information such as the law on consent, the legal definition of sexual assault, the difference between sexual assault and sexual harassment etc. Bystander intervention should be introduced at this program.

The "Green Dot" Campaign is a great example of bystander intervention that was created at the University of Kentucky Violence Intervention and Prevention Centre. Bystander intervention can include looking out for friends and ensuring that a drunk friend does not go home with someone alone unless she has the capacity to consent. Perhaps the "Green Dot" campaign can by adopted by universities across Canada. In addition, crisis numbers and sexual assault resources should also be distributed at orientation week, as well as hung in various places throughout the university.

Comprehensive websites should be created by university administrators that provide information on resources available to survivors. Moreover, a unified, organized protocol should be developed across Canada for tools and measures that universities can take when dealing with sexual assault on their campuses. Most importantly, it should be easily accessible for survivors to seek help and receive support on campus for an incident that has occurred. Young women should also be made aware that sexual assault is most often perpetrated by an acquaintance or a partner of the individual, not often by random strangers. The majority of sexual assaults happen by a person that the individual knows prior to the occasion.

In addition, sexual assault centres at universities should include sexual assault counselors who are well trained in the process of approaching the police as well as in counseling sexual assault survivors. Schools should act as a support and liason with the police for the student. Sexual assault protocol and disciplinary actions should be featured in student handbooks and should be outlined to all incoming students.

If institutes of post-secondary education are truly concerned with higher learning then they should espouse the value of treating others with respect and dignity. It is necessary for universities to not simply articulate these values in their written policies, but also embody them through the actions they take to create a safe space for students. This is especially important because unfortunately, these principles are not emphasized enough in high school, where sex education is significantly lacking regarding matters such as consent or healthy relationships. Most people learn behavioral norms from the media where sexual entitlement towards women and lack of respect for others' boundaries is continually emphasized and valourized.

Perhaps if a gender studies course was introduced in the high school curriculum certain stereotypical gender norms could be subverted. Both men and women could learn to be more respectful towards each other's boundaries and they could learn to challenge negative stereotypical norms. Hopefully in the future, universities will take a proactive approach towards preventing sexual assault as opposed to remaining silent accessories in the perpetration of these crimes.


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