The weather is getting cooler, and the Labour Day weekend is almost upon us, which means that back-to-school season has arrived in Canada. Every year, thousands of students make an exciting transition from high school to university, ready for a flurry of new experiences. While many of these new experiences are life-changing and positive, domestic violence is still heavily present on college campuses, where one in five women are expected to experience some form of sexual assault at a post-secondary institution in their college years. Furthermore, the risk for experiencing sexual violence is two times higher for women aged 18-24, compared to ages 25-34. Teaching young women the importance of safety, preventative measures, and raising awareness about sexual assault on campuses can help reduce the prevalence on campus.
What is sexual assault?
Sexual assault is classified as when sexual activity occurs where one of the parties involved did not verbally consent. Below is a list from the Government of BC to address potential instances of sexual assault and to help recognize signs of potential assault.
- Your words or actions that you did not want to have or continue sexual contact, but the sexual contact continued
- You submitted to sexual contact because someone threatened or used force on you
- You were not able to give consent to sexual contact (for example, you were drugged, impaired or have a disability that impedes giving consent)
- Someone persuaded you to have sexual contact by using their position of authority or power over you
Stigma behind speaking up:
There are many different reasons as to why speaking up about sexual assault, especially whilst at a new school, city, and environment, can be difficult.
Victim Blaming: Speaking up about sexual assault is a powerful, yet daunting task, and many fear that by calling out their abuser, others will label them as a victim. Victim blaming is a term used when the victim of a crime is held responsible for the doings against them. This can be from the legal court system, family members, friends, police, and the greater community. Furthermore, this can exacerbate the repercussions of speaking out for the wrongs done against them. Sexual assault has been associated with victim blaming for a long time, due to the delicate nature of the act, and this can deter many sexual assault survivors from taking action against their abuser.
In 2018, there was a rape case in Ireland, where a 27-year-old man was accused of raping a 17-year-old young woman, and he was acquitted based on her undergarments being too ‘provocative’, therefore dismissing the case and letting the man off from being charged.
After this case was released publicly, the community was outraged and protested in support of the young woman who was not able to get justice against her abuser. She was also shamed publicly, based off of a clothing item that had no relevance into the case itself, yet was used as the sole evidence in throwing out the case.
Examples like this are a major deterrent for women to come forward about their experiences with sexual assault, because lawyers may use evidence like this against them, that shouldn’t even be considered relevant, such as the type of undergarments that she was wearing. This may cause the women coming forward to feel shame, instead of helping her find justice against the abuser. In a recent Globe and Mail report, it was concluded that 1 in 5 reported sexual assault cases are written off as ‘unfounded’ – a politically correct term which refers to these assault cases as ‘lies’. This can be attributed to a problematic system, resulting from improper police training, and common misperceptions from law-enforcement officials regarding sexual assault cases.
Due to the stigmatization of sexual well-being, alongside a flawed sexual education program to primary and secondary schools and within the greater community, talking in a positive way about healthy sexual behaviours is often not prevalent in the school system. This can create a distorted view of what actions should be promoted and which should be discouraged.
When sexual acts are involved in crime cases, the stakes are higher for the survivor because they may not want to talk about such private areas of their lives to their family and friends. Sometimes, survivors may fear feeling not fully supported, and thus be reluctant to come forward about the assault.
Being questioned by the police department creates a flurry of questions from the public, ranging from the clothing the survivor was wearing, to the sexual nature of the crime. This can create feelings of shame for the survivor, not only because her integrity gets questioned, but also because much of her private life gets exposed to the public.
How to prevent sexual assault on campus
Preventing sexual assault requires effort from all of us, including peers, parents, schooling system, and most importantly, the legal and judicial system.
To prevent sexual assault, we need to educate ourselves about sexual assault. When post-secondary institutions hold workshops about consent, healthy sexual behaviours, sexual coercion, and sexual assault, this can help us recognize it in everyday life. Keeping campuses safe from abusers involves safety and security measures.
Currently at the University of British Columbia, the student’s association (AMS) offers a free service called SafeWalk for UBC students (within UBC grounds) where volunteers accompany students home, between the hours of 9:00 pm – 2:00 am (hours fluctuate depending on season), to prevent attackers on campus and to make students safer. At Simon Fraser University, they also offer this service (available seven days/week and twenty-four hours/day) where students can be accompanied around campus by a member of campus security to make their transit safe.
Awareness can be spread easily if people are ready to learn, listen, and lead to take a stand against sexual assault.
Relationship violence, and how it connects to sexual assault on campus
Unfortunately, 90% of sexual assault victims know their attacker. This dire statistic shows that sexual assault cases happen within personal relationships on and off campus. If we teach the student population about the importance of preventing sexual assault, we should also be teaching students about unhealthy sexual relationships. Consent is a term that is still as present in committed relationships as it is in casual relationships, and it needs to be continuously expressed, and can be redacted at any time, whether you’ve been together for 1 month or 10 years. Sexual activity is never to be presumed, and should be a constant conversation between romantic partners, discussing boundaries and frequency of sex.
Too many women experience sexual violence or assault at home, and therefore transitional housing programs and organizations, such as Dixon Transition Society, are immensely important to keeping women safe, and to raising awareness about the reality and impact of sexual violence and other types of abuse.
If you or someone you know is in need of our services, please call our 24-hour intake line at 604-298-3454. For resources outside of the Lower Mainland, please call VictimLink BC at 1-800-563-0808. If you are in immediate danger, please call 911.