‘It’s not your fault…you’re not alone’

Many students reporting cases of sexual violence on campuses

REES founder and CEO Mary Lobson (Supplied photo)

On Sept. 17, approximately 10,000 Western University students, faculty and staff walked out of classes to protest the rape culture and sexism impacting their campus and campuses everywhere – as well as to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual violence.

After just one week on campus, four women filed formal complaints to the Western University administration about sexual violence. Many other allegations were found across various social-media platforms.

“I think whenever rape culture is pointed out in an institution, it is a reminder that misogyny and other forms of oppression that dehumanize are not specific to a location but a wider set of beliefs and practices,” third-year University of Winnipeg student Janine Brown says. “I’m disappointed in how campuses tend to link to gendered violence. However, I don’t think it’s surprising when we know these institutions are linked and feed into each other’s histories of patriarchy and colonialism. Having campuses built on stolen land founds them on violation of consent.”

These reports of assault, although devastating, are not shocking to many. Dangerous campus party culture has existed for a long time. A Facebook post by Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors (REES), a safe, online sexual-violence reporting system, reads, “the first six to eight weeks of the fall semester, commonly referred to as the Red Zone, refer to a statistically heightened period when instances of sexual violence occur.”

For many students, the transition to post-secondary environments is a major culture shift. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping (most) students off-campus for nearly two years, there are now significantly more people participating in university parties and social events for the first time.

Mary Lobson, founder and CEO of REES, says some people are referring to this year as “the double Red Zone,” because most first-and second-year students are on campus for the first time.

Although the fact that there are essentially double the number of people navigating university culture does not, at this time, prove that the Red Zone is heightened, Lobson says “it is certainly worth considering that there is double the amount of students who are coming in after a period of being in lockdown, where they haven’t seen their friends, and they haven’t partied.”

The conversation surrounding sexual violence is often focused on the heinous acts that survivors have faced, but Lobson notes that the conversation needs to be much broader than that. She says the “million-dollar question” is “how do we shift the culture?”

Lobson says this culture includes “catcalling, the comments that get made, the words or gestures or behaviours that are happening, not just on campuses ... at society at large.”

As this misogynistic culture has been socially accepted, Brown explains that the “fear around sexual assault and the litany of small protection employed to avoid it (going out with friends, being aware of your surroundings, holding your keys and phone when alone) are already standard practice, and these incidents serve more as reminders and less as awakenings.”

Many institutions lack transparency and accountability for those who have perpetrated sexual violence. Lobson says having systems in place to hold perpetrators accountable “potentially, will make it a deterrent to behave in particular ways.”

Just like sex, consent is often considered a taboo topic. A lack of consent education often enhances patterns and messages of toxic masculinity, leading to victim-blaming, slut-shaming and sexual violence – most often targeting women, specifically Women of Colour.

“Systems, generally speaking, don’t understand (victim blaming),” Lobson says. She explains that many people do not understand that the behaviour and language they use is victim-blaming, because it, alongside other harmful cultural norms, has been so normalized in society.

“Consent seems to have been boiled down to a transactional and legal mechanism under capitalism instead of a holistic understanding of how people interact with humility,” Brown says. “Practicing consent should be a way of living and learned process as opposed to a stated fact.”

Students who have experienced sexual violence are encouraged to call or text the Sexual Violence Response Team at 204-230-6660 for support or to email svrt@uwinnipeg.ca.

The University of Winnipeg has partnered with REES (Respect, Educate, Empower Survivors) to provide online reporting for sexual violence on campus. REES allows members of the campus community to create a record of the incident and provides multiple reporting options including "Anonymous Report," "Connect to My Campus" and "Report to Police." REES also provides information about campus and community-based resources such as sexual assault centres, healthcare and support services. To access the REES platform, go to reescommunity.com/campus.

Published in Volume 76, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 23, 2021)

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