(Previously published in WLUFA Advocate, November 2014, volume 3, issue 2.)
Helen Ramirez, Women’s Studies
Truthfully I feel like yelling. For years I have been hearing stories of rape from young people here on campus. Others like me have knocked on the doors of colleagues and administrators to call attention to our complicity in the building of a rape culture. The doors usually open for a few minutes but then are shut when the attention is deemed too harmful to the university’s reputation or the economic costs too high. We address the issue in bits and pieces with no sense of our accountability. How much longer can we dismiss the gendered violence students face while on our watch?
One in five women on a university campus is likely to experience a rape. Only six percent will actually report it. And Laurier is no exception – a message driven home in interviews for a recent Toronto Star article on rape culture. The paper’s journalists had gotten a hold of a letter written by students to administrators, deans, and the student union detailing student sexual assault here at Laurier. The letter also disclosed the institutional silencing of their voices, and their fear that those who had assaulted them would not be held accountable.
I sat in on the Star’s interview and listened as young people of all genders, races and sexual orientations told their stories. What shocked me most were not the actual details of the rapes themselves, but the intensification of their trauma be
cause of our failure as professors, staff and administrators.
Students recounted a myriad of experiences: from catcalling and signs held up in public spaces measuring them as a 4 or 8 in sexual attractiveness, to “Spotted at Laurier,” a website where students post images of others, with commentary, such as a tweet announcing that the women in the front row of a class “were bitches” and they should “shut the f__ up.” Currently there are 10,000 viewers on this site. Anyone can post without fessing up, but there is no anonymity for the target.
Students also told stories about being invited out to dinner, and once making it clear they aren’t willing to have sex, having the invitation withdrawn. Many mentioned the pressure to be available simply for acceptance in the wider university culture. Is this a choice made from a position of equality? And what happens when sex occurs when no consent has been given? Women know the stories that are told about them in this culture that marks them as a “good kill” or a poor one.
Women consistently get the message that the measure of their worth is in the hands of the men around them. But the power of this culture hits on anyone who appears to fall outside the parameters of the white straight “norm,” including students of colour and those who identify as LGBTQ. These students’ safety and acceptance in the wider social life of the university is mostly in the hands of their white peers.
Why is it that – to the extent we talk about sexual violence at all – we reduce the conversation to the event of the rape itself? We never talk about the preconditions for rape or the aftercare that is piecemeal at best. Yet this toxic culture is all around us. Many faculty and administrators just fail to, or don’t want to, see it.
The letter that sparked the Star article has led to some positive steps being taken, namely the establishment of the Gendered Violence Taskforce. Still in its infancy, the taskforce is drawing on important Social Innovation Research Group research about the culture of rape at our local universities and colleges, and is facilitating a Bystander Training process for all faculty, staff and students at Laurier.
These are important first steps. But to put an end to rape culture on our campuses, these efforts will need the support of every one of us. No more silence, no more sidestepping responsibility – not when more than half our student body is at risk. Our job as faculty (and as administrators) includes making learning – and the environment in which learning occurs – safe. Maybe I’m feeling a bit more hopeful about possibilities. . . . I owe these students my voice, and I hope I have honoured their courage.