There were six educated, relatively privileged, Canadian women sitting at that table. And yet not one of us was free from the experience, or the fear, of victimization, especially on university campuses.
Last year I attended a Take Back the Night event with several women in downtown Vancouver. We took over the streets protesting women’s inequality and violence against women. A few of us gathered for dinner beforehand and began to discuss the issue of victimization and sexual assault. Soon the stories about each individual’s experience, the experience of her friends, her sisters, her cousins, her colleagues and other women came to light.
I realized how many of my female counterparts had been sexually victimized in one way or another and how much of this seemed to happen in and around our undergraduate degrees.
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
Recently Mateja blogged here about safety and prevention in elementary schools. We also need to discuss sexual assaults occurring across North American college and university campuses every day. Until recently little attention has been paid to this issue.
CBC News has tried to gather data on campus sexual assaults across Canada. They found that over 700 women had reported in the last few years, but this fails to acknowledge that more than 65% of women do not report sexual assault to officials. This is not surprising considering less than one percent of reported cases result in formal action.
Several schools in Canada also reported no sexual assaults in spite of the fact that research indicates almost 40% of women over the age of 16 have experienced sexual assault.
Several universities across Canada have surveyed students and drafted new sexual assault policies in the wake of recent high-profile cases. But far too little is being done on the prevention side. While some universities have developed poster campaigns or coffee cups messages to draw awareness to the issue, few seem to have any active prevention policies.
Universities may claim that it is not their responsibility to address prevention and that the police or other agencies have that responsibility. However, the U.S. Department of Justice found that college-aged women (18-24 years of age) have the highest risk of sexual victimization of any group of women.
Prevention can involve many things. Many argue that first we need to change rape culture and they are correct. However, these strategies will take time and in that time women are being victimized.
Some steps are already occurring. At Western University in London, Ontario, there is a dedicated CPTED expert who reviews buildings and grounds for potential crime opportunities. In Quebec, Bishop's University requires sexual violence prevention training for all incoming first-year students. The University of Toronto also offers something similar.
Several other universities across the country offer blue-light posts/poles in public areas that allow potential victims to hit a button and speak with security or notify them of their whereabouts. Others offer walk-home services, in which a male and female volunteer will walk a student home late at night.
Some action has been taken, but these strategies are merely band-aid solutions. If universities are extensions of our neighborhoods, perhaps instead, we need to create places where this conversation can be expanded further? For example, on university campuses, many women’s centers exist, yet there are no centers for men.
Many criticize men’s centers by claiming that all places are men’s places but these centers could be headed by trained feminist men, in partnership with women’s centers, who can encourage nonjudgmental and open conversations about proper consent, among other things.
A non-university example of this kind of culture jamming center called the Dude's Club, already exists in Vancouver. This may be a better way to change the cultural narrative by creating a safe space to learn to act differently in public spaces.