How to stop sex assault on campus

A University of Windsor program aims to spot trouble before sexual assault happens


The first semester is weeks away, but there have been a couple of big controversies on Canadian campuses already that have people wondering what, if anything, can be done to reduce the risk that women will be sexually assaulted at university.

At Concordia University in Montreal, a student group organizing frosh activities, the Arts and Science Federation Association (ASFA), told another student group, the Centre for Gender Advocacy, that “froshies” wouldn’t have time for two hours of sexual-consent training amid all the partying they had planned. Their vice-president made things worse by telling the Montreal Gazette that sexual assault “is just not something that happens at our frosh,” and that “there hasn’t been a reported case to my knowledge, ever,” stoking outrage among those who point out that most aren’t reported, and that the first two years of university are, in fact, when women are most at risk.

Then there was the promotional video from a private company running frosh events for University of Ottawa students that showed drunk people injuring themselves, including two bikini-clad women dumped out of a shopping cart by some shirtless guy. The university’s Student Federation told CBC that such dangerous hyper-sexualized situations are exactly what the group, which organizes the official frosh week activities, is trying to avoid.

It’s all reminiscent of the rape-promoting chants that had Saint Mary’s University and University of British Columbia frosh leaders apologizing last fall. Clearly strict punishments and stern warnings from administrators aren’t getting through. But is it even possible to get through to all students, or at least reach enough of them that we can reduce the risk of female students being assaulted—a risk researchers peg at one in four?

The fact that student groups like Concordia’s ASFA aren’t convinced of the value of peer training suggests there isn’t much hope. After all, they’re supposed to be the leaders. But there is another solution. It just might not be in the form of the mandatory-consent training the Centre for Gender Advocacy is pushing.

Julie Michaud, an administrator for the CGA, says their training was modeled on a program delivered in all McGill University residences. Part-time student coordinators start by defining sexual assault and then move on to discussions about how we live in a “rape culture” with “pervasive victim blaming attitudes.” They then ask 17-year-olds to do media analysis and consider complicated feminist theories at a time when they’d rather be out exploring their new city, meeting new people and, well, having sex. On top of that, the CGA (unlike McGill residences) proudly reports on its Facebook page that it’s “in solidarity” with Gaza and Native blockades (it’s an advocacy centre, after all), hurting its credibility among those whose politics differ. Regardless of the politics, I doubt these workshops would get through to very many young men, especially with so much else to distract them during frosh week.

But Michaud is right that sexual assault prevention is too important for universities to ignore, so more of them should take on the responsibility.

They could start by looking to programs like the Bystander Initiative at the University of Windsor, a project with positive results that is the subject of a presentation at the American Psychological Association convention in Washington, D.C. this week. Windsor professors Charlene Senn and Anne Forrest developed the semester-long courses where upper-year students learned to facilitate a three-hour workshop called “Bringing in the Bystander,” which they in turn delivered to students in lower-year business, criminology and psychology courses. They reached hundreds of students rather than the handful of keeners who might attend voluntary training. And yes, it was on the final exam.

The workshop was based on the theory that people don’t step in when something wrong is happening, not because they’re callous, but because of barriers. “For example, if you don’t notice something, you can’t help,” says Senn. “[Sexual assault] is very unlikely to be the stranger on the path to the library at night,” she explains, “but very likely the person you know in a post-party situation.” Students also practice how to step in when they see something wrong. Their research suggests it could create a campus culture of stepping in.

Forrest explains how it’s different from mandatory-consent training. “It’s the more universal message,” she says. Rather than addressing all men as potential rapists and all women as potential victims, it assumes most people are good, but that it’s everyone’s job to prevent sexual assault. Don’t think it’s airy-fairy; it also explains how serial rapists target women.

It seems to me that starting from a place of good will and offering training that has research credibility and a professor’s stamp of approval (not to mention class credit) is going to get a lot more buy-in from young men than consent training delivered by an advocacy group.

Jennifer Drummond, coordinator of Concordia University’s year-old Sexual Assault Resource Centre, says she will start offering bystander intervention training this fall. It won’t be for class credit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is built into the curriculum eventually. Other universities ought to step up and step in too.


How to stop sex assault on campus

  1. The first thing would be to get rid of the idea of ‘rape culture.’ We live in a sexualized culture – a ‘culture of sex’. Girls and young women – and older women – are situated in this culture in which everyone is expected to have sex – expected to participate. Making it a game is part of maintaining the secrecy of this well-known aspect of society. It’s not about wheeling girls around in shopping carts. It’s about preparing them to be women – conforming heterosexual women. Our society loves them!

  2. I also do not agree with Anne Forrest’s premise that most people are good and that it is just a few bad apples who commit sexual assault. Furthermore, concentrating on university students antics doesn’t get at the real problem, which is, as I have stated already, the culture of sex that pervades society. So, university professors as well as university students, and medical doctors, and lawyers, and just about anyone is capable of committing such deeds, and their wives and girlfriends are going to be the ones ignoring what’s going on – and benefiting from it, or at least, benefiting from their social status in society.

    • And your problem is denial. Sure, sex permeates society, but even animals have codes of conduct or the herd might kill you, or certainly run you off.

      Huge difference between being a predator and an seeking out sexual encounters. But does highlight the lack of respect we have for each other in society that so many cannot see the difference between the two and justify it on insane self serving positions.

  3. The Centre for Gender Advocacy is working to prevent sexual assault of people of all genders, not just women. We do not paint all men as potential rapists and we do not subject new students to complicated feminist theories. The consent workshops are interactive and engaging and make the concepts understandable for anyone. It’s good for people to get bystander intervention training so that they feel empowered to step in, but we also need to address the fact that we are each responsible to know that we have someone’s consent before initiating a sexual act with them. The consent workshops are about making sure that people know how to do that, rather than hoping that everyone will be sober enough to fend off a perpetrator (as so-called sexual assault prevention advice has so often advised us to do) or that a bystander will step in. The number one way to prevent rape is to… not rape. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but it’s not nearly as ridiculous as targeting every single person EXCEPT those who commit sexual assaults to take responsibility for preventing sexual assaults. While it may seem strange to try to address potential perpetrators given that society continues to imagine all rapists as obviously depraved and evil people, the sad truth is that all kinds of people violate the sexual boundaries of others, often in ways that are so normalized by society that they are not immediately (or ever) identified as sexual assaults. That, by the way, is what “rape culture” is. Too often these kinds of articles dismiss the term without even bothering to indicate its meaning. The term rape culture is used to describe the way that society normalizes and minimizes sexual assault, and blames the victim. Also, the period of highest risk of sexual assault is in the first few weeks of the school year, not the first two years of university.

    • But aren’t you perpetuating the idea of “rape culture” or more to the point, “sexual assault culture” by focusing on ‘consent’?

      I see it a main part of the young people’s education that they understand their own sexuality to some extent, which would involve learning some feminist theory, including the history of women and the family. I have heard some people refer to the word ‘patriarchy’ as though it is a ploy used by feminists – or an invention – to further their own agendas, as though there was no such thing.

      Our society has changed so much over the years that the term ‘patriarchy’ might be difficult for young people to understand, since women have made so much progress in terms of equality, but does that mean they shouldn’t be burdened with the task of learning necessary theories of women’s place in society?

      I thought for a moment that you and I agreed that not all of those who commit sexual assault are “depraved and evil people”, but then I see our paths diverge. It is not so much that some kinds of sexual assault are accepted as the norm in our society, in my view, but that sexual inappropriateness (or assault) committed by *some* people is seen as acceptable. I put it this way to include various forms of sexual harassment, which is one missing aspect in what you talk about in your post.

      Of course, what constitutes sexual assault is often not stated in such discussions, and I imagine it can include minor incidents, of the type that we would have considered normal when I was young – strangers’ hands where they shouldn’t be, for example. Even more than the term ‘rape culture’, the term ‘sexual assault’ leaves unclear what we are talking about. So when you argue that ‘rape culture’ is often not defined, that’s true, but unless sexual assault is defined, in the way it is meant today, are we any better off. And if any specific incident is discussed, simply in terms of ‘sexual assault’ how do we know how serious the incident was – was she touched on the breast, or had her panties been ripped off her and five men jump on her. Whatever you say, we end up talking about human sexuality in terms of the vague concepts ‘sexual assault’ and ‘rape culture,’ instead of focusing, for instance, on how society has changed in terms of sexuality, and where our society is headed.

  4. …so this is how we will eliminate sex, drugs, rock-n-roll,…, from our universities,… in canada? LoL
    Good luck with that, you fools, of fools.

    • Huge difference between sexual predator and consensual sex. You seem not to be able to see the difference. But do not worry, its part of a larger problem in that our society does not respect each other. If I save and invest money, you do debt, in time you will lust for my money as you messed up. It exends beyond rape, as so many of us have no respect for others.

  5. Easy to stop, or close to. First step is to fire anyone in denial that it is a problem. Fire anyone covering it up. Expel any students fostering, doing sexual harassment. Jail up rapists and anyone not helping discover truths gets fired/dismissed/expelled on (lack of) moral grounds. If caught with a date rape drug, firing/expulsion is automatic even if they didn’t use it.

    The amount of crime is proportional to the tolerance of the crime. Get a no tolerance policy with big sharp teeth. And watch the crime dissipate. Goes for Canadian Forces too, they should have a no-tolerance policy including polygraphs and truth determinations. Heck, I would not trust going to battle with a soldier who rapes our own, they would in time get you killed when they don’t do the right thing to save you in battle.

    And graduating students should include ethics, like the CF…. do not graduate rapists, murders, as a degree should mean more than puke learning and getting away with it.

    But hey, our societies ethics and morals are in active decay, 200 years ago rapists found a rope and tree as the last thing they saw. Honorable people stepped up.

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