Last month, hundreds paraded through the campus of the University of British Columbia to protest sexual violence, specifically six unsolved late-night outdoor attacks on female students since April. A hooded predator prowling dark grounds in search of coeds is a familiar conceit, one that informs how we think of sexual violence on campuses. Recently it was given airing in a Toronto Life story that claimed increased safety measures at Toronto’s York University, where women receive “rape whistles” at orientation, haven’t prevented campus grounds from being “a hunting ground for sexual predators.” (The school has taken legal action, claiming the article “presents a wholly distorted picture of women’s safety on the campus.”) Yet the UBC march to “Take Back the Night”—a rallying cry since the ’70s—bristled with more nuanced references to the reality of campus sexual assault, the vast majority of which are never reported nor easily framed in black-and-white terms. Signs held high connected the current attacks with entrenched “rape culture”—sexual violence being ignored, condoned and normalized, witnessed in the “rape chant” on the UBC campus in September. Other placards decried the RCMP reporting some UBC victims were wearing short skirts: “My little black dress does not mean yes,” read one.
UBC administration responded to concerns and fear with predictable reassurances. President Stephen Toope described the university as “one of the safest campuses in North America” and announced “unprecedented police and security measures to make sure students feel safe.”
Yet if one area has proven that throwing money at a problem won’t solve it, it’s the thorny topic of sexual violence on campuses. Millions have been spent on catchy campaigns—“No means no,” “Consent is sexy,” and “Don’t be THAT guy”— aimed at men (one poster features a passed-out woman and the line: “Just because she’s drunk doesn’t mean she wants to f–k”). We’ve seen “white ribbon” campaigns to end violence against women, “blue phone” safety systems, “Green Dot” initiatives to promote bystander involvement. Yet those on the frontlines of sexual-violence education, a 40-year-old industry, say little has changed since the ’70s in terms of incidence or attitudes, save the arrival of “rape culture,” an elastic term that both defines and excuses. The focus remains on the victim, says psychologist Gail Hutchinson, director of the student development centre at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “People still ask, ‘Where was she?’ ‘What was she wearing?’ ‘How much was she drinking?’ ”
A glimpse of the institutionalized thinking was seen in 2011 when a Toronto police officer told female students at York they’d protect themselves from assault if they didn’t dress “like sluts.” His comment incited “Slut-walk,” now an international event. “People still don’t get it,” says Hutchinson, pointing to a June 2013 Canadian Women’s Foundation study that showed almost one-fifth of respondents believed women provoke or encourage sexual assault when drunk. “There’s this sense that if a woman is drinking, it’s open season,” she says. “But it’s the opposite: There can be no consent if a woman is drunk.”
Others in the field point to increased violence within an increasingly desensitized culture. Irene Smith, director of Halifax’s Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, has observed a steady escalation in sexual violence over the past two decades, a trend she attributes to easy access to pornography and sexual violence being ingrained in popular culture—rape jokes on Family Guy; a parade of female violation on CSI; Grand Theft Auto V featuring one man holding a gun to a woman’s head while another readies to rape her. “We’re seeing multiple perpetrators—gang rape—more often,” says Smith. And now a second violation can occur if an assault is recorded, then posted online, as seen in the tragic example of Halifax teenager Rehtaeh Parsons, who committed suicide after reportedly being raped at age 14 by four boys and tormented when a photo of the alleged incident was circulated.
Exposing the scope of the problem is impossible. Only six per cent of sexual assaults in the general population are reported to police, according to Statistics Canada. Reporting on campuses is lower, a fact attributed to victims’ lack of confidence in the university authorities and the criminal justice system. But the closed-circuit of university life is also a factor: Women tend to assimilate blame for behaviour that occurs in a social context. One study quoted by Halifax’s Avalon reports four out of five women in university report unwanted sexual advances from a romantic partner. A snapshot of prevalence is provided by an October 2013 study in JAMA Pediatrics: nine per cent of 1,058 male respondents between 14 and 21 reported perpetrating coercive or forced sexual violence; most said they used guilt more often than threats or physical force. In most cases, the victim was someone with whom they were “romantically involved.”
Estimates from the American Association of University Women paint a bleaker picture: one-quarter of female university students are victims of rape or attempted rape. Other statistics suggest 20 per cent of women and three per cent of men experience sexual violence on campus. The upshot: a woman remains at greater risk of sexual violence, most likely from someone she knows, while attending university than in prison.
That statistic may sound shocking but it isn’t, says Maggie Crain, a counsellor at Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre and the coordinator of a program aimed at ending sexual violence on the city’s campuses: “Universities are petri dishes for both ‘rape culture’ and sexual assault,” Crain says. “They’re a microcosm of the way society teaches people how to party and treat women.”
And that über-frat-house mentality—Animal House meets The Accused—has been elevated to titillating spectacle itself, reflected in a litany of outrageous events that dull the capacity to shock. In 2011, a University of Vermont fraternity surveyed members, asking: “If you could rape someone, who would it be?” A lawsuit filed last year against Wesleyan University by a former student alleged she was assaulted during a party at a fraternity known as the “rape factory.” A flyer at Miami University of Ohio—the site of 27 reported sexual assaults between 2009 and 2011—titled “Top ten ways to get away with rape” ended: “If your [sic] afraid the girl might identify you slit her throat.” Even august Oxford University recently disciplined its rugby club for sending out a party invitation that told players to pick a “fresher of their choice” and spike her drinks. Joking about, even endorsing, rape is a badge of conformity on campuses, witnessed by first-year students at UBC and Saint Mary’s University in Halifax being welcomed by student leaders cheering for the sexual assault of minors. The scene at Saint Mary’s was caught on video: “SMU boys, we like them young,” men and women both chanted: “Y is for your sister, O is for oh-so-tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass.”
Kathleen Lahey, a law professor at Queen’s University, views university students as “canaries in the coal mine” of societal attitudes to sexual violence. Conditions on campus are ripe for mob behaviour, she says: “You have young adults free of significant institutional supervision for the first time in their lives, which make some vulnerable to social suasion. It’s especially true at the beginning of university where everyone feels out of their depth and there’s a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle positioning for who’s cool, who’s a leader, who should be emulated.”
Even student leaders are vulnerable, says Patricia Bradshaw, dean of Saint Mary’s Sobey School of Business, who spoke with female students after the “rape chant.” They were “devastated” by the fallout, she says: “They were just going along; they didn’t reflect on the internalized sexism.” Others were uncomfortable, but were afraid to speak up.
Such a climate makes universities the perfect ecosystem for sexual assault—and its suppression, says David Lisak, a Boston-based psychologist. Lisak’s research detonates myths about campus assault, primarily that the guy lurking in shadows poses the greatest risk. An estimated 80 per cent of victims knows her or his attacker, Lisak says, a statistic true in the general population as well. Lisak speaks of “non-stranger rape,” rejecting the term “date rape” as sounding like “rape lite.”
Lisak waves away conventional wisdom that most campus assaults stem from “mixed signals” or “dates gone bad,” as police often term the crime. Most are premeditated, he says. Predators operate within the student population just as they do in society. Often student perpetrators are serial offenders who have raped nearly six times on average by their early 20s and will continue to do so after university if not caught. The message that a tiny percentage of students are predators is not one people want to hear, says Lisak, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He didn’t believe his findings at first, he says: “I harboured this naive schema that this may be true about crime in the community or crime in military but surely university students are different. Turns out they’re not. But it’s a mental step to understand that there are a small number of repeat sex offenders who enroll in universities just as there are sex offenders in the military.”
Universities offer fertile ground for subcultures—fraternities, sports teams—where you have a ringleader, says Lisak. Partying and a culture of binge drinking provide cover. “Predators target women they see as vulnerable; often they’re younger,” he says. They invite them to parties. Rooms are designated for the assault. “Consent” isn’t a factor.
The weapon of choice is alcohol, says Lisak, who has interviewed hundreds of rapists. The goal is to get victims into a twilight state, drifting in and out of consciousness. Research shows alcohol enables predators in other ways. In a 1991 study, Antonia Abbey, an associate professor of medicine at Wayne State University, notes men “consciously or unconsciously drink alcohol prior to committing sexual assault to have an excuse for their behaviour.”
“Rape chants” mirror serious problems in attitudes about rape and sexuality, says Lisak: “They provide camouflage for offenders who will not only join such chants, but will actually act on the implicit messages contained in them.” They also normalize deviancy: “To a narcissistic offender, knowing that a swath of his community will publicly say such things indicates to him that his distorted views of women and sexuality are within the norm.” Such acceptance can have another dire consequence, he says: People who ordinarily would not engage in predatory behaviours get sucked in and commit criminal acts.
The predator scenario isn’t yet part of sexual-violence education, says Smith, who invited Lisak to speak at Avalon in September: “Instead, we tend to focus on what women should be doing: covering their drink, watching out for a friend. And that makes them feel guilty if something does occur.” Hutchinson agrees: “We like to think we can pick out perpetrators. You cannot. As a result, most victims blame themselves— ‘He was my friend,’ ‘I should have seen it,’ whatever they want to tell themselves.” And that, in turn, can prevent women from reporting assault.
The community is in denial on the subject, says Smith: “We don’t want to believe the clean-cut kid is preying on first-year students away from home for the first time.” It’s easier to believe it’s the woman’s fault than to hold the offender accountable, she says.
The focus of traditional sexual-violence education fosters the misconception that sexual violence is a personal, not a societal, problem, says Smith: “We know people going to commit these crimes are going to target people. Which means messages to lock doors and windows or not drink too much are great. But he’ll just go on to the next one.” And there will always be the next one.
Just how distorted conversation surrounding college rape has become was evident in the recent furor over Emily Yoffe’s article for Slate, “College women: Stop getting drunk.” Yoffe advised women that binge drinking makes them more vulnerable to assault, a fact backed by research—and common sense. Yet she was pilloried for focusing on female behaviour, as if the problem was women letting themselves get raped, rather than on the assailant required for an assault to occur. Yoffe herself became the target of wrath rarely directed at accused rapists. The issue is complex, says Hutchinson: “Women should be able to drink as much as they want. The problem is, there are predators out there.” Cultural forces also govern, says Crain: “Kids are taught that you get drunk to hook up.”
“We’ve reached the point where reasoned conversation about sexual assault is rare,” says Melanie Randall, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario. Routine sexual violence in entertainment has dulled sensitivities to what constitutes sexual assault, she says: “People are less able to identify sexual assault or sexual violation.” The marginalization of feminism has also inhibited dialogue, she says, seen after the “rape chants.” “It wasn’t a big deal to me,” Saint Mary’s student Amanda Fougere told the CBC. “I’m not a feminist kind of person; it didn’t affect me personally.” In the ’70s and ’80s there was more vigorous discussion within feminism around the everyday practices of sexism and how they were connected to sexual violence, Randall says: “Now people find it passé; there’s even a virulent backlash against it.”
That backlash extends to sexual-violence prevention itself. Lahey, who teaches at Queen’s, points to students making a drinking game out of triggering or dismantling the school’s “blue light” safety alarm system for years, with no apparent academic censure or discipline. This fall, there also was backlash to the “Don’t be THAT guy” campaign in Edmonton, with “Don’t be THAT girl” posters plastered throughout the city that blamed women for making false accusations, which occur in eight per cent of cases, according to the FBI: “Just because you regret a one-night stand, doesn’t mean it wasn’t consensual,” read one.
Similar tensions exist at Saint Mary’s, says Lewis Rendell, a second-year student who sits on the board of the university’s women’s centre. “It’s a macho, jock culture; feminism is a dirty word,” she says, noting a lack of funding ended the centre’s annual “Consent-fest” workshop on sexual consent.
There will be no progress until men are brought into the conversation, says Lisak. He sees “bystander programs” like the MIT-based “Really?” as offering the most promising model by encouraging men to intervene in a threatening situation or to speak up when a derogatory comment is made: “That’s how you change social mores.” Psychologist Peter Jaffe, director of Western University’s centre for research and education on violence against women and children, agrees. But getting men to speak out is difficult, he says: “They feel they’re being disloyal to acknowledge the reality of this.”
In that void, we are seeing vigilante justice online, with the French website “Je connais un violeur” (“I know a rapist”), on which women describe their assailant to shame or locate him.
Expecting universities to solve the problem of sexual violence on campus is unrealistic, say legal experts, especially when they have to protect themselves legally. U.S. law requires strict accountability in reporting campus sexual assault for federally funded universities under the Clery Act, named for Jeanne Clery, a 19-year-old who was raped and murdered in 1986 in her dorm at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Yet there’s ample evidence of resistance to dealing effectively with campus sexual assault involving students, says Randall. The institutional instinct is to close ranks, to protect one’s own, as seen in the military.
An investigation by the U.S. Center for Public Integrity found students deemed “responsible” for sexual assaults face light punishment such as social probation or academic penalties; they often graduate, while their victims drop out. This year Yale allowed six students found guilty of “non-consensual sex” to remain enrolled. (It was fined $165,000 for failing to report campus sexual violence). The University of Southern California is facing investigation for ignoring sexual assault allegations. It’s led by Tucker Reed, who says her claim that her ex-boyfriend raped her was dismissed, despite recordings of him admitting it. School officials told her they wanted to offer an “educative” process, not to “punish” the assailant, she says.
A similar mentality was evident after the rape chants. A few members of the Saint Mary’s students’ association stepped down; others were “disciplined” in camera and sent to “sensitivity training.” Saint Mary’s president Colin Dodds expressed concern the school’s “brand” had been “tarnished” by the “rape chant,” which could affect student recruitment.
Task forces, the great Canadian solution, have been formed to table recommendations. Dodds has high expectations: “I’m hoping that the report will be seminal not just for us but the rest of Canada,” he told Maclean’s. “We have to rebuild trust and confidence and that is going to take time.” Given a Dec. 15 deadline, that will be difficult, says task force chair Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University, who also chaired the “cyberbullying” task force looking at Rehtaeh Parsons death. (The UBC task force’s report is due early in 2014). MacKay doesn’t foresee a quick fix: “The university is not going to come up with a formula that’s going to solve all of this.” Yet MacKay speaks bluntly of the “illegality” of the chant: “When it comes to sex with someone underage, statutory rape, consent is irrelevant; second, they were advocating non-consent which is sexual assault no matter the age.”
“The first line of defence is proper administration of criminal law,” Lahey says. Smith concurs: “The message needs to be focused on the fact that sex without consent is a crime. It’s as simple as that. We need to flip it around: It needs to go out to perpetrators and potential perpetrators that you are going to be held accountable.”
For that to happen, of course, a sea change is required in the way we see —and prosecute—campus sexual assault, one that begins with the difficult lesson that the stranger in the shadows is less of a threat than the familiar student down the hall.