At Fanshawe College, complaints of sexual violence are up, and that, says Carlie Forsythe, its student union president, is a “really cool thing.” It signals that Fanshawe’s anti-violence strategy is working. “We are seeing higher numbers [of reports],” says the 28-year-old human resources and project management student, “but we’re also seeing higher numbers of people getting help.”
College-aged women have a 15 to 25 per cent chance of being victims of sexual violence during their academic careers, although most will never file a formal report. That’s something governments across the country are under pressure to fix.
Like all Ontario colleges, Fanshawe has had a specific policy on preventing, reporting and handling sexual violence since March 2015. It details what sexual consent is and is not, says anyone reporting sexual violence has the right to be believed, and describes what to do for survivors, witnesses and those they disclose to. Based on a common template developed by Ontario’s community colleges, Fanshawe’s policy was launched in anticipation of an Ontario government requirement for all public post-secondary institutions to create and implement such protocols by January 2017.
But London-based Fanshawe, which has several campuses in southwestern Ontario, decided to go beyond its legal obligations. “We know a policy doesn’t really change what happens on the ground or attitudes,” says Suzanne Book, Fanshawe’s senior manager of counselling and accessibility services. So administrators brought together counselling, security, health and other student services into a single advisory group along with student representatives and community partners, such as a local hospital’s sexual assault treatment unit. Fanshawe also spent close to $100,000 on prevention efforts. That includes a 24-hour helpline launched in September (offering callers a recorded message and connecting them to services, such as campus security and the local sexual assault centre), and a sexual violence prevention adviser, established as the visible face of the college’s anti-violence efforts. Fanshawe is the first college in Ontario to create that role.
The adviser is a compassionate human GPS, helping victims of sexual abuse understand and navigate their legal and therapeutic options, even going with them to medical appointments if they choose. That ability to choose is key, as is confidentiality, says Leah Marshall, hired part-time as the school’s first adviser in July 2015 and bumped up to full-time in May 2016.
Marshall, 28, graduated in 2015 with a master’s degree in social work from King’s University College at London’s Western University, making her not that far removed from the campus culture she’s trying to change. She brought in popular YouTube sexuality video blogger Laci Green to talk with students about sexual consent and “rape culture.” Marshall partnered with student and community organizations to hold events that get people talking—films, poetry slams, art projects—and helped design swag for peak social times (“Ask before you bite,” reads a vampirish Halloween button).
The aim is to cut the stigma around victims of sexual violence—including the myth that it only happens to straight women, not men or LGBTQ people—and change sexual attitudes so that clear, affirmative consent is the golden rule. That means building strong relationships with campus leaders who can promote the message widely. This fall, Marshall has engaged other staff, residence advisers and varsity athletes to be part of a campaign against sexual discrimination. Based on a similar campaign at Duke University in Durham, N.C. called “You Don’t Say,” it counsels students to be mindful about how they speak about and treat others. A poster of Fanshawe Falcons baseball shortstop Carlos Arteaga, clad in full uniform and looking stern, carries the statement: “I don’t make assumptions. I ask, because consent is necessary.”
The numbers tell their own story. In keeping with the nationwide trend of sexual assaults being underreported, reports to Fanshawe security, which must be forwarded to London police, have been extremely low—a total of 10 in 2015 and 2016. But students are disclosing to Marshall: at least 45 have come to her for advice since September 2015. That doesn’t include those who seek help through the college’s counselling services.
AnnaLise Trudell, manager of education at the Sexual Assault Centre of London, says she’s been “truly impressed” with the college’s focus on prevention and awareness and its willingness to work with outside organizations to tackle a shared concern. “We used to be the radical feminist sisters pounding on the doors trying to get in,” she says. “Now we see that they’re using the same consent-based framework as we do.”