VANCOUVER – Women at the University of British Columbia are being urged to stay safe, don’t walk alone at night, carry a whistle, ask for a late-night escort.
But some on the campus gripped by worry over the presence of an apparent serial sex attacker are questioning why there isn’t more focus on condemning the crime in the first place.
Despite the good intentions of campus security to inform women of measures to protect themselves, the emphasis seems to be falling on only women, said Anisa Mottahed, manager of the Sexual Assault Support Centre at UBC.
“It’s not speaking to the population in a way that I think it should be,” said Mottahed. “So instead of focusing on the fear piece, looking at the collective responsibility piece is a little more important.”
Mottahed wants the university to focus less on the fear of sexual violence and more on how the entire community can make the campus safer.
That involves everything from encouraging assault witnesses and survivors to speak up to heightening awareness of the unacceptable behaviour evident in a frosh-week chant glorifying rape sung by some students at UBC and at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax last month.
Mottahed said providing safety tips often contributes to the notion that survivors of assault should be blamed for not doing enough to protect themselves.
“Carrying a whistle can be helpful for some people…but it’s not the only answer,” she said. “I can recognize if an individual was carrying a whistle and if something does happen, there may be self blame that they didn’t control the situation better because they were carrying a whistle, for instance.”
The university’s extra security measures has one anonymous student putting up unofficial posters warning males not to be rapists, and saying a woman walking alone at night is not an invitation to assault.
“Don’t be a creep! Learn how to manage your sex drive!,” reads one poster.
But Mottahed doesn’t think that sends the right message either.
“It’s not about sex or sex drive, it’s about power and control.”
Lise Gotell, chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Alberta, said she understands the hysteria surrounding the recent attacks at UBC, and that the school’s immediate priority is to protect its students.
However, telling women to do something many have been taught to do all their lives doesn’t necessarily makes them safer, she said.
“We are taught to be fearful of male violence, we are warned constantly from the time we’re little girls,” she said in a phone interview.
“To issue, ‘Women please go out in pairs,’ does nothing to actually increase women’s safety, but instead it constrains women’s mobility.”
Gotell said statistics show that women are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by people they know — boyfriends, friends, family members — than they are by strangers.
“Obviously a stranger rapist who’s preying on students at UBC, that’s a very worrying situation,” she said.
“But there are acquaintance sexual assaults that are probably going on on a weekly basis, maybe even a monthly basis. To say ‘Walk in pairs,’ or ‘Don’t go out alone,’ actually gives the wrong kind of advice.”
Gotell said universities need to invest more in things like sexual assault prevention workshops — something that UBC’s commerce undergraduate society has now done after the controversy around the chant that glorified abuse of underaged girls.
“When students have access to good prevention programming, and rape awareness and consent awareness workshops, that’s the kind of thing that really has potential to change people’s behaviour and to really reduce the incidents of sexual assault on campus,” she said.
Louise Cowin, vice president of students at UBC, said she understands that the school’s heightened safety measures have come under criticism, and that a broader conversation around systemic sexualized violence needs to take place.
“Our intention is not to blame women in general in any way, shape or form,” she said.
“But I think it really is about the fact that we have a real situation on our hands. Somebody is targeting young women when they’re walking alone after dark and as a university, we feel we have a responsibility to ensure that the community knows the attacks are taking place, and what practical steps people can take so that they’re not putting themselves into a vulnerable position.”
Cowin said some students have also stepped forward with their own security measures.
“There are groups of men who have come together and have created their own resident safe walks, so that women living in residences can tap into those both en route to somewhere for the evening and home from somewhere,” she said.
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