The Toronto Star by Diana C. Parry 14 December 2014
In the early 1990s when I was an undergraduate student, I took a university course on human sexuality. One class out of the 12-week semester stood out: the class on sexual assault.
Our professor invited a guest speaker to share her experience of being sexually assaulted. I already knew plenty of women who had been sexually assaulted and was sensitive about the pain — physical, emotional, social — these women endured. That the speaker would be so brave as to publicly discuss such a horrific experience with a large group of strangers left me in awe.
The guest started her talk acknowledging the difficulty of discussing sexual assault and added that many in the room would likely find her experiences challenging to hear, particularly those who had been assaulted themselves. The professor invited those for whom the topic was too difficult to leave the lecture.
As the speaker started to retell her story, a number of women got up and left. One by one, they silently packed up their books and slipped out of the lecture hall. Though I remained, I often wonder about those who left. Where did they go? Did they have someone to support them? Who could help? Decades later, now a professor, I think about that lecture when I peer out at my students. Are they safe?
With the recent revelations about the alleged behaviour by celebrities such as Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby, the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria, and the good work by the Star to look at the culture on our campuses, these questions remain particularly relevant.
But here’s something that might seem counterintuitive. As we start to look for solutions to the problems presented by the typical media narrative, the calls for a universal sexual assault policy are misguided and overly simplistic.
Lest this point be misunderstood, allow me to clarify. While I agree that employers must establish thorough and thoughtful guidelines for responding to sexual assault in the workplace, calls for a universal response ignore the individual climate and culture at each institution. What works in one place may not work in another.
Equally problematic is the perception that any policy requires sexual assaults to be reported to the police for someone to receive support and help. The data demonstrate that the vast majority of those who experience sexual assault do not report the crime to the authorities. Guidelines that require them to do so will likely keep victims from reporting their experiences to anyone, let alone the police.
In short, if we focus on what happens after someone is sexually assaulted, these recommendations remain reactive to the problem. Yes, we need to think about how to respond to sexual assaults, but we also need to consider how to prevent them.
A number of critical factors play into prevention. First, we need to initiate conversations about masculinity. Men are bombarded by violent, sexist and homophobic messages from every corner of our culture.
Work by anti-sexist activist Dr. Jackson Katz powerfully demonstrates how young men are socialized into a culture of dominance and power that leads to problematic behaviour, including sexual assault. We can change that socialization process by discussing and critiquing the culture of masculinity. Men need to learn about and see alternative conceptualizations of acceptable masculine behaviour.
Second, we need to better educate young people about consent. We currently tell students that “no means no,” expecting them to understand and appreciate the nuances of consent. Young people need to learn and be taught about the meaning of consent and as a society we must encourage them to seek it again and again in sexual encounters. The language around consent has shifted to “yes means yes” and we need to initiate that conversation with young people.
Third, we need to provide bystander training that teaches everyone in the workplace — men and women — how to speak up and take action should they witness inappropriate behaviour. We have to take action along a continuum of harm that ranges from micro-aggressions, such as sexist jokes or harmful language like “I raped that exam,” to physical and sexual assaults.
Finally, in a university context we need to foster better relationships between our communities and our institutions. Students often live and work off campus and feel embedded in their local communities. They feel comfortable drawing upon the excellent supports in those communities should they need it.
These are just four steps we should all look for when the government of Ontario reports back with an action plan in March next year. It can’t all be about reporting and prosecution.
Diana C. Parry is Associate Professor in the department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at the University of Waterloo.