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Policy is not enough: Universities need a comprehensive approach to preventing sexual assault, experts say

Ottawa Citizen with Charlene Senn 17 September 2018

This year, one in five female university students will be sexually assaulted.

It’s the same ratio as last year and at least the 30 years before that. In fact, Charlene Senn, Canada’s research chair on sexual violence, says there’s evidence that the statistic has been in that range since the 1950s.

In an academic landscape that has changed dramatically over the past half-century, this statistic is unwavering: One in five. Women in college. Will be sexually assaulted.

“When I was starting to do this work, at the very beginning it became clear to me that we didn’t need any more studies that told us how frequent it was or how common or what kinds of sexual assault were being experienced. We’ve known about that for more than three decades, and yet the rates have not gone down,” Senn says. This figure only represents completed rapes and doesn’t count other forms of sexual violence, such as groping, voyeurism and online threats.

It’s within this context that the Ontario government passed Bill 132 in 2016. The legislation mandated that all post-secondary institutions create their own sexual-violence policies.

“It’s a lofty goal to end sexual violence and assault in Ontario, but we’ve got to have that vision,” former premier Kathleen Wynne said around the time Bill 132 was introduced. Schools had less than a year to hammer out a framework for receiving and hearing complaints of sexual violence in their communities.

They had to do something, but was it enough?

A parallel system

Answering that question begins by asking another one: What is the point of schools having sexual-violence policies?

“One of the big challenges to begin with was to be creative about having a policy that just didn’t mirror a criminal law process,” says Daphne Gilbert, a University of Ottawa law professor and chair of the school’s action team on sexual violence, which oversaw the creation and implementation of uOttawa’s policy.

Policies help colleges and universities take a public stance on sexual assault and misconduct, but they accomplish very little in terms of the justice we’d normally expect. Schools can’t put perpetrators in jail. They can’t award settlements to victims. Under the auspices of freedom-of-information laws, schools can’t tell anyone, not even victims, about what punishments they may mete out to offenders. The most dramatic disciplinary measure a school can take is expelling a perpetrator and marking their academic record. Committees struck to assess investigators’ evidence and ascertain guilt can only recommend disciplinary measures; the final decision is still made internally, usually by a dean.

Meanwhile, confidentiality clauses prevent both complainants and the accused from speaking publicly about incidents, but there’s no real punishment for violating the gag order, and confidentiality expires either when a judgement has been made, or when the involved parties leave school.

Julie Lalonde, an Ottawa-based sexual-violence educator, says she has conflicting feelings about the purpose of a university investigation. On one hand, academic sanctions may be the only justice a survivor gets. On the other, the quality of that justice may not be very satisfying.

“That tension around wanting the process to be fair … often times it ends up being so regimented that it’s just recreating the legal system. Why not call the cops instead, where the cops actually have the power to put this person in jail?” Lalonde asks.

Ultimately, victims of sexual violence in the university community have choices to make depending on the result they hope for, Gilbert says. They can pursue the matter criminally with the police, academically with the school or litigiously in civil court. They can also opt to speak publicly about their experience and face possible defamation lawsuits.

“If you want to have a university policy, you have to have a different reason for having a parallel system,” Gilbert says. At the University of Ottawa, she continues, “It came down to the protection of the university community in terms of safety.”

The jury is still out on whether universities’ sexual violence policies make a difference. When the University of Ottawa’s policy was made official in 2016, it anticipated a deluge of complaints. In reality, only a few formal accusations have been made to date. Gilbert says most students who’ve come forward have chosen to ask for academic accommodations — e.g. switching classes, having someone moved to another area of a student residence or delaying exams — without filing official complaints.

Prevention first, policy second

Ontario’s Bill 132 came before #MeToo, but, after a number of high-profile allegations, including those against two University of Ottawa hockey players who have since been acquitted.

The government said the purpose was to “empower” each post-secondary institution to make its own procedure for handling complaints of sexual assault and misconduct. It didn’t spell out best practices, and it didn’t help universities understand how to stop sexual violence from happening in the first place.

“Good sexual violence policies and procedures are necessary in universities and every organization should have them, but they are not enough and they are not prevention,” says Senn, who is also a professor at the University of Windsor.

Senn has spent the past 13 years developing a sexual-assault resistance training program aimed at female first-year college students known as EAAA, or Flip the Script. It’s reported to be the only program in existence that has proven in a clinical trial to significantly reduce rates of sexual assault.

Launched publicly in 2016, the 12-hour program aims to teach young college women how to identify risky situations, argue against coercion, prioritize their own sexual rights and use self-defence to extract themselves safely from threatening scenarios.

It hasn’t been without controversy. Some critics dislike that EAAA uses female pronouns for victims and male pronouns for perpetrators. Campuses are particularly prone to wanting pronoun “equality,” says Lalonde, who has been trained to facilitate EAAA sessions. She says this stance ignores the fact that sexual assault is still overwhelmingly a gendered phenomenon.

EAAA has also been criticized for putting the onus of stopping rape on women. Senn bristles at this accusation. “Women don’t have control over men’s behaviour,” she says.

The program was created to reflect our sobering reality: According to Statistics Canada, 87 per cent of sexual assault victims are women, and men are responsible for 99 per cent of sexual assaults against women. Telling men not to rape has proven not to be an effective prevention tool, and so systems, and women, are saddled with having to work around that. “There’s no evidence that perpetrators perpetrate because they don’t understand what the definition of consent is,” Senn says.

At the same time, consent education is still important to a person’s understanding of and appreciation for sex, but, by the time young men get to college, it may be too late to imbue them with that meaning and knowledge. Experts agree that teachings on consent, as well as empathy for girls and women, are better delivered to boys in their tween and early teen years. Developing that empathy helps lay a foundation for better bystander intervention, too.

As universities continue to grapple with sexual violence on campus, advocates warn that simply checking off the policy box is not enough to make a difference. These mechanisms only deal with violence after it’s happened. What matters most is pairing policy with proven prevention efforts.

“We need to make stopping sexual violence everyone’s problem,” Senn says

A COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGY
CONSENT: Start teaching boys about consent in Grade 6.

BYSTANDER INTERVENTION: Teach boys and girls, and college-aged students, useful bystander-intervention techniques. Bystanders are only present in 14 to 17 per cent of assaults, but Senn says it’s still important to teach young people how to be vigilant about bad behaviours. Intervention can be as simple as calling out friends for making rape jokes or escorting a drunk friend home.

HOLD ABUSERS ACCOUNTABLE: According to Statistics Canada, only five per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, making it the most underreported violent crime in the country. Survivors and witnesses have a role to play in dismantling the secrecy around assault by reporting incidents to police and/or schools.

SUPPORT SURVIVORS: A survivor-centered approach to counselling, medical services and sexual-violence policies is crucial to helping assault victims heal.

EMPOWER WOMEN AND TEACH THEM TO FIGHT BACK: Teaching girls and women to prioritize their own sexual rights and needs over any other person’s is a valuable lesson, Senn says. Schools should also consider programs like EAAA to teach college-aged women how to fight back.