Queen’s sexual assault policy has a long way to go

The document’s creation is a good step, but lacks practical details

Queen’s new policy on sexual assault is in need of further clarification regarding its implementation, Emily Wong argues.
Queen’s new policy on sexual assault is in need of further clarification regarding its implementation, Emily Wong argues.

Queen’s initial sexual violence policy leaves much to be desired.

On March 4, the Board of Trustees finally approved a university-wide policy on sexual violence, with the acknowledgement that further revisions may be required. It’s a good thing they admitted it’s a work in progress, because the current policy isn’t substantive. 

The policy promises many supports and resources for survivors and the community, but Queen’s hasn’t communicated any timeline or action plan for how and when these will be implemented. Instead, all these outcomes are left to the yet-to-be-hired Coordinator of the Office of Sexual Violence Education and Support.  

The policy establishes various duties for the Office of Sexual Violence Education and Support — supporting survivors (which includes providing counselling), maintaining statistics, handling criminal and non-criminal reports, academic accommodations and coordinating education and training. But beyond hiring a lone coordinator, the University hasn’t promised any other resources for this office. That’s a lot to ask one person. 

Instead of simply stating that the University is committed to addressing sexual violence, the policy needs to back this commitment up by allocating definite resources. For example, it says that survivors will be offered support and resources, without mentioning what exactly this looks like or where it will come from. It seems this means that survivors will be relegated to Student Wellness Services, which is already notorious for stretched resources, long wait times and mediocre customer service. This isn’t acceptable. 

The policy needs detailed frameworks for accommodations and support that are specific to the issue of sexual violence. 

Another large hole in the policy is the forgotten mention of how sexual violence is an experience affected by factors including gender, racialization, sexual orientation and disability. Queen’s own Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Working Group (SAPRWG) report released in April 2015 noted that these “distinct needs” based on identity need to be taken into account, so why was this left out of the policy passed by the Board of Trustees? 

There’s no reason to exclude similar acknowledgements in Queen’s policy. This isn’t just a tokenistic gesture. Identity impacts the frequency and experience of sexual violence and an effective approach to preventing and responding to sexual violence takes it into consideration. 

As far as talk of prevention goes, the policy places an overwhelming emphasis on promoting a “culture of consent.” Consent is an important part of sexual violence education. However, making it the focus is an inadequate approach, as sexual violence doesn’t only occur in the context of sex. Sexual violence includes street harassment or someone dismissing the experience of survivors, situations which are not uncommon at Queen’s.  

Creating a positive learning environment includes addressing the greater social environment. Education can’t focus solely on consent, but must also broaden its scope to empower students to challenge everyday rape culture and intervene as bystanders.

Even though there’s plenty of room for improvement, a policy alone will not solve the issue of sexual violence. It’s absolutely critical that both the University and students continue to work in partnership to develop not simply a better policy, but a comprehensive prevention plan and response to sexual violence.

Students play a role in developing an effective response to sexual violence. Throughout the process of implementation, it’s imperative that the University continue to seek student feedback on an ongoing basis, not only whenever it’s mandated by the province. Effective student consultation doesn’t involve merely the student representatives from the AMS and SGPS who already sit on the SAPRWG, but reaching out to student organizations and students at large as well.  

Many student initiatives around sexual assault and violence are largely focused on a peer audience — common events are speakers’ panels, movie screenings and whiteboard campaigns. As important as these events can be for visibility of the issue, we’re missing out on our potential to advocate towards the University Administration. 

If we want improved support services and relevant education, students need to engage with key advocates. Reach out to the AMS Executive and Social Issues Commissioner and demand that this be a lobbying priority. Ask for regular evidence of progress to hold the AMS and the administration accountable. We have to be vocal about the needs and interests of students in order to back up the advocacy that’s already taking place. 

The approval of this particular piece of policy is only a baby step towards the ultimate goal of preventing and responding to sexual violence at Queen’s. It’s good to see that Queen’s has taken initiative and released a policy ahead of the January 2017 deadline mandated by the Ontario government for universities to have standalone policies on sexual assault. 

That being said, it’s vital that we don’t rest on our laurels at this point. Timely and effective implementation of the policy is the next step, as well as continuing to identify areas for improvement. 

If Queen’s can follow through on making improvements to its policy, successfully implement the promised education and training, and assure that the Office of Sexual Violence Education and Support is adequately resourced, we’ll be closer to our goal of eliminating sexual violence. 

Emily Wong was the AMS Social Issues Commissioner for the 2014-15 school year.

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