Sexual Violence Prevention at Queen's

The consent centric approach at Queen’s needs an overhaul

Allen believes Queen’s approach to sexual violence prevention on campus needs revision.
Supplied by Ashleigh Allen

This article discusses sexual harassment and may be triggering for some readers. The Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

I approach the writing of this report from the standpoint of a Queen’s alum. I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the pervasiveness of sexual violence and harassment on this campus. 

I also must acknowledge the position of privilege from which I come to know and learn more about sexual violence—specifically as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, settler, middle-class, and able-bodied individual. The intersections of these privileges situate my comprehension of sexual violence, and more importantly, necessitate a high degree of reflexivity in undertaking this work. 

A post on @consentatqueens's Instagram reads “It wasn’t until months later—when I finally broke down and cried, hard, while telling a friend what had happened—that I realized I had been sexually assaulted, and that it was clear to me how traumatic this had been. Every femme person I know at Queen’s has a story of sexual violence or sexual assault on campus. It’s f—d.”

The sexual violence prevention approach at Queen’s prioritizes changing individual attitudes and behaviours by championing a campus culture of consent and ultimately fails to address the structural root causes of sexual violence and harassment on postsecondary campuses. 

In March 2019, the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities released a summary report presenting the key results of the “Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey” conducted the previous year. 

The report indicated that 71.4 per cent of survey respondents at Queen’s had experienced some form of sexual harassment one or more times since the start of the 2017-18 academic year—the second-highest rate in the province next to the University of Western Ontario. 

Queen’s also ranked fourth in sexual assault prevalence rates provincially. 

National news forums, student-run journal articles, and social media accounts such as @consentatqueens have expressed outrage for years at the climate of sexual violence perpetuation at this institution. Much of this work pays close attention to the shortcomings of survivor supports on campus and the experiences of students with the formal reporting process at Queen’s. 

What is largely missing from the prevention approach at Queen’s is a look at the structures and systems perpetuating sexual violence and harassment on campus. 

The Sexual Violence Prevention and Response (SVPR) Task Force was formed in 2013 under the oversight of the Division of Student Affairs. 

The group has since recommended the initiation of several programs, services, and resources related to sexual violence, including launching awareness campaigns focused on teaching consent for new students during Orientation Week, creating a SVPR staff position, and launching the official Sexual Violence Prevention and Response website in 2017, among other efforts. 

In 2019 the Task Force, in collaboration with several campus-based organizations, published a framework report which outlines the University’s overall philosophy and strategic focus in the prevention of sexual violence on campus. 

The document details five key areas of strategic focus: education and awareness, skill-building, culture of support, policy and procedures, and community. It then lists and briefly describes each of the initiatives connected to prevention, connecting them to areas of strategic focus. 

In conducting an analysis of which initiatives are rooted in which areas of focus, I discovered that, of 26 total initiatives, 24 (92 per cent) are categorized as education and awareness, with 11 out of 26 (42 per cent) centered around education and awareness only. 

Moreover, 38 per cent of initiatives were rooted in fostering a culture of support, 27 per cent in skill-building, 8 per cent connected to policy and procedures, and a lone initiative (3.8 per cent) based in the notion of community. 

Queen’s is clear in its approach to sexual violence prevention as a means of education and awareness connected to individual behaviours and attitudes. 

Literature in the field of sexual violence prevention emphasizes the many limitations to prevention programs that seek to change only individual attitudes and behaviours rather than those dually seeking to alter structures and relations of power. 

Though things like consent, building healthy relationships, and bystander intervention are all important concepts, they are matter of individual behaviour. One-dimensional definitions of consent such as an enthusiastic and verbal “yes!” fail to consider how practical aspects like culturally informed social cues shape negotiations of consent in sexual interactions. 

Prevention approaches are less effective when they fail to contextualize consent within larger, intersectional structures of power and marginalization. 

Teaching consent on postsecondary campuses like Queen’s ought to be inextricable from considerations of inequitable administrator and faculty representation on the basis of gender, race, and class, as well as the pervasiveness of anti-Black and anti-Asian racism on campus. 

Instead of a strategic prioritization of creating a campus culture of consent, Queen’s stands to benefit significantly from a critical analysis of several structural factors at play in the perpetuation of sexual violence on campus. 

Firstly, the prevention approach should consider the social positionalities of those in leadership roles who make key decisions regarding prevention at Queen’s. Literature in the field of sexual violence prevention widely demonstrates how a gender and racially diverse institutional administration can more effectively integrate the intersectional experiences of marginalized folks into their programs and policies concerned with prevention. 

Recently published datasets show that at Queen’s, 92.3 per cent of senior university leaders are white. Only 7.7 per cent are from racialized groups, and all of these individuals are men. 

On the SVPR Task Force, only 7 of 32 seats are held by racialized women, and many of these are student advisory members. 

Despite the wide array of initiatives related to sexual violence prevention at the university, members of the Queen’s community continue to share their experiences of the approach simply not working. 

The epigraph at the opening of this piece is an example of wherein a student-run Instagram account in the fall of 2020 compiled dozens of narratives of the endurance of sexual violence at Queen’s. 

By prioritizing aspects of the prevention approach related to changing individual attitudes and behaviours through the goal of establishing a campus culture of consent, the approach at Queen’s lacks an orientation towards significant conversations regarding the structural root causes of sexual violence. 

For effective sexual violence prevention to occur, the institution must deeply understand the dialectical relationship between structures of power and individual behaviours in creating the conditions under which sexual violence ensues. 

True prevention simultaneously addresses individual attitudes and behaviours, structural implications, and supports for survivors. True prevention is the effort to stop sexual violence from happening in the first place.

Ashleigh Allen, ArtSci ’18, is currently pursuing a Master of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

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