Queen’s needs to redefine its policy when addressing sexual violence

Institutional oppressive forces contribute to sexual violence, not just lack of education

Ashanthi feels Queen’s must move away from relying on individual education in sexual violence prevention. 
Supplied by Ashanthi Francis

This article discusses sexual assault and may be triggering for some readers. The Kingston Sexual Assault Centre’s 24-hour crisis and support phone line can be reached at 613-544-6424 / 1-800-544-6424. The Centre's online chat feature can be reached hereThe Journal uses “survivor” to refer to those who have experienced sexual assault. We acknowledge this term is not universal.

The sexual violence that occurred over frosh week at Western isn't an isolated incident. 

Following the devastating uncovering of 30 incidents of sexual violence during Western University’s orientation week, pledges of support from Canadian post-secondary institutions were among the outpour of support for victims. 

Many voices from Queen’s were included in calls to improve campus climates for survivors of sexual violence, with hundreds of students reposting infographics encouraging their peers to call out unacceptable behaviour and amplify the voices of survivors. 

These demonstrations are important, but they are almost always accompanied by the underlying relief of it didn’t happen here.

But statistically speaking, the atrocities of Western’s orientation week could happen here. In fact, they likely already have. 

Sexual violence is rampant in university spaces, and Queen’s is no exception. A 2019 survey by Ontario universities found that 70 per cent of Queen’s students had experienced some form of sexual harassment. 30 per cent had experienced sexual assault. 

At face value, these statistics don't seem to be compatible with the university’s no-tolerance attitude towards sexual violence. 

Queen’s has been publicly persistent in its efforts to combat sexual violence on campus. From a consent-centric orientation week, mandatory bystander intervention training for orientation week leaders, a shiny prevention task force, and even a brand-new consent mural on the side of Harrison-LeCaine Hall, the University seems to have spared no expense when it comes to publicly demonstrating that it's committed to ending sexual violence on campus. 

At the point of their initial conception, these campaigns and trainings were considered a monumental step in dismantling myths regarding rape culture and encouraging enthusiastic consent on campus. But now, almost seven years since the introduction of bystander intervention training on campus, we know that training isn't enough. 

We know this because every first-year student and orientation leader at Western University received extensive sexual and gender-based violence training prior to the events of orientation week.

The sexual violence that occurred at Western this month isn’t an isolated incident—it’s an example of an institution’s failed attempt to protect students from sexual violence through educational campaigns. More urgently, what happened at Western is a horrific example of what could happen, or what will continue to happen within our own institution, if we continue to focus on education as a blanket means of combatting sexual violence. 

If Queen’s is to learn anything from the trauma and violence of Western’s orientation week, we must move away from the narrative that individual education is the most effective way of combatting sexual violence. 

There is value in targeting individual action. Substance abuse, binge drinking, hook-up culture, and general misinformation can all be contributing factors to sexual violence on campus. 

One cannot ignore, however, the striking truth that it is much easier for institutions to create and distribute educational material than it is to commit to concrete, institution-wide change. 

The blame cannot be turned solely towards the student body for much longer. The ineffectiveness of campus-wide sexual violence prevention campaigns has made it alarmingly clear that sexual violence on campus goes much deeper than parties and hook-ups; it’s about culture, history, and power.  

If the University administration sincerely wants to protect its students from gender-based violence, it needs to acknowledge the culture that Queen’s fosters, be aware of the history surrounding sexual violence, and let that inform power-conscious approaches to dismantling the institutional dynamics which encourage sexual violence.  

To do so, I propose Queen’s should take after many other institutions and commence this process with a power-focused scan of the university. 

It has long been said that sexual assault has more to do with power than it has to do with sex. Power, and lack thereof because of oppression, dictates who controls spaces within institutions and who has the capacity to dominate others. 

Instances of sexual violence on university campuses ultimately have a lot to do with who holds power and who benefits from the institution. Queen’s must widen its understanding of sexual violence to view the institution as a whole as a perpetrator of sexual violence. 

While students can be both perpetrators and victims, they arguably don't have as much influence as the University does in terms of shaping who holds both formal and informal power on campus. 

These ideas may seem abstract, but the questions they provoke suggest concrete avenues for institution-wide change. The University must be conscious of who it centers and identifies as leaders in discussions of sexual assault. These reflections will inversely identify who is silenced in these discussions and in turn persistently put at risk.

Queen’s must also take responsibility for its place in the much larger history of sexual violence within university spaces. It’s undeniable that the university’s distinct history of oppression has fostered the very same culture of intolerance and discrimination that has been intrinsically linked to sexual violence across institutions. 

As well, sexual violence has been historically tied to incidents of racism, homophobia, and transphobia, therefore leaving certain students more vulnerable to acts of violence. The University must prioritize this knowledge and consider that power imbalances can ultimately impact the ways that campus resources, services, and systems support, and fail to support certain marginalized groups. 

An approach to sexual violence that's detached from an understanding of institutional power renders itself incapable of creating meaningful change. 

Accountability is the final piece of this endeavour.

Too often is sexual violence brushed under the rug by post-secondary institutions with the faulty reasoning of wanting to maintain reputation. This behaviour on behalf of universities paints sexual violence as a nuisance to be made a smaller issue, rather than a very real and very urgent threat to all its community members. 

Queen’s must work to acknowledge the culture of violence present within its institution by creating policies that increase visibility surrounding sexual violence, especially with regards to holding perpetrators accountable. This visibility must also be balanced with respecting the privacy of and ensuring protection for survivors. 

Overall, it’s administrators who yield the decision-making power on campus that have the responsibility to answer these questions and create tangible plans to solve the problems within them. And most importantly, it’s the responsibility of those in charge to redistribute this power to ensure that all parties on campus feel safe, seen, and heard. 

There’s no ideal response to events of Western’s orientation week. There’s no perfect way to respond to the pain, fear, and trauma that survivors of sexual violence experience every day, just as there’s no straightforward solution to sexual violence on campus. 

To better combat sexual violence, universities must be held accountable and create policy that centres the perspectives of victims and holds perpetrators accountable. Policy, trauma-informed care, and support for survivors are all important. But these are all reactionary measures. 

Queen’s must be proactive in its efforts against gender-based violence on campus and trace the pervasive phenomenon of sexual violence back to its roots. 

Ashanthi Francis is a fourth year English student.

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