The University of Ottawa recently found itself embroiled in a scandal that is refocusing public attention towards the issue of “rape culture” at universities and colleges in Canada. Five male student leaders at U of O made violent sexual comments about Anne-Marie Roy, the president of the university’s student federation. This incident prompted numerous female student leaders across Canada to issue an open letter, in which they affirmed solidarity with Roy and condemned a “pervasive” rape culture in society today. Rape culture is real — and, in the opinion of many, especially rampant on university campuses. U of T is unfortunately no exception.
I hear jokes that trivialize sexual violence and make light of rape at this university. Stories of sexual harassment or stalking are common. Women are constantly targeted by unwelcome verbal or physical attention, such as catcalls and inappropriate, non-consensual groping, as though their bodies are objects on display. I have heard men praise one another for “banging” multiple women while, in the same breath, sneering at and disparaging their female peers for being sexually active. I also discovered that some of my male colleagues purposefully and proudly give their female counterparts excessive alcohol or sedative drugs in order to have sex with them.
These incidents are not exclusive to frosh week; they occur on a daily basis. At best, such behaviour makes women feel uncomfortable and unsafe; at worst, they constitutes criminal activity. Yet many people, myself included, are guilty of accepting this behaviour as an inevitable aspect of campus life. We rationalize rape jokes as harmless, or whistles as simply compliments — boys will be boys. In accepting these instances as part of everyday life, we normalize sexual aggression, tolerate non-consensual sexual activity, and condone gender-based violence — this is rape culture.
Sexual assault is, in part, a function of patriarchal socialization. Consequently, society places the burden on women to protect themselves against unwanted sexual attention, as if sexual violence manifests as preventable, isolated incidents, rather than part of a larger, entrenched system of gender inequality.
“Don’t get drunk,” “don’t stay out late,” “don’t walk alone,” “don’t dress like a slut,” — these standard safety tropes perpetuate the rape myth that assaulters are strangers waiting in the bushes to prey on intoxicated women. In fact, a 2010 York University study showed that more than 80 per cent of rapes that occur on university campuses are committed by somebody the victim knows, with half of all incidents occurring on dates.
These “safety tips” also imply that, to some extent, women are responsible for any sexual violence they encounter, rather than focusing on the perpetrator committing a crime. As a result, victims may be unlikely to report sexual assault, for fear of being blamed themselves. It is estimated that less than 10 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to the police. This underreporting contributes to a consistent underestimation of the prevalence of sexual violence.
It is imperative that we stop focusing solely on women’s actions as a cure for rape culture. Safety precautions are arguably pragmatic and minimize risk, but they ignore the root causes of rape culture — namely, the construction of patriarchal dominance through male sexual aggression. These safety tips also fail to address other detrimental consequences of rape culture, such as the policing of women’s sexuality or the invisibility of men and transgendered individuals as rape victims. We need to re-educate ourselves to reverse the internalization of harmful gender norms in order to truly create a safe campus for all students.
Victoria Wicks is a first-year student at Trinity College studying political science and philosophy.