“I don’t think this is as big of a problem as you’re making it sound.”
These are the words one man spoke to me after I asked him to sign a petition directed at U of T’s upper administration. This petition claims that U of T’s responses to sexual violence are, in fact, huge problems for far too many students. The petition also asks for changes to the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence’s selection process, which has been secretive and has not done enough to ensure that student voices are represented adequately.
Echoing this man’s sentiment, U of T president Meric Gertler recently told The Varsity in an interview that he believes that the university’s services for responding to sexual violence are “very strong,” though he also accepted that it is “too early to say” whether or not the current system will be sufficient. This was after being confronted with this same online petition, which over 300 students have now signed, not to mention the countless others that have signed in person.
Why is it that, when faced with students’ lived experiences — which overwhelmingly show the inadequacy of these services — people continue to deny that there is a problem worth addressing?
I could relate horrific stories of U of T’s failure to protect its students from sexual violence and its failure to address the resulting trauma. I could recite shameful statistics — 19 per cent of undergraduate women report experiencing sexual assault while in school — until my face turns blue. I could point to multiple reports on these issues, almost all of which indicate that both comprehensive services for survivors, and a distinct policy for adjudication, are necessary to respond to sexual violence appropriately. I could engage with dissenters in drawn-out and insulting arguments in which the value of the work I do is questioned mercilessly.
I could do, and have done, all of the above, as have countless other students involved in this work. And while we do this, our university’s administration continues to get away without doing what it must to protect its students — not to mention the hundreds of thousands of students across the country whose universities are failing them too.
I know progress is being made. Premier Kathleen Wynne, after meeting with student representatives from across Ontario, has indicated that she will announce a plan to respond to campus sexual violence in March.
My point is that, for ages, students have been saying that, when it comes to sexual violence on campus, the university’s response and prevention efforts have been woefully inadequate. Students have been suffering and their voices have gone unheard, or at least, unheeded.
If we want to see substantive changes made in this area — if we want students to stop suffering unnecessarily — student voices need to be included in substantive ways. We have experiences, both negative and positive, which qualify us, and we are the ones who suffer the consequences of the administration’s continued inaction.
We refuse to let student voices be ignored any longer. If you agree and want to join our campaign, please sign and share our petition available online, and feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Celia Wandio is a student at Trinity College. She started the Students Against Sexual Violence U of T petition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the group responsible for the petition as Stop Sexual Violence at U of T. The group has since been renamed Students Against Sexual Violence U of T.