CONTENT WARNING: graphic description of sexual violence
It’s late at night. Alicia*, a first-year student, walks through the door to her residence building after walking home from a party. Her head is spinning from drinking too much. Wanting to sober up before falling asleep, she decides to get something to eat.
In search of a snack, she heads toward her residence’s common room. Inside, two fourth-year students are hanging out. The two males are familiar to Alicia. One she considers a close friend and the other she knows in passing. Both are popular figures at her college.
The friend asks Alicia whether she wants to listen to music for a while.
Knowing that they have similar taste in music, Alicia agrees. There are no snacks in the common room anyways.
She leads the pair to her dorm room, located next to the common room. Her head is still spinning and she’s tired — she makes straight for her bed to lie down.
The next thing Alicia remembers from that night are her clothes coming off. One of the students had begun having sex with her, while the other forced her to perform oral sex on him. Neither used a condom.
Afraid to challenge two upper-years, Alicia pretended to pass out; her assailants left the room quickly afterwards. Before departing, they left a note saying that they had simply taken care of her and brought her home. They thought she wouldn’t remember anything.
A PERVASIVE PROBLEM
Incidents of sexual assault are common occurrences for post-secondary students. The Ontario Women’s Directorate reported that anywhere from “15 to 25 per cent of college and university-aged women will experience some form of sexual assault during their academic career.” Similarly, a CampUS study conducted at U of T Mississauga last year found that 16 per cent of female students had personal experiences of gender-based violence on the UTM campus. Theses statistics are easy enough to imagine — across the country, from the University of Ottawa, to McGill University, to the University of British Columbia, sexual assault cases have been making headlines for the past year.
While U of T has not yet faced a high profile scandal, it certainly is not immune to the problem. Charlie* had barely begun their time at U of T when they were raped at a frat house during frosh week last year. Immediately after the assault, while still at the party, Charlie’s distress was met with swift dismissal.
“The immediate reaction from the frat was to shut me up and get me out,” they say. When Charlie’s friend attempted to confront one of the frat brothers about the incident, he allegedly responded: “These things happen.”
Assault takes many forms. Eleanor*, a second-year student, was in an abusive relationship with a student at U of T last year. Over the course of six months, he repeatedly coerced her into giving him handjobs and oral sex.
“You don’t know what to do, you’re just kind of paralyzed,” she describes.
Judith Taylor, a professor of social movements and policy at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, describes frequently being approached by students seeking counsel and advice on issues of sexual assault.
“My experience was 2–3 [students] came to me about sexual assault each year,” she says, also noting she has been teaching at the university for 15 years.
THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH
Sexual assault has profoundly detrimental and varied effects. Charlie explains how their rape triggered severe post-traumatic stress and depression, which eventually led to a suicide attempt. By the end of September, Charlie had dropped out of U of T.
“It entirely fucked up all of my hard work I’d put in to get into school,” Charlie says. “This incident made me really, really mentally sick. Now I’m scared to go back to school at all.”
Survivors of sexual assault may also feel shame or guilt, which can lead to a diminished sense of self-worth. “I felt dirty, like a whore,” Eleanor says. “Like, you are not a clean human being. You’re tarnished.”
This stigma can prevent survivors from speaking out about their experiences. Frequently, survivors’ stories are met with disbelief. Other times, they are subjected to intense scrutiny about their alcohol consumption, clothing choices, and sexual history, often carrying the implication that these factors somehow make the survivor responsible for the assault.
“I had my next door neighbor sit me down [and] accuse me of lying,” Alicia says. “She told me that people like her would never get into things like that. Because they’re not crazy, they’re not insecure. And I totally took that seriously. I was like: You’re right, I’m a mess.”
This hostile social climate not only leads many survivors to internalize blame, but also leaves them without an adequate support system. “You feel very alone,” says Eleanor. “It’s the feeling of absolute isolation.”
These feelings are combined with anxieties about encountering the perpetrators of the assault again. A corresponding sense of physical and emotional vulnerability make the university feel unsafe for many survivors. “I always pass through campus with my keys between my fingers,” says Charlie, describing a common self-defense mechanism.
In Alicia’s case, she saw her assailants everyday until they graduated. They lived on residence, and were close friends of the Student Head that managed the common room next to her dorm. “Every single time I wanted to sit down and watch TV, they were there,” she says. “I could hear their voices when I was going to bed. I really could not move without seeing them.”
Alicia emphasizes that the small community structure at Trinity College completely failed her. Since all the spaces were common with students attending the same parties and social events, she encountered her assailants everywhere.
“It totally ruined my entire first year of university,” she says. “I was always watching my back, watching everyone else’s back.”
All of this trauma must be dealt with alongside the demands of student life and academic work. Unsurprisingly, GPAs often take a hit. “U of T is a pressure cooker, and the courses are extremely intense — there is no room for having this kind of crisis,” says Taylor.
FAILURE OF SUPPORT SYSTEMS
Despite the undeniably detrimental repercussions of sexual assault, it is notoriously difficult for survivors to obtain support through the university.
Charlie described how they attempted to get help by calling a U of T helpline several days after the rape occurred, only to be met with a cold, dismissive response.
The receptionist sighed impatiently when Charlie said they did not know who their assailant was. After rattling off a number of other hotlines to call, the receptionist simply hung up. “It was just confirming what I already felt,” says Charlie. “Like I was helpless, this was my fault, and no one cared enough to help me get closure or any kind of help,” they add.
Eleanor’s experience with the Community Safety Office (CSO) was equally fruitless. After sharing her story, she sensed sympathy but also reservation in their response.
“There was skepticism in the sense of, this couldn’t happen on our campus,” explains Eleanor. “It was a lot of, okay, we’re sorry this happened to you, but we can’t do much because it happened six months ago.”
The CSO then offered to create a “safety plan,” consisting of a passive strategy of avoidance. They also told Eleanor to bring them a USB containing evidence of coercion during the abusive relationship. However, they never responded to her emails about when she should actually bring the USB in. Consequently, Eleanor never proceeded with CSO’s process.
In Alicia’s case, she first reported her rape to two student leaders. While they were supportive, their friendship with Alicia’s assailants created a clear conflict of interest. Recently, one of the student heads contacted Alicia to apologize for the way she handled the case, admitting she was too close to the assailants to act objectively. Alicia emphasizes that the fault lies not with the individual student heads, but the system that puts them in such difficult positions without sufficient training.
AMBIGUITY OF ADJUDICATION PROCESSES
U of T has a fundamental problem of decentralization. The options for adjudicating sexual assault cases are numerous and unclear. Students are left improperly informed about the differences between options like Campus Police, the CSO, the Sexual Harassment Office, and reporting to a college dean.
“The problem is nobody knows where to go,” says Rae Costin, PR representative from U of T’s Sexual Education Center (SEC). “There’s no one set process.”
Currently, the Code of Student Conduct prohibits sexual assault and outlines the procedure for adjudicating general violations. However, U of T currently does not have a specific sexual violence policy, which leaves students wary as to whether their reports will be handled in a tactful, confidential way.
Alicia eventually reported her assault to her dean, but to this day, has no idea of how he conducted the investigation. “I met with [the dean] seven times. Each time I left being totally demoralized,” she recalls.
While the dean was always willing to meet with Alicia and offer her various external resources, it became clear that Trinity College, as an institution, could not offer her any reprieve. She had requested her assailants be prohibited from entering the common room beside her dorm, and from attending major Trinity parties. These requests were never enforced.
“When the year ended, it was like my case ended,” she says. “But no one ever gave me a conclusion. It just felt like they were waiting until [my assailants] could graduate.”
The lack of clear protocol for adjudicating sexual assault meant Alicia could not pinpoint any rights or processes she was entitled to, and thus could not demand transparency or hold anyone accountable. Alicia expresses particular frustration that she was prevented from hearing what her assailants were saying about her to the dean, as it gave her no chance to respond to any inconsistencies in their stories.
The challenge may be not that there are too few resources, but that there are too many facets to the procedures.
“[Students] get discouraged and exhausted seeking help in numerous spaces,” explains Taylor. “They feel no one’s really advocating on their behalf.”
Alicia was sent to Cheryl Champagne, U of T’s assault counselor, under the impression that Champagne would help Alicia file an official complaint against her assailants. However, Champagne’s job involves therapy and counseling, not formal investigations.
“I felt sort of like I was being dumped place after place, because no one knew what do with me,” she says, expressing frustration that she was repeatedly asked by Champagne to go to Campus Police. “I was like no, I’m not going to tell my story one more time, to have someone else tell me I need to go somewhere else.”
Similarly, the CSO told Eleanor to pursue action at the Sexual Harassment Office. She never did, because she was tired of reliving her assault. “Every time you tell your story you feel mentally drained,” Eleanor says. “It’s like, for the love of god, can’t you just do something for me already? Can you help me?”
FEAR SURROUNDING THE CRIMINAL PROCESS
Given that sexual assault is a criminal offence under the Criminal Code, some may wonder why reports don’t just go straight to the police. Brenda Cossman, director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and professor of Law, described how the criminal process can be particularly arduous for survivors of sexual assault.
“They’re going to have to retell their story a million times,” she says, emphasizing how a survivor’s credibility will be attacked during trial. “They’re going to be questioned by the defense attorney… and you know the facts are going to be turned and twisted.”
Survivors also have no input into how police investigations are conducted. These uncertainties are, in part, why Eleanor chose not to pursue criminal recourse.
It is also unclear as to whether U of T Campus Police is adequately trained to deal with the sensitivities of sexual assault. When asked whether Campus Police had specific training regarding sexual violence, Campus Police from all three campuses said in a joint statement: “Basic Campus Police training is designed to provide Special Constables with a sound knowledge of the laws and procedures that frontline officers are required to apply in the performance of their duties.” They identified that training included, but was not limited to, areas of diversity and equity, mental health, and emergency response.
When Eleanor reported her assault to Campus Police, she described their reaction as rather dumbfounded. “It didn’t seem they were aware of what to do with themselves,” she says.
INTERSECTION WITH MENTAL HEALTH
For those looking to get support for their general well-being after a sexual assault, the process is also challenging. Notably, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) has long been criticized for being overwhelmed and inaccessible.
Helen* was raped when she was 17, leading her to begin cutting and burning herself. This self-harm continued into university, where she realized she needed to get help. However, it took CAPS two months to call her back to set up an appointment. During the phone consultation, Helen describes CAPS as being discouragingly impersonal.
“It just seemed like they had no stake in it,” she explains. “The phone consultation is set up like, if your problems are bad enough, we’ll send you to help. If not, bye.”
While Helen was able to secure an appointment with Champagne, she cancelled twice. She was nervous about retelling her story, especially after the clinical, bureaucratic process she had gone through to set up the appointment.
“Sometimes it’s just talking in a coffee shop that could be therapeutic and helpful,” she says, wishing there were more peer support groups on campus. “If not just for the fact that they’re my age and understand what I’m going through.”
Eleanor’s experience with CAPS was similarly alienating. CAPS also recommended Eleanor simply go to the emergency room, as they did not have female doctors readily available for her to meet with.
Eleanor’s appointment has been rescheduled three times. Due to the slow process, she is now seeking help off campus. “I’m like fuck this, I’m going to try and handle this on my own,” she says.
The issue of sexual assault is deeply connected to society’s understanding of consent. As Costin defines it, “Consent is an enthusiastic and informed yes. It is not the absence of a no,” and it should ideally be confirmed verbally.
While conceptually clear, the translation of consent in daily life is impacted by conflicting social norms. For instance, saying “no” is often interpreted as acting coy, or simply part of a flirting game.
“The problem with the idea that ‘oh they’re just being a tease’ means that some people don’t always take no as a no,” says Costin. “You go to push further [and] that’s breaching boundaries, that’s sexual assault.”
Louise*, a fourth-year student, describes going to a fellow student’s apartment when she was a first-year where they ended up kissing in his bed — it was the first time they had kissed. Without any warning, the other student began having unprotected intercourse with her.
While she knew there was something wrong about their interaction, Louise found it hard to articulate her feelings at the time it occurred. She had “zoned out” while the intercourse occurred, out of fear that saying something would jilt her partner and create an awkward situation. “I just wish I had understood better that sex is not a given,” she says.
Sophie*, another fourth-year student, identified a similar case of non-consensual sex. After a night of drinks, she met up with a guy she had previously connected with through an online dating site. They had sex in his apartment. A few hours later, she woke up to find his fingers inside of her.
“My immediate reaction was just to have sex again,” Sophie explains. “Because it was just easier than [addressing] this very sketchy, very strange thing that was happening.”
When asked whether they identified as a survivors of sexual assault, both students also expressed difficulty reconciling the theoretical definition with their own experiences. This hesitancy to call incidents of non-consensual sex “sexual assault” often stems from the belief that there must be an element of resistance involved before an incident can truly be called assault. “It’s this strong binary — either a hooded figure jumped out of a bush, held a knife to your throat and raped you, or you were having consensual sex,” explains Jordan Lavoie, executive director of SEC.
“What if you could’ve gotten up and walked away? Does it still count?” Louise wondered. “I think that very much it does. Because it still involves the same negation of your agency and your right to never be touched in that way unless you’ve agreed to it.”
Crucially, consent must be positively, actively given. “You should feel no doubt… that this person is as interested as you are,” says Taylor. “If you haven’t experienced that, then walk away. My self-esteem is not so low that I need to force someone to have sex with me, or to believe that this person is really more conscious than they are.”
ROAD TO REFORM
There have been numerous calls for the university to improve their prevention programming and responses to sexual assault. Lavoie feels strongly that U of T should make consent workshops mandatory for all incoming first years, to ensure basic knowledge about sexual health. SEC currently provides presentations for frosh, but only at the request of colleges and faculties.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of international students who didn’t have any form of sex-ed when they get here,” says Costin. Lavoie added that they’ve encountered many students who are also terribly misinformed. “It’s a common myth that you can’t get pregnant the very first time you have sex,” she says. “It seems silly to us, but to some people they’re really betting on that.”
Cossman suggests that the short-term way to combat U of T’s decentralization of resources is to simply create a chart of available options. “We might not be able to fix the fact that it’s a maze, but I think we could do a much better job with providing people with a kind of navigational map,” she says, adding that the chart should identify degrees of confidentiality.
Eleanor believes the university needs to adopt a less clinical approach to supporting survivors. “Put the person first, not the campus,” she explains. “We need something that values people, that basically says: What can we do for you?”
Helen, Alicia and Eleanor all indicated they would have appreciated if the university had made an effort to check up on their well-being. In each of their cases, they bore the burden of following up on whatever adjudication process or mental health service they were pursuing.
THE ADMINISTRATION’S RESPONSE
In response to growing concerns and media coverage of sexual assaults on university campuses, U of T announced the Advisory Committee to the President and Provost on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence last November. The committee aims to consult with various stakeholders on campus to review current policies and practices regarding sexual violence, and will produce a report for presentation to the president and provost. Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news and media relations, said that work was underway to create a document that clearly identifies support and services available to survivors.
Taylor questioned the committee’s integrity, suggesting the process was intended to absorb dissent rather than create meaningful change. Consequently, she declined to participate. “They haven’t committed to make a policy or procedure,” she explains. “I think most participants will have invested so much time, they will mistake participating for having an outcome.”
She also noted that the committee did not approach the Women and Gender Studies Institute as a department for input; instead, the institute reached out to them for information. SEC and the Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies were also not approached for input.
Cossman, who sits on the advisory committee’s policy and procedures working group, disagrees with Taylor’s sentiment. “I think there’s tremendous good will,” she says. “From what I heard around the table, there is a very serious concern about a very pervasive problem disproportionately suffered by students.”
While that may be true, many have still expressed concerns about the selection process and student representation on the committee. The group U of T Students Against Sexual Violence launched a petition in January, asking the committee to open a transparent application process for the committee. In response to these critiques, Blackburn-Evans said that individuals who were not provided a seat on the committee were invited to make submissions. “The committee is reviewing ways in which input can be provided anonymously for those who do not wish to participate,” she adds.
“We want to believe the process is one that will actually help people, as opposed to one that just protects the school’s reputation,” says Ben Coleman, a student governor who sits on the advisory committee. He identifies that the university seems to have heeded calls for increased student representation — following pressure from the University of Toronto Students’ Union and himself, students currently make up 20 per cent of the advisory committee. However, he emphasizes that the committee should be doing more to ensure that the community at large feels involved in the process.
Blackburn-Evans encouraged anyone with input to reach out to members of the advisory committee or working groups, so they may relay these views to the committee. Names of members can be found on the vice-provost, students website.
“Will it solve all the problems? I doubt it,” says Cossman. “No committee has. But I do feel they really do want student input.”
Clearly, social and institutional change will not happen overnight. In the meantime, Eleanor encourages other survivors to continue persevering: “You’re not alone, you are going to get through this. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but eventually you’re going to be okay.”
* Names have been changed at subjects’ requests.
** This article uses they/their pronouns to refer to individuals that do not identify with gender binaries.