Content warning: Discussion of sexual assault.
A piece of campaign literature handed out by Change UofT campaigners drew ire and controversy on Tuesday, bringing up questions on the role of social justice topics in the University of Toronto Students’ Union elections.
The flyer featured a word search puzzle that listed the phrase “sexual assault” as a searchable word, along with other words like “exams” and “snowday.” Some students who saw the flyer tweeted that they found it both inconsiderate and triggering, and reached out to the slate for clarification.
“A serious topic put into a crossword with words like ‘snowday’ and ‘food.’ Someone hire me to help with marketing for people please,” tweeted student Nashwa Khan. “I don’t think finding sexual assault is going to accomplish anything to be honest except trigger some folks.”
Students tweeting at the slate, using the hashtag “#changeuoft,” and messaging individual candidates directly, were met with silence as the slate’s social media platforms continued to share campaign content.
On Wednesday night, Change UofT posted a defence of the flyer and their responses to offended and triggered students.
“We felt that for us to omit sexual assault from the list of words to find would only serve to reinforce the stigma and the silence around a public conversation about sexual violence and rape culture on our campuses, which we believe is missing,” said the post. “We in no way sought to trivialize the issue.”
A Woodsworth College director candidate for Change UofT, Matt Celestial, tweeted at students: “We are proud that addressing sexual assault is at the forefront of our platform. #ChangeUofT.”
It is unclear if the flyers are still being handed out on campus.
“It’s incredibly inappropriate, putting the “term” in a word game. I’m upset that it went unnoticed and released, especially on campaign materials that are so widely distributed,” said Jasmine Denike, the Team Brighter UofT’s candidate for vice-president, external, adding that she was very surprised that the issue was taken so lightly by members of Change UofT. “I know many members on their team, and it doesn’t seem like something they would do.”
Some see the incident as connected to a larger problem on campus and in student politics, where issues of social justice and equity are sometimes treated as policy points by participants rather than as experiences of violence and injustice in their own right. “Triggering folks isn’t taking anything seriously,” said Nashwa Khan on Twitter, who says she felt she was put in a position where she had to justify her own feelings of hurt and discomfort.
“When discussing an issue like lack of support for people who are affected by sexual violence, there’s a temptation to over-simplify and move as fast as possible,” said Katrina Vogan, a Brighter UofT campaign manager and founder of the Thrive Initiative.
Sania Khan, the candidate for vice-president, equity, for Team Brighter, expressed disappointment in the flyers. In a statement to The Varsity, she expressed her discomfort with the attitude towards equity issues that she sees during elections. “Our primary responsibility as student activists is to reflect the concerns and demands students have, not to compartmentalize the trauma that is suffered as a result of sexual violence and use it as a buzzword in a crossword puzzle,” she says.
Members of the slates who have previously served on the UTSU executive have participated in equity training on numerous occasions in their capacity as student leaders, including earlier this academic year.