On March 16, a group called Silence is Violence (SiV) put up a series of posters detailing negative interactions that survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment have had with U of T administration, staff, and people affiliated with the university, such as union leaders. This action was part of a broader campaign called Survivors Speak Back.
The stories depicted on the posters paint a picture of an institution that seems incapable of dealing with sexual violence: “U of T paid my rapist to live at a hotel across from my residence throughout the investigation;” “U of T threatened to remove me from my PhD program for reporting my stalker;” “My College told me if I spoke about my rape they’d punish me for ‘retaliation.’”
The power and horror of these stories is found in their volume — and the number of stories of sexual violence at U of T that are not even being told. How many survivors, fearful of no response or even retaliation from university officials, simply choose not to report at all?
In 2015, the CBC reported that between 2009 and 2013, there were 34 reports of sexual assault at U of T. Similar to what happens with low reports of sexual assault skewing crime statistics, such a low number of campus reports does not mean that sexual assaults were low during this period.
As experts cited by the CBC noted, the low numbers are “an indication that [Canadian universities] are doing a poor job of encouraging students to come forward.”
It is also telling that U of T’s response to this very campaign was to tear down the posters. The university claimed, via spokeswoman Elizabeth Church, that “the posters were removed in accordance with the university’s Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters and Banners.” The spokeswoman failed to mention which rules of the procedure the posters violated, but section three of this procedure — which specifically deals with posters — contains rules only pertaining to where posters can be placed and how large they can be.
Unless the university is referring to another rule that has not been made public, it seems that the posters were not in violation of any of the rules: they were in appropriate public spaces and were appropriately sized.
SiV is doing very important work in highlighting the inadequate university response to sexual violence. Survivors need to feel safe and supported, and it looks like U of T has little interest in treating them with respect.
To be fair, the university does have a comprehensive policy on sexual violence and harassment, which was approved by the Governing Council in December. SiV has participated in consultations on the policy, but, as the group stated on Facebook, these consultations aren’t necessarily adequate — especially since the policy didn’t adequately take into account their concerns, and many of the support workers were not very engaged.
While the existence of this policy is important, it is futile if it does not translate into action. It does not matter how well thought-out a policy about sexual violence and harassment is as long as survivors continue to feel shamed and threatened by the institution that is meant to protect them. Numerous instances of the university suppressing sexual violence survivors’ voices are reflected in SiV’s posters — and it is unclear whether the policy will adequately anticipate and address these cases in the future.
The university has sent a clear message by tearing down the posters: that survivors should stay quiet. U of T must improve its actions with respect to preventing sexual violence in the first place. One of the best places to start would be to ensure that an alternate message of support rings loud and clear and that everyone on campus knows that violence comes with consequences.
If U of T wants to actually make change, it should dig through its recycling bins and read survivors’ stories to understand what they need. Reporting and disclosing sexual violence needs to be more accessible, and survivors should have an easier time finding mental health and academic support.
In turn, survivors should not have to worry about seeing their perpetrators again, and they most certainly should not have to worry about retribution for speaking about their assault.
Ultimately, survivors should never be punished for speaking up, nor have their stories torn down.
Adina Heisler is a second-year student at University College studying Women and Gender Studies and English.