If you’ve been on social media over the past few weeks, you will likely have noticed the hashtag #MeToo. It was initially coined around 2007 by activist Tarana Burke as a uniting cry for survivors of sexual assault. It was resurfaced by actress Alyssa Milano in the wake of the sexual harassment allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Hundreds of thousands of people have come forward to share their #MeToo stories on Twitter and Facebook. It is not difficult to imagine that many more had stories they did not feel comfortable disclosing on social media.
In light of this campaign, it is fitting that Our Turn, an advocacy group comprised of 20 student unions across Canada, released scores evaluating the sexual violence policies at 14 universities. U of T’s sexual violence policy received a C. The policy scored points for aspects like defining consent effectively and having “faculty and staff… processed under the same [sexual violence policy] as students,” but its education and prevention programs were scored much lower. The policy also lost many points for its formal and informal complaint process. While we have certainly made progress since the policy was put into effect in January, the university still has a long way to go.
U of T’s sexual violence policy has its strong suits. For instance, it includes a clear definition of consent: it must be ongoing, can be revoked, and cannot be obtained in situations where the person is incapable of consenting, such as due to intoxication or in situations of abuse of power or authority. The policy also preserves the autonomy of complainants: they can choose to whom they want to disclose their assault, whether to report it, and whether they wish to pursue civil or criminal justice action against the accused. Finally, the policy applies to all members of the university community, regardless of their role at the university or relationship to the complainant.
While the policy seems promising on paper for these reasons, there is still much to be improved upon. For instance, education and prevention programs are mentioned, but much of the focus placed is on dealing with the issue after it has already happened. The goal should be to ensure that nobody is hurt in the first place by proactively addressing rape culture on campus and finding meaningful ways to educate students and staff about consent.
Trinity College student Tamsyn Riddle, who filed a human rights complaint against the college for its alleged mishandling of her sexual assault case, said it best. In a feature for The Varsity, she wrote, “Sexual violence can only end through the dismantling of the power structures that feed into it.”
While a university sexual violence prevention director repeatedly claimed that students were involved in the policy’s creation and consultation process, many student groups and activists disagree. Ellie Ade Kur, founder of the U of T branch of advocacy group Silence is Violence (SIV), said that the consultations were inaccessible, and that the university did not effectively address most of the concerns that were raised. In fact, when SIV put up posters detailing the stories of survivors of sexual violence at U of T and the horrific responses of various U of T officials, the university promptly removed the posters, “in accordance with the university’s Procedure on Distribution of Publications, Posters and Banners,” according to spokesperson Elizabeth Church.
I hope that U of T recognizes that policy creation is only the first step in adequately addressing sexual violence. The next steps are clear: we need a much better prevention and education program, as well as a better complaints process.
Most importantly, we need to listen to survivors and activists. It is unfortunate that with campaigns like #MeToo and SIV’s posters, the onus was on survivors of sexual violence to come forward and speak — community services should be proactive enough such that survivors are not single-handedly forced to sound the alarm on their own trauma. But, now that they have, it is time for us to listen.
Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying English and Women and Gender Studies. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.
Editor’s Note (November 2): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the university hired people to remove SIV posters. The university removed the posters themselves.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Governing Council claimed that students were involved in the sexual violence policy’s creation and consultation process. This claim was made by a university sexual violence prevention director.