Content warning: this article discusses sexual violence.
On September 27, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke publicly about her alleged sexual assault by then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Ford’s speech resonates with many survivors of sexual assault, particularly those who have experienced assault on university campuses. The connection between Ford’s alleged assault and the assaults experienced by many university students lies in the political implications of speaking out.
Consider Victoria College’s web page for current students, ‘Let’s talk about sexual assault,’ which suggests that women attending university are more susceptible to sexual assault as “attitudes toward and expectations about alcohol and drug use, sexual activity, and social interaction are different in a university setting.”
These expectations work together to create an environment that does not shame those who perpetrate sexual assault, but rather shames the survivors. This environment normalizes a lack of consent during sexual encounters and allows alcohol use to excuse predatory actions. The reasons for the susceptibility of young women to sexual assault, as described by U of T, overlap with themes discussed by Ford: alcohol use, shame, adolescent sexuality, and uncertainty.
These themes create a discourse that prevents university students from speaking out, just as Ford was fearful of speaking out. Kavanaugh attempted to belittle Ford’s claims by detailing his alcohol use as something “almost everyone did,” and that because of this, he could not be guilty of sexual assault.
While the climate of university campuses makes it difficult for survivors to speak out, the particular climate at U of T adds another layer of coming to terms with one’s sexual assault. It has recently been revealed that, in 2019, U of T will continue to hold its position as Canada’s top university. The pressure created by this ranking is twofold.
Firstly, the ranking persuades the university to maintain a pristine reputation — a reputation that does not include sexual assault. Instead of taking preventative measures including discussing consent and sexual assault, the university has an incentive to conceal sexual assault cases by creating bureaucratic barriers that prevent individuals from reporting assault.
Universities in Ontario are required to have specific plans and procedures that encourage students to report assaults. However, U of T has been criticized for dismissing claims put forward by students and failing to provide support for survivors.
Secondly, the ranking may cause students to pressure themselves to be exemplary. Ford had said, “I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details.” Her inability to come forward due to the fear of being labelled deviant or untruthful is something that resonates with young students striving toward perfection.
When Ford spoke out, she was scrutinized by Republican senators, the Supreme Court, and the entire US population. When a U of T student speaks out, they may be interrogated by the university administration and fellow students. Regardless of the different stakes, both Ford’s testimony and a U of T student’s testimony are susceptible to institutional scrutiny.
Ultimately, it is the individual’s choice to speak about their assault. Ford detailed the challenges that she has faced since deciding to speak out and name her accuser: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” She experienced ridicule from her close peers and from anonymous strangers. However, Ford has also “experienced an outpouring of support from people in every state of this country.”
Ford demonstrated that power does not necessarily come from naming her accuser. Rather, power comes from the support given by those who believe and listen to her story. The U of T campus may discourage sexual assault survivors from coming forward. However, we can empower survivors by letting them know that we are listening, that we believe them, and that we stand by them.
Morgan Powell is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and Book and Media Studies student at Woodsworth College.