Content warning: discussions of sexual violence.
In recent weeks, the incidents that occurred at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) have garnered national attention. Opinions range from two extremes, from alumni arguing that the incidents reflect their experiences to angry moms yelling at newscasters that “there’s a bad apple in every crowd.”
This incident is about something bigger than a few bad apples. It is not just an isolated incident of bullying or hazing. Many journalists and commentators are quick to blame the mix of “regressive” Catholicism, the toxic masculinity that stereotypically defines all boys’ schools, and the elitism that comes from the privilege of a private education.
But this incident is bigger than that. It’s part of a bigger pattern where men, like Jian Ghomeshi or Patrick Walsh, thought their entitlement to someone else’s body superseded that individual’s right to life, liberty, and security.
This is part of #MeToo, and it’s about time Toronto sees it that way.
This behaviour extends far beyond high school. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada survey, 41 per cent of all self-reported sexual assault incidents were reported by students, and 58 per cent of male offenders are between the ages of 18–34. It is, and always has been, a pervasive issue on college campuses. U of T has as much of a responsibility to spread awareness about these issues as SMCS.
While the legal system is rightly treating these incidents as sexual assaults, many articles solely refer to the abuse as hazing. This fails to acknowledge the unique context in which sexual assault occurs.
For example, one SMCS mother was quoted in The Toronto Sun as praising the school’s response, highlighting the fact that hazing rituals exist at other private all-boys schools. But no one has bothered to ask why those boys used that particular method to ‘haze.’ Throwing water on someone or making them march in circles is not the same as using a sexual act to degrade an individual’s bodily integrity.
Sexual violence is about using sex as a tool for power and control. What happened at SMCS was sexual violence.
Sexual assault is thought to be about sexual gratification, so when an assault, like the one at SMCS, is not overtly sexually motivated, focus shifts away from the sexual nature of the crime. For many people, the incident does not align with the biased societal conception of the ‘ideal’ victim. The young boy subjected to ‘hazing’ doesn’t match society’s idea of a #MeToo victim: a young, innocent, white woman.
When society fails to appropriately respond to these non-‘ideal’ victims, there are grave repercussions. It took months for the police to recognize that the series of murders in Toronto’s Gay Village were connected. It took even longer for police to tie killer Robert Pickton to the women who went missing in Vancouver’s Lower East Side.
Many believe that sexual assault against men is rare. It’s not. From 2009–2014, 13 per cent of sexual assault victims in Canada were male. However, since not all sexual assaults are reported, this number only represents about 10 per cent of all sexual assaults, resulting in little research or resources dedicated to supporting male victims. Researchers estimate that progress for male victims of sexual assault is about 20 years behind that of women.
When society fails to educate boys on sexual assault, we can end up with cases like this — where groups of boys believe that sexually assaulting someone and posting it online is just regular hazing. It’s considered ‘boys being boys’ instead of a crime.
The boys at SMCS believe such a thing because children learn from their environment. There’s a pervasive cultural belief that violence and aggression is a natural extension of male sexuality. If society doesn’t see this event as part of #MeToo, the boys won’t either. Worse, if the perpetrators don’t see their actions as sexual assault, it won’t stop them from committing similar crimes in the future.
So let’s see this for what it really is: a single sexual assault which reflects our broader lack of understanding about sexual violence. This is not just boys being boys. Let’s make space in #MeToo for men to come forward — a space where boys don’t have to fear that their accusations will be dismissed.
Ella Benedetti, Olivia Berkovits, Rachel Gordon, Christian Logue are master’s students at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies.