U of T’s past and present policies on sexual violence have been consistently met with controversy and criticism. Trinity College student Tamsyn Riddle has previously detailed the ways in which U of T failed her. In 2015, the administration repeatedly deflected responsibility and gave Riddle the impression that her case was not important enough to be taken seriously after she was sexually assaulted by another student. At the end of the 17-month-long ordeal, she filed a human rights complaint against the university and against Trinity College.
More recently, a survivor of sexual violence on campus saw sexual assault charges against her assailant dismissed, although a judge convicted the assailant of assault causing bodily harm that took place at the same time as the sex act. These stories are only the ones that have received media coverage.
Now, criticism has come to a head. Last Monday, campus-community organization Silence is Violence (SiV) published a groundbreaking report on sexual violence at U of T. The group is experientially-led, meaning that survivors take on driving leadership roles in the fight against sexual violence on Canada’s university campuses.
The three-year long research effort culminated in a 60-page document that held the results of a survey of hundreds of students on their experiences surrounding sexual violence at U of T. The report found that many students have been affected by sexual abuse, that students did not feel supported by U of T’s resources on sexual violence, and that marginalized students felt particularly neglected.
The implications of this report are clear. U of T has failed to fulfil its responsibilities and respond effectively to the needs of survivors on campus. The SiV report has the potential to drive meaningful change by providing U of T with data on the testimonies and the needs of survivors, including instructions and recommendations for improvements to university services, processes, and policies.
The data paints a picture of a chaotic, bureaucratic, and self-interested system, which survivors are forced to navigate in isolation with no proper understanding of what services they are being offered. This system is not friendly, but hostile to victims, especially as they may need to repeat the story of their trauma to numerous staff members. The onus is often placed upon students to research and figure out where they can report instances of sexual violence and where they can find support.
Let’s not mince words. Survivors are in survivor mode. Some may not have the mental stamina to navigate this convoluted system, and we should not ask them to do so. If the university requires what is, for many, the impossible, in order to gain support and justice, then many will be excluded from such support and justice.
The university must not only play a role in helping students navigate the aftermath of such incidents, but should also proactively combat rape culture on campus.
Yet U of T currently has no mention of rape culture in its policy on sexual violence. This is one of the reasons why, in 2017, U of T’s sexual violence policy scored a low letter-grade C from the nationwide student organization Our Turn.
There are reasons why publicly and privately funded institutions like U of T may not address sexual violence on campus in the most effective ways. Consider, for example, that U of T does not adequately advertise the services it provides to deal with sexual violence on campus, leaving many students in the dark. Meanwhile, study groups, co-curricular opportunities, and other university services are thoroughly announced, often by professors on syllabus days.
To advertise after-the-fact services like counselling for survivors, or to campaign and educate against the existing rape culture on campus, risks publicizing the simple fact that sexual violence happens at U of T. Acknowledging the problem does not elevate the reputation of the university. It disparages it.
And recall that reputation is everything to an elite, top-ranked institution like U of T, because it justifies high tuition and boosts enrolment numbers. Applicants are on the hunt for the universities with the best rates of student success and the best academic and co-curricular opportunities, among other qualities. Hence, U of T has a vested interest in suppressing the magnitude of sexual violence on campus from the public. That kind of data and awareness has the potential to negatively affect enrolment and monetary contributions from donors.
Based on the current system’s glaring problems, which survivors at U of T have to navigate, the university obviously has not completed its due diligence in consulting those touched by sexual violence about the services it offers to them. Victims are not asked what services, processes, and outcomes they need; they instead are told what the university is willing to provide.
The research done by SiV means that U of T is in an excellent position to start tackling the problem. The report outlines the anxieties and concerns that students have about the process of reporting sexual violence and the support that U of T offers. U of T can choose to hear these voices and make changes accordingly to policies and service centres. SiV also provides a detailed statement of recommendations on how the university can improve and take meaningful action.
The university must provide an accessible, navigable, survivor-first system to report and find support in the wake of sexual violence, as well as take action against an unchecked rape culture on campus. Time is up for U of T’s survivor-last approach to dealing with sexual violence.
Cameron Wheeler is a second-year English student at Woodsworth College.