IMAGE COURTESY OF SILENCE IS VIOLENCE U OF T

A 60-page report from grassroots organization Silence is Violence (SiV) revealed major systemic issues regarding the prevalence and university’s treatment of sexual assault cases across all three U of T campuses.

A feminist activist group at U of T addressing rape culture and sexual violence on university campuses, SiV released its report on January 21 after beginning the project in 2016.

The report details statistics on identity and their relation to the prevalence of sexual violence, as well as overall awareness and attitudes toward existing resources and governing policies.

The findings come from a survey of more than 500 anonymous students, ranging in racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and programs of study. SiV acknowledged the limitations of its methodology, namely that it overrepresented women and that participants were anonymous.

Statistics across demographics

Approximately 52.2 per cent of participants indicated that their lives as students had been impacted by sexual violence.

Moreover, as many as 20 per cent reported experiencing at least one instance of sexual violence during their time at U of T or were uncertain whether the incident they experienced was an act of sexual violence. Further, 30 per cent of students indicated that they knew of someone who had experienced sexual violence on campus.

In an interview with The Varsity, SiV team lead and U of T PhD student Jessica Wright shared her concern with the high proportion of instances when students were unsure if what they had experienced was sexual violence.

“I’d say one of the most surprising findings for me personally was that there were so many descriptions of physical violence and experiences of coercion that students didn’t identify or think constituted sexual violence,” said Wright. “I think that speaks to a lack of awareness about what constitutes sexual violence and the epidemic.”

The study further found that marginalized students believed that their identities — whether racial, gendered, sexual, or regarding disabilities — affected their perpetrator’s actions. According to the report, marginalized students experience a disproportionately high rate of sexual violence.

Indigenous respondents reported a rate of 74.1 per cent. Survivors with a disability and mental health issue reported a rate of 92.3 per cent.

“It is imperative that the university recognizes that sexual violence disproportionately affects marginalized people and that survivors of sexual violence can never be effectively supported by a universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ response,” reads the report.        

Wright said that the fact that marginalized students experience higher rates of sexual violence must be “explicitly recognized by the university and considered in every action to address sexual violence on campus.”

“In order for there to be a response to marginalized students at the university, we need intersectional responses,” said Wright.

Reporting sexual violence cases

Of the students who experienced cases of sexual violence, 75 per cent said they were unable or unwilling to report their assault. A variety of factors played into students’ decisions, particularly distrust in receiving the necessary help from university officials.

“As a female, you’re supposed to be passive. You’re never in the right. You’re malicious and melodramatic. I believed, and to some degree still do, that it was my actions that put me in that place and that I was in no position to speak up about what had happened. Above all, I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” wrote one participant.

The 25 per cent of participants who were able to report their assault were not satisfied with the resources provided or did not follow through with the report.

When asked about their comfort level with reporting sexual violence to Campus Police, participants rated it a 5.47 out of 10 on average. When asked the same regarding university staff, the average score was 5.09 out of 10.

Some students experienced sexual assault from university faculty, with one student reporting an incident with an associate dean, accounting for larger distrust in senior staff. Only one student indicated that they were able to report with a clear end result.

Next steps for the university

Of the 544 participants, 11.4 per cent expressed confidence in the university’s efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence, while 33.4 per cent expressed neutrality.

Survivors criticized campus authorities and staff in their handling of sexual violence cases, questioning both the training and experience of officials and their commitment to prevention and adequate response efforts.  

“University of Toronto staff (especially those who are higher up the hierarchy) are deeply invested in protecting the institution’s brand. Their #1 priority is themselves and the institution, not the students,” wrote one student.

“I think that UofT doesn’t have a very deep analysis of the issue and they aren’t really committed to stopping sexual violence from happening, only to making it look like it has stopped happening,” wrote another participant about the university’s commitment to sexual violence prevention.

Overall, participants called for a series of transparent and accessible sexual violence resources on campus, as well as a more welcoming and open environment.

One of the major recommendations from the report was for an autonomous Anti-Sexual Violence and Survivor Support Hub. The hub would operate as a space for students to receive counselling and education, as well as a route for disclosing or reporting sexual violence.

Wright said that the hub would have to be autonomous from U of T “because we know that the university unfortunately does have a vested interest in protecting their reputation when it comes to the prevalence of sexual violence on campus.”

Currently, U of T operates a Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre to deal with disclosures and reports. However, respondents reported a low awareness of the centre, with only 4.2 per cent referencing it as a resource.

In contrast, 40 per cent of respondents referenced the Campus Police as their primary source of reference for sexual violence cases. However, racialized students found it a barrier when seeking assistance.

As of January 1, 2017, the university has a Sexual Violence and Harassment policy in place, detailing specifics about sensitive information disclosure, reporting, and resources for survivors. Critics have raised concerns over the lack of a sexual violence prevention committee and efforts on prevention-led education.

The Varsity spoke to Angela Treglia, Director of the university’s Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre, about the report’s findings.

The centre is fairly new — starting its tri-campus operations in 2017 — and Treglia acknowledges that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“There is a recognition around the intersection of sexual violence and other forms of discrimination and harassment. We definitely recognize that there are individuals from marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence,” said Treglia.

“The Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre was developed as a space for individuals who experience sexual violence for them to go and get support, and we take an intersectional and client-centred approach to our work.”

She explained that the centre hopes to work  with equity and outreach groups on campus in order to respond to the needs of minority groups and continues to listen to student feedback.

When it comes to what the school can do better, the report states that, “The University of Toronto must be more intentional in its response to sexual violence on campus if it is to ever legitimately support survivors at U of T; there must be a move to transparent, accessible, well-advertised, and survivor-driven sexual violence resources, such as those outlined in our recommendations.”

With files from Josie Kao

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