Opinion: There are concerning gaps in the university’s sexual violence support systems

First-hand account reveals shortcomings with the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre
Despite the efforts of the SVPSC, barriers toward sexual assault support remain present on campus.
Nathan CHAN/THE VARSITY
Despite the efforts of the SVPSC, barriers toward sexual assault support remain present on campus. Nathan CHAN/THE VARSITY

Content warning: discussions of sexual violence

U of T’s sexual violence policy received a ‘C’ grade in 2017 from Our Turn, a national action plan resource that gave student unions tools to combat sexual violence on campus.

This should come as no surprise. There are systemic barriers that prevent survivors from coming forward — barriers that include inefficient wait times and a culture that silences conversation at U of T.

The Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) opened in 2017. From early 2017 to late 2018, only 56 reports of sexual violence were filed through the SVPSC. Only one hearing was held.

The SVPSC can only take academic and legal actions against the perpetrator if the assailant is a member of the U of T community, despite the fact that the assailants are not necessarily students.

Consider that Silence is Violence, a grassroots student advocacy group, found that out of 544 respondents, 109 reported experiencing sexual violence, or something they were uncertain whether to classify as sexual violence, during their time at U of T, which corresponds to around 20 per cent of respondents. This is a far cry from the one hearing held for a student population of 90,077 in 2017–2018.

Of course, the 56 students who chose to report sexual violence may not include students whose assailant was not part of the U of T community, or who chose not to press for academic consequences. Regardless, the number seems disproportionately low.

While each survivor has their own reasons to choose whether or not to disclose, the low proportion is indicative of a larger problem. Rape culture is still present at U of T and can be seen in the casual ways in which members of the community unintentionally place the burden of responsibility on the survivors.

U of T’s policy states that the university is “committed to making available programs and resources to educate its community on the prevention of and response to Sexual Violence.” However, according to a Maclean’s report published in 2018, 38 per cent of U of T students said that no one had properly educated them on how to report sexual assault. This potentially discourages conversation about and reporting of sexual assaults.

While U of T provides avenues to report cases of sexual assault, it becomes redundant if the university does not actively pursue measures to reduce the impact of rape culture. This culture was exemplified in 2017 when a series of posters containing quotes from university members detailing their experience with sexual violence and the university’s lacklustre response were put up by Silence is Violence. The university allegedly later took the posters down, effectively shutting down the conversation.

It is imperative that the university takes an active stance in order to dissipate the toxic environment and, consequently, shows survivors that U of T is serious about providing support. A passive form of ignorance will no longer stand.

With an understanding of the toxic atmosphere survivors face, it is worth noting that the services the university does provide simply do not accommodate the sensitive state of sexual assault survivors.

While there are many statistics to support this point, for an issue as personal as this one, it is worth grounding it in the experience of a survivor who has tried to go through the university’s service channels.

However, the university’s policy does note that reporting can “be initiated in person, by phone, or online,” granting survivors the ability to choose whatever is most comfortable.

According to U of T’s official policy, reporting is defined as detailing the occurrences of an assault which “could result in disciplinary action being taken against the Member of the University Community alleged to have committed Sexual Violence.”

This same disregard for the unique situations of survivors can also be seen in the way the SVPSC processes survivors. The SVPSC asked the source to fill in a form with her personal information, including an emergency contact. In some survivors’ circumstances, this could result in contact with the assailant. Her experience highlights the lack of effective processing within the SVPSC.

To create a safer environment and better resources for survivors to come forward, the university must do more to reduce these potential barriers to access. It is clear that U of T policy tries to stay in line with the province’s approach to sexual assault, but this has proven ineffective.

A review of provincial and university policy, along with the creation of more programs that encourage conversation around sexual assault and the effectiveness of help centres is a necessary starting point.

Alex Levesque is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

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