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Opinion: Survivors of sexual violence deserve more from U of T

Reporting-focused resources sideline many survivors’ needs and experiences
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DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY
DARREN CHENG/THE VARSITY

It took me almost a week to acknowledge that I had experienced an instance of sexual violence. I attributed my debilitating anxiety, disordered eating, and inability to get out of bed each morning to school stress — after all, halfway through my first term of law school, I was surrounded by peers who were struggling just as much, if not more than I was. I called the U of T Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) twice to no avail. I emailed, and eventually was able to set up an appointment eight days after my first attempt to contact them.

U of T’s official policy and the inefficiencies in the process of reporting through SVPSC have been rightfully criticized before, as has the pervasiveness of rape culture on this campus — an atmosphere which normalizes sexual violence and places the onus on women to not be assaulted. To try to mitigate these issues, campaigns and training sessions held by the university around sexual violence support and prevention largely centre around understanding consent. But this is not enough. The existing resources are severely inadequate for the realities of sexual violence survivors on this campus.

Counselling services at U of T are overburdened and students have been calling for reform for years. Dedicated counselling for sexual assault survivors — that is later transitioned, if necessary, to off-campus resources — would go a long way to facilitate survivor healing.

When I did meet with the SVPSC and disclosed my case, I was told that it does not offer counselling — which I desperately needed — and that I should return if I wanted to formally report, a process which is often traumatic in and of itself, as it requires survivors to relive their experiences in testimonies to university, police, or medical personnel. Reporting means placing a formal report through either the university or the criminal justice system. This process — which can be invasive and potentially humiliating — does not necessarily lead to consequences, either university-related or criminal, for alleged offenders.

I did not report, and I still haven’t. Mandated policies that centre their reporting processes around survivors conveniently ignore the myriad of reasons that survivors choose not to report at all. Being shut down while grasping for support because the SVPSC does not provide counselling is an enormous setback for a survivor who is processing their trauma.

People are much more likely to be sexually assaulted by people they know, people they invite into their homes. The reality is that, sometimes, we want to have sex with the people who violate us. Sometimes, otherwise good people who understand consent push our boundaries. Sometimes, we love the people who hurt us.

Even when I acknowledged that I had been violated, I could not bring myself to use the word ‘assaulted.’ I could not bring myself to call the person who had violated me an ‘assailant’ or a ‘perpetrator.’ Where does that leave young women, especially first-year students, who are statistically more likely to experience an instance of sexual violence in their first few weeks of university?

These systems are difficult to navigate, and they are especially complicated in the days and weeks after a traumatic incident. Though prevention — for example through educational campaigns about consent — is essential, survivors need to be supported through their healing.

Most importantly, we as a community need to address and dismantle our preconceived notions about sexual violence and trauma. The language we use, and the language that consent campaigns use, continues to focus on reporting and fails to provide alternative avenues for accountability.

For a survivor to say they were violated is not to cast the person who violated them as ‘evil,’ or as a ‘horrible person.’ A survivor may, but the need that others feel to defend people as ‘well-intentioned’ or ‘otherwise good-natured’ is harmful. A person can be both those things and still make a mistake. A person can also be a malicious serial perpetrator. Not all sexual violence is created equal, and we need to stop treating it as such.

I personally struggled for weeks after the fact, even as a previous victim of sexual assault and a longtime advocate for sexual violence prevention on university campuses. As a Toronto resident, I had established medical, professional, and personal support systems. I still struggled with the anxiety of running into the person who assaulted me on campus. I still struggled to determine what accountability would look like in a situation where I could not report to the university or the police. I still struggle with it all, months later. My heart goes out to the survivors on this campus who must process their trauma, navigate these systems, find answers to these questions, and heal largely alone.

Reporting-focused sexual violence prevention policies are just the tip of the iceberg for what survivors need to begin the process of healing — a process that is often lifelong. It is time-consuming, and it is particularly difficult while being a student in a large city — especially for young folks who are living away from home for the first time and for students who may not yet have close friends or family in whom they can confide.

We need easily accessible counselling services for U of T students who are survivors to address their unique issues. We need nuanced discussions, training programs, and campaigns about sexual violence that go further than defining terms like sexual violence and consent. At the very least, we need formal avenues to start talking about what accountability can look like outside of formal reporting procedures via the university and the authorities, especially if we want prevention to include helping people who have violated consent learn from their mistakes and not be repeat offenders.

Reporting and formal accountability have their place, but they won’t help a person heal; you need other resources to do that. Healing is what leads to students getting back on track and living their best academic potential.

U of T needs to do more, and it needs to do it better, because survivors deserve so much more than what we get from this university.

Vanshika Dhawan is a first-year student at the Faculty of Law. Dhawan has a Masters of Communications from Ryerson University and completed her thesis on sexual assault and survivor discourses.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you can call:

Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 (Toll Free), 1-866-863-7868 (TTY), and 416-863-0511 (Toronto)

Support Services for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse at 1-866-887-0015

Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: Multicultural Women Against Rape at 416-597-8808

Good2Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Gerstein Crisis Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030

Sexual Violence and Prevention Centre at: (416) 978-2266 and [email protected]

UTSG: Gerstein Science Information Centre (Gerstein Library), Suite B139

UTM: Davis Building, Room 3094

UTSC: Environmental Science & Chemistry Building, EV141.