Content warning: This article discusses sexual harassment and assault, and mentions misogynistic slurs.
This article was written in response to the events that occurred at Western University’s orientation week, after which dozens of students came forward to media outlets about being drugged and sexually assaulted on campus.
First year at Western University, as at any university, can be overwhelming: meeting new people in the confines of a single dorm room where the bed frame is stripped of its mattress to serve as a beer-pong table; the rush of trying to find a new posse for the next four years.
The first time I ever attended a good old-fashioned house party was in 2019, during my first week at Western. I wasn’t particularly compelled to go, but I was attending a university with a reputation for partying harder than any other — I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Even before I had accepted my offer, my hesitation to attend Western was overwhelming from the get-go. I had heard stories and rumours throughout high school that Western had a cult-like, sloppy, exceptional social scene. While I was going for the program, I promised myself that I would try to be more outgoing and take advantage of the coveted social scene at Western.
So, I attended my first house party. I did this alone, which in retrospect, was not the wisest idea. Upon entering, I was greeted with second-hand inhalation of someone’s vape — cotton candy. That sickly sweet scent would stick with me all night, following me up the stairs as I was offered a drink, and my refusal was met with deep anger.
The events that let me dip my toes into the intense social scene are, unfortunately, the same ones that have swallowed others headfirst. It is campus party culture at its heart — one of the most valorized rites of university — that holds the dangerous potential to quickly cross a line.
My university experience, in some way, has been defined by the fact that I transferred schools. Even though I’ve made commentary about my first-year experience before, I’ve still sat on my hands these past few years, holding my tongue about certain happenings at Western to prevent myself from speaking hastily about something I only experienced briefly.
Truthfully, it feels like my choice to transfer out of Western left me with an unfinished argument, and I’ve been caught in an ethical mind game regarding sharing my observations during my time in London, Ontario. What should I say, and how loudly should I say it? I don’t want to take up too much space in the conversation, especially with current events, but something needs to be said, and this is what I have to say.
Going to Western definitely brought me out of my comfort zone and into a new perspective. As someone who often felt like an outsider looking in, it was easy to see the dark corners that don’t appear in frosh week photographs and game day apparel.
The first month I was at Western, I spent most of my time navigating the ins and outs of socializing. Orientation consists of numerous bonding activities during the day, and they’re incredibly helpful to get to know people and the campus. However, the “real” orientation into the culture doesn’t come from the programming. Of course, there would always be a party to acquaint ourselves with, but even the unsupervised events felt a little out of place. I felt like I was acting maliciously by partaking in the Jell-O shots before a group activity or being convinced to dress in weirdly sexualized outfits for the football game. Walking through frat houses and coveted street parties felt like walking through some sort of horrific liminal space. Hand-painted signs and tapestries boldly promoted vulgar messages, like:
“Queen’s girls spit, Western girls swallow.”
“Our roommate is a virgin — please help.”
“If your girl goes to Western, she’s not your girl anymore.”
And even ones as blunt as, “Anal?”
While openness about sexuality is undoubtedly important, these banners hardly intended to promote healthy conversations about sex. It felt almost accusatory or shameful to walk past these signs as one of the aforementioned “Western girls.” Is this what it was supposed to be like? Was I supposed to feel unsafe in my own skin? Was I supposed to walk campus cautiously, expecting the worst when the sun went down?
During orientation, more affectionately known as ‘O-week,’ first-year students at Western are typically given a short seminar called “Can I Kiss You?” which aims to teach us about consent and assault. While well-spirited, it’s a single hour-long event at the beginning of an incredibly involved week, and as such, it often gets pushed under the rug, or worse, belittled. These conversations need to be ongoing, not wrapped in a one-off event, especially one that young adults will laugh at.
I remember one of my friends at the time had engaged in a night of casual sex. They were the butt of some awful jokes for a while, jokes that even went so far as to suggest that others should sleep with them if they were looking for an “easy slut” or someone who could provide them with a “good, dirty time.”
I’d try to comfort them that night, trying to convince them that it wasn’t their fault.
I remember walking home from an evening class and being stopped dead in my tracks by a stranger who had a lot to say about my body. Clearly uncomfortable, I tried to calmly move away from the situation and urge forward toward my residence. Unfortunately, he was going in the same direction, and it was dark. I had a death grip on the keys in my pocket as he followed me the entire way home, as if the keys would have been enough to protect me, had he chosen to turn his words to actions.
I’d rub the imprints of my keys into my palms later that night, convincing myself I was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I remember carrying a blacked-out friend home from a dorm party, having to loudly argue on their behalf to get them out of being invited to an intoxicated threesome with strangers. My suspicion that they would’ve been victim to an absolutely disgusting version of ‘hazing’ if I hadn’t stepped in haunts me.
I’d tuck them into bed that night after carrying them home in the snow, realizing that this issue ran deeper than the surface.
These aren’t the kinds of things you plan for. Nobody ever thinks these things are going to happen to them. And maybe they try to shove it under the rug, or tell themselves what happened wasn’t that bad. Maybe they speak a little softer about their experiences, out of the belief that other people have it worse, and I understand why. It’s difficult to share these things, but we should — and loudly.
When the news broke, I wasn’t surprised to hear about the turn of events at Western’s orientation week this year. It feels almost disheartening to admit, but the first thought that ran through my head was, “I am so goddamn lucky that I no longer go there.” Wrapping my head around the scale of the sexual assaults took a while to process.
This, of course, is no dig at Western, but rather the existence of an extreme party culture that seems to perpetuate throughout environments such as university campuses. This culture is concerningly widespread, and U of T is no different in its track record. Our lack of a reputation as a “party school” lets us fly under the radar, hiding the sexual assault that occurs just as frequently within our community — at parties, but also in classrooms and extracurricular activities. Sexual assault and harrassment isn’t restricted to any one location — it’s like wildfire across campuses.
We must ask a series of important questions about what causes us to let this culture slide, and we must ask them loudly. It’s good that conversations are now being had across campuses, but it’s incredibly horrific that a tragedy of this magnitude had to happen for change to be prompted.
Indeed, these conversations will make people uncomfortable, and frankly, that’s the point — it should make people uncomfortable to hear these harrowing stories. They shouldn’t be sugar-coated or modified to sound nice. Our stomachs should churn at every instance of sexual violence, and we should question what prompts it at every moment — not just as a response to egregious acts.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual harassment or sexual assault at U of T:
- Contact U of T’s Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre at [email protected] or 416-978-2266 between 9:00am and 5:00pm on weekdays.
- Call Toronto Rape Crisis Centre’s hotline, available 24 hours a day, at 416-597-8808.
- Call Ontario’s toll-free victim support line from anywhere in the world at +1-800-579-2888.
- For testing and treating sexually transmitted infections, testing for drugs that might have been used to commit the assault, and for access to emergency contraceptive services, visit the Acute Ambulatory Care Unit, Room 1256, at the Women’s College Hospital at 76 Grenville Street, Toronto.
- Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
- Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511
- Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
- Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for UTSG and UTSC) or 905-569-4333 (for UTM)