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Opinion: Revision of U of T’s sexual violence policy indicates much needed progress

Proposed measures further ensure an environment where students can bring up sexual misconduct
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Survivors have various obstacles that may prevent them from coming forward. COURTESY OF JEFF HITCHCOCK/FLICKR
Survivors have various obstacles that may prevent them from coming forward. COURTESY OF JEFF HITCHCOCK/FLICKR

Content warning: This article contains discussions of sexual violence. 

Often, we fail to recognize both the nuance of sexual violence and its sheer rampancy in postsecondary institutions. For reference, roughly 11 percent of women students and four percent of men students in Canadian higher learning were sexually assaulted in a collegiate environment in 2019. Despite these staggering numbers, only five percent of sexual assaults against people 15 or older are reported to authorities, thus making it the violent crime that is the most likely to go undisclosed.

Survivors may hesitate to come forward for various reasons. Some may fear penalties for violating an institution’s policies at the time of their assault, including by using drugs or drinking alcohol. Others feel that they will be discredited and subjected to victim blaming on the basis of their sexual history or identity.

To eliminate these barriers to reporting sexual violence, the Ontario government is requiring postsecondary schools to amend their sexual violence and harassment policies. Notably, U of T is looking to implement measures that will protect complainants from facing disciplinary action for unsanctioned use of drugs or alcohol, and prevent irrelevant questions regarding sexual expression. 

I stand in support of U of T’s suggested policy changes, as I find that not only are they successful in confronting the stigmatization of sexual violence, but that these initiatives are nothing short of imperative for students who want to safely report their experiences in an evolving contemporary landscape.

Fear of punishment for violating institutional policies

Survivors may fail to report assaults for fear of facing consequences from the potential violation of institutional policy. In a survey of Canadian postsecondary students conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse (CCSA) in 2016, 92.5 per cent of respondents said that they consumed alcohol. Furthermore, a 2018 report by the CCSA reported that 35 per cent of Canadian postsecondary students who responded to the survey had consumed five drinks or more at least once within the two weeks prior to being surveyed.

Drug-facilitated assaults often involve alcohol, which is common among university students. Students are therefore more vulnerable to assault. Furthermore, survivors who have been assaulted while drunk or high may fear that they will be in violation of university drug and alcohol policies, particularly if they’re underage.

According to a report by Statistics Canada in 2019, less than 10 per cent of the survivors of sexual violence or harassment communicated the incident to someone affiliated with their school. Factoring in fears of prospective punishment, it’s no surprise that, prior to the inception of measures barring penalties for assault-related policy violation, survivors were reluctant to come forward.

The Ontario government amended its guidelines for postsecondary schools, requiring them to not subject survivors to the school’s drug and alcohol rules regarding the time the incident happened. Without the security provided by that exemption, students face an added layer of concern when reporting sexual misconduct.

Reporting may lead to victim blaming

The conversation surrounding campus sexual violence is dominated by talk of pocket-sized mace, Uber etiquette, and drink supervision. This dialogue, though evolving, remains largely focused on survivor-dependent preventative measures, such as “don’t leave your drink unattended” or “never walk home alone after dark.” It’s often assumed that sexual assaults occur because of the survivor’s disregard for their own safety. This is a prime example of subtle victim blaming.  

‘Victim blaming,’ the process of assigning fault to the survivors, frequently manifests itself in the assertion that details such as a person’s dress, sexual history, and demeanour lead to sexual assault. In these instances, assailants avoid culpability because of the assumption that survivors are partially, if not fully, responsible for the offence. 

Strikingly, a 2018 Statistics Canada report found that one in five survivors, regardless of their gender identity, felt like they were blamed for their assault, either by the perpetrator or by their own friends or family. Moreover, survivors who’d been attacked by someone known to them, like a friend or an acquaintance, were significantly more likely to have felt blamed when compared to those assaulted by a stranger.

In light of Al Jazeera’s report on Oxford professors taking advantage of women students through their positions of power, it is clear that a culture of victim blaming not only prevents students from voicing their experiences, but also maintains a power imbalance that enables tolerance of sexual violence. Norms that impose blame upon survivors have successfully survived, as they’re deeply entrenched in the fabric of our society; to confront them would be cultural upheaval. As such, the University of Toronto’s newfound consideration of the bias embedded in investigative proceedings is a major win for survivors and advocates alike.  

The proposal of guidelines that account for the problems created by threats of disciplinary action or victim blaming signifies a gradual, but deliberate, shifting of cultural tides. The hope is that, through the introduction of policies promoting survivor welfare and accessible supports, survivors will be more likely to report instances of sexual violence on campus. Slowly but surely, students and faculty are cultivating an environment that not only emphasizes autonomy, but also ensures that sexual assault survivors can seek counsel without fear of judgment or repercussion. 

Emma Dobrovnik is a first-year social sciences student at St. Michael’s College. She is a first-year representative for the Association of Political Science Students. 


If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • Visit safety.utoronto.ca for a list of safety resources.
  • Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
  • Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511