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Opinion: U of T must promote a survivor-centric approach

How the SVPSC can work to improve its relationship with students
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence.

Sexual assault, as defined by the University of Toronto’s Policy on Sexual Violence, involves “any form of sexual contact without a person’s consent,” including verbal and non-verbal threats of sexual contact. All consent must be given without any participant being under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and it must be continuous, enthusiastic, and void of coercion or abusive power dynamics. While sexual assault may seem to be a singular noun describing a single thing, that’s an inaccurate perception. There are numerous ways in which sexual assault can materialize, ranging from unwanted sexual advances to touching to forced sexual penetration or rape.

In 2019, according to Statistics Canada, 71 per cent of all students in attendance at a postsecondary institution countrywide had either experienced or bore witness to non-consensual sexualized behaviour. Further, 45 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men were subjected to unwanted sexual behaviour. What is even more horrifying is that out of all the students who experienced sexual assault, only eight per cent of women and six per cent of men made reports to a person or group of authority associated with their academic institution, whether that be a course instructor, academic advisor, or a support group such as the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre (SVPSC) at the University of Toronto.

Being subjected to the severity of violence experienced both during and after a sexual assault can leave an individual with feelings of mistrust, shame, guilt, fear, dissociation, and confusion, to name a mere few. However, the simplicity of these words does little to convey the impact of the convergence of emotions that derive from such an incident. 

Earlier this year, the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors Project (PEARS) held two town halls that allowed students to voice their very valid concerns about U of T’s sexual violence policy. PEARS, a trauma-informed initiative at U of T led by sexual violence survivors, in conjunction with the Trinity Against Sexual Assault and Harassment (TASAH), also a student-led group, has heavily criticized the SVPSC for its lack of accessibility and timely support.  

To alleviate the weight of the trauma, U of T has a responsibility to prioritize the health and safety of those who have experienced sexual assault, especially for students who have experienced sexual assault on campus or have been assaulted by other students. 

U of T should adopt a more survivor-centric approach, which involves empowering those who have experienced sexual violence while also ensuring that support is provided on a case-by-case basis in a way that is centred around each individual’s needs, rather than using the same solution regardless of the trauma’s austerity and impact. Subjecting someone who has experienced sexual assault to a standard course of treatment is not only futile but also patronizing and completely lazy, since even individuals who experience identical incidents may not respond in the exact same way. 

Similarly, people who have experienced sexual assault do not necessarily want to be referred to by the same language. Some may prefer the word “victim” over “survivor” since the latter feels infantilizing, while others prefer “survivor” because they view “victim” as an inaccurate label of how they see themselves after their experience. Words hold an unprecedented amount of weight — syntax and diction can make all the difference in how people who have experienced sexual assault respond to and deal with their trauma.

With this in mind, a large component of the survivor-centric approach involves rethinking the definition of sexual assault itself to ensure that no individual feels that their experience is too small to be considered serious. There are no mitigating factors to sexual assault. It either happened or it didn’t. The fact that the perpetrator was your boyfriend or a close friend, that you were drunk or using substances, or that it happened halfway through a consensual encounter does not change the fact that what you experienced is valid.

Therefore, the definition of sexual assault must be broadened to consider the multitude of different possible experiences individuals may have, in order to ensure that all individuals receive support and, if they choose to report their experience, justice. U of T can aim to achieve maximum outreach by making its definitions and options for support more inclusive, comprehensive, and survivor-centred.  

U of T must address complaints from students who have not received adequate support from SVPSC with a survivor-centric approach that treats victims and survivors with the dignity they deserve, while validating their array of complicated feelings. This specific approach places individuals at the centre of the healing process, offering personalized paths to recovery that involve the reinforcement of agency and sense of self. The University of Toronto must work to strengthen its relationships and trust with students so that those who have experienced sexual assault will eventually be able to find solace.

Paden Neundorf is a third-year English and critical studies in equity and solidarity student at Woodsworth College.

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