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Opinion: Western and U of T may be different, but our next steps are the same

Preventing sexual violence and supporting survivors should be central to U of T policy
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Western University and U of T have been working to change their sexual violence policies. HUDA EL ZEIN & ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY
Western University and U of T have been working to change their sexual violence policies. HUDA EL ZEIN & ANDREA ZHAO/THE VARSITY

Content warning: This article describes instances of sexual violence.

In September 2021, the discussion of gender-based and sexual violence (GBSV) on university campuses reemerged on social media. Numerous students from Western University, known across Canada for its party culture, posted allegations of distinct instances of gender-based violence on social media in the same month: a mass drugging in the Medway-Sydenham Hall residence and four reported sexual assault cases during orientation week. 

According to a 2018 Statistics Canada survey, in their first month at university, a number of young women at Western became part of the around 33 per cent of women in Canada to experience GBSV. 

Gender-based violence and sexual assault are not new campus threats. And yet only just now, in February — months after September protests against sexual violence at Western University — did Western’s Gender-Based & Sexual Violence Action Committee share its policy recommendations on how to protect students against sexual violence.

The four new policies include requirements that all incoming students at Western University complete training about GBSV; that there be more housing support staff in residences, as well as staff who specialize in sexual violence; that orientation leaders and student mentors are provided with proper training to understand GBSV; and that Western hire a new support case worker and a prevention and education coordinator, both of whom specialize in responding to GBSV.

Meanwhile, in October, U of T announced a review of its own sexual violence policy. This policy renewal was projected to run through February 2022, concurrently with Western’s own policy revisions, and be co-chaired by Dean Linda Johnson of the Lawerence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing and Sexual and Gender Diversity Office Director Allison Burgess. 

U of T does not have the same reputation as Western University. U of T is not a party school; it is more known for its academic rigour than for a culture of partying that fosters misogyny. Yet GBSV still exists on campus and is likely dangerously underreported. The consequences of student and staff ignorance around sexual violence on campus are an unprotected student body and insufficient sexual violence prevention and support services.

In response to the prevalence of sexual violence on campus within the Faculty of Music and Trinity College’s administration, student groups have criticized U of T’s policies and are advocating for change. Three otherwise unconnected student groups — the University of Toronto Students’ Union, the Prevention Empowerment Advocacy Response for Survivors Project, and the Faculty of Music Undergraduate Association — have launched the Students for Survivors campaign, united solely by their goal to protect U of T students from GBSV.

The campaign shares goals that complement Western University’s policy recommendations: creating more sexual violence awareness and prevention training, increasing the number of experienced staff and improving legal, medical, and mental supports on campus.

Fostering a safe environment on campus is an incredible challenge. Allegations of students being drugged, stalked, or assaulted regularly occur across universities nationwide. In this regard, no measure taken toward GBSV prevention is a waste of effort. 

While expecting upper-year students, including second-years, to manage traumatic situations with the same care as a professional is unreasonable, equipping residence dons with the proper training to handle sexual violence should be integral to every university’s sexual violence policy. Not providing dons with any proper training is unjust not only for them but also for the students who need their support.

After the allegations at Western University emerged in September, Western student Ali Ibrahim-Hirji created an Instagram post about focusing on the experience of orientation leaders on the evening of the alleged mass drugging. In the post with 25,000 likes, Ibrahim-Hirji wrote, “What you don’t see is our team responding to our 6th gender-based violence situation of the night, and then the 11th, and then the 14th. What you don’t see is our [orientation leaders] going above and beyond to make sure that this space is safe, EVEN when that means putting themselves in danger because no one else is there to help.” 

One day later, Ibrahim-Hirji posted a public apology addressed to survivors of GBSV at Western University for his post, which seemed to try to reposition a narrative that wasn’t his own, and for writing over womens’ experiences. But while it is wrong to suggest that he and the other orientation leaders shared the same trauma as survivors of GBSV, encountering sexual violence on campus is traumatic, even for those who aren’t directly affected. 

Policies such as the ones Western’s Action Committee just recommended, and the ones that U of T students are begging for, would mitigate the mishandling of cases of sexual violence and, more importantly, ensure there are better and more informed resources for survivors of GBSV. These policies would not only benefit survivors but also limit the trauma of the people who lack the proper training to aid survivors who are relying on them.

The likelihood that policies against GBSV will eradicate it from university campuses entirely is small, but the goal of policies such as those proposed by U of T’s Students for Survivors campaign is to prevent GBSV as much as possible and support those who have been affected by it. Caring for the well-being of fellow students is ultimately the greatest vehicle of change and the best hope for fostering a safer campus community.

Sarah Stern is a second-year English student at Victoria College.