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Opinion: U of T must increase awareness of sexual violence issues and resources

Education needs to be at the core of a consent-forward and sexual harassment-free campus
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Students are generally unaware that the SVPSC exists, let alone what services and supports they can reach at the centre. JADINE NGAN/ THE VARSITY
Students are generally unaware that the SVPSC exists, let alone what services and supports they can reach at the centre. JADINE NGAN/ THE VARSITY

Every three years, U of T reviews its Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. After a nearly six-month-long consultation and review period, co-chairs Linda Johnston — dean of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing — and Allison Burgess — director of the Sexual & Gender Diversity Office — completed their report and delivered 12 recommendations with subsequent action items. 

In July 2022, U of T accepted all 12 recommendations in its response to the review’s final report, which also addressed steps U of T plans to take or has already begun implementing 

The recommendations outlined in the report address five areas of concern. The first addresses U of T’s culture: how the university can increase education about consent, sexual violence, and harassment. It recommends promoting resources offered by the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre (SVPSC) and formalizing informal supports for survivors of sexual assault. The second centres on offering more dedicated and timely support to survivors, and the third on addressing power dynamics within academia. 

The last two concern transparency; the Report urges U of T to increase its transparency and communication regarding sexual harassment and violence, both across campus and with external institutions. The reviewers claim that, when implemented, these recommendations and their action items should reduce the culture of sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus and increase survivors’ access to resources. 

However, the low awareness of the resources that are available across U of T prevents many U of T student survivors from accessing the services they need. For U of T to actually provide more support to survivors of sexual violence, it needs to prioritize the recommendations that focus on both educating students on the services and support available to them and reducing the rape culture at U of T. 

Why should U of T focus on increasing awareness of resources available?

According to research from the Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project, U of T students are generally unaware of the SVPSC’s existence, let alone what services and supports they can reach at the centre. Thus, increasing the number of dedicated, trained personnel to work within and outside the SVPSC will improve the experience of those who access the centre, but it won’t inherently draw survivors and their support systems to the centre. Ultimately, this won’t help student survivors access the services they need. 

This same issue applies to the Student’s Guide to the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment. Although revising the Student’s Guide to the Policy will improve students’ understanding of the policy, it serves no benefit to the student population if they are generally unaware of the guide’s existence. 

So, what can be done?

Although the first three recommendations urge U of T to address sexual violence and harrassment, recommendations four through six may be the key to actually supporting survivors and systemically reducing the rape culture observed at U of T. 

Summarized, recommendations four through six call on the university to increase community-wide training and student-focused education on sexual violence and harassment, healthy relationships and consent, as well as awareness of the SVPSC, their services, and their resources. 

If U of T implements these recommendations effectively and universally, the university community may become a safer, consent-informed space. The Report addresses students’ lack of education on sexual relationships and consent practices, while communicating participant concerns about the efficacy of mass-mandatory training. 

Whether community members are well-versed in consent practices; have received some training in sexual harassment prevention, intervention, and survivor support; or are completely new to these ideas, regular university-wide training ought to be the standard. 

The discussion on community-wide training prompts the question: how would students know about the Student’s Guide and SVPSC if they were never informed? Also, how could we expect faculty, staff, and librarians to support their peers and students who disclose an incident of sexual assault when they themselves are unaware of the resources and training available to guide them? 

These issues that arise from the Report could be addressed through an effective education plan. The campus-wide education of all community members may appear redundant, ineffective, or dull, but it doesn’t have to be. Rather than hosting mass seminars or workshops that community members have to complete within a certain window, U of T could design and implement a comprehensive and nuanced education plan in various pockets of its community. 

For example, college and faculty unions could offer their own education plans with the support of dedicated consent and sexual violence educators, which would not only routinely educate students in an effective way, but would also continue to foster a sense of community within divisions of the university. U of T and the SVPSC could also continue to offer various topical lectures and workshops that the community can opt in to and have it count toward their routine education. 

These are two small examples of how education could look on a grand scale without adopting the drudgery of traditional mass-mandatory training. No matter what it looks like, there is no question that U of T needs to implement universal education if it is to address sexual violence and harassment on campus. 

Rion Levy is a third-year literature and critical theory student at Victoria College. He is the co-editor-in-chief of The Strand.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that, in October 2021, U of T accepted the recommendations in the recent review of the Policy on Sexual Violence and Harassment. The article has been updated to reflect that, in fact, U of T accepted these recommendations in July 2022.

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

  • 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