Content warning: This article mentions sexual violence.
The first few weeks of the school year mark the Red Zone, a period in which most sexual violence tends to occur on university campuses. With the academic year still in its early stages, U of T student groups and administrators have prepared resources and campaigns to raise awareness and educate students about sexual violence on campus.
These efforts include the Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre’s (SVPSC) launch of its updated online sexual assault education module, which the office revised based on the university’s most recent review of the Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment.
What is the Red Zone?
Many university sexual violence advocacy campaigns refer to the time period in students’ first year between the beginning of school and the school’s first holiday break as the Red Zone. One of the first mentions of the period comes from a 1988 book titled I Never Called it Rape, written by Robin Warshaw and published by the feminist outlet Ms. Magazine.
A 2008 study by Matthew Kimble and colleagues published in the Journal of American College Health tracked sexual assault experienced by around 100 first- and second-year women students at a small, rural university. They found that first-year students who participated in the study experienced more sexual violence than second years, and both experienced more sexual violence in their first semester compared to their second.
The study suggested that factors such as an increase in campus parties, alcohol consumption, and sorority pledging during the first few months of school help explain heightened risk factors for sexual violence. Other research also links alcohol consumption with higher rates of sexual violence.
However, the data remains mixed, and the authors of the 2008 study warn that the periods in the year with the highest risks of sexual violence likely vary based on the specific conditions of each university.
The Prevention, Empowerment, Advocacy, Response, for Survivors (PEARS) Project — a U of T student group that provides peer support and resources for survivors of sexual violence across all campuses — has posted information on Instagram about the Red Zone and has linked hotlines, medical care, and legal services students can turn to if they have experienced sexual violence.
In an interview with The Varsity, PEARS Project Co-Director Emma Biamonte noted that the group made educating students about the Red Zone a key priority for the beginning of the school year.
The group also ran tabling sessions once a week from September 7–28 outside of Sidney Smith Hall and Robarts Library. At the tabling sessions, members handed out resources, such as safer sex supplies and safer partying kits, and offered peer support. According to Biamonte, the tabling sessions have been crucial for showing that there is a community on campus dedicated to providing support and resources to survivors.
“It can be very daunting to reach out after experiencing something like sexual violence. And we want to make that process as accessible for people as possible,” Biamonte explained.
Online education module
The university has also engaged in its own initiatives to educate students about consent and sexual violence. The focal point of these efforts is the launch of the SVPSC’s updated online sexual assault education module. According to a news article from U of T News, the module, which is available through each student’s Quercus page, provides an overview of “consent, setting healthy boundaries and the support services available for survivors of sexual violence.”
The SVPSC updated the module this past year based on a university-appointed review group’s 12 recommendations from the tri-annual review of the university’s sexual violence and sexual harassment policies. The SVPSC invited students, including members of the PEARS Project, to consult on the updates to the module. However, according to Biamonte, the office didn’t include any of the group’s recommendations in the version published to Quercus.
In an email to The Varsity, Angela Treglia, Director, Sexual Violence Prevention and Support, explained that during October, the SVPSC will review all feedback received to date and work to incorporate it into the final 2023-2024 version of the module. She also said the centre welcomes ongoing conversations with students, including PEARS, as it continues to refine the module.
Treglia added that the SVPSC has seen around 2,000 students register on Quercus to complete the module and 1,200 successfully complete it, with the remaining still in progress.
The value of sexual violence education
Biamonte believes the online module has the potential to be an effective resource for educating students. However, she also believes that the university could be implementing many more changes, such as discussing sexual violence perpetrated by students within the university-wide sexual violence policy and providing accessibility accommodations for survivors of sexual violence — including assignment extensions or measures to reduce chances that a survivor will see their abuser on campus.
Among all their activities, the PEARS Project has also been advocating for the university to make changes to its sexual violence policy. Last year, the organization published an analysis of the university’s review of the Policy of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment that lists recommendations for changes.
Biamonte says the existence of the Red Zone means it’s important to educate the U of T community about the prevalence of on-campus sexual violence. Treglia also noted in her email the importance of raising awareness early in the school year, and commended student advocates for their work educating their peers.
Some research has found that prevention methods that focus on empowering women to protect themselves and resist violence are effective in preventing sexual violence, but only using women-focused approaches can deflect responsibility from perpetrators. Prevention programs that also incorporate bystander intervention and focus on potential perpetrators are important for a wider prevention model.
“The existence of something like the Red Zone, it’s scary. It’s intimidating. It makes the university seem like a scary place. And it’s important to remember and keep in mind that a community of support does exist. We hear you, we believe you, and the resources are available to everyone who needs them… whatever you need, it is out there for you to access,” said Biamonte.
Editor’s Note (Oct 14): An earlier version of this article stated that SVPSC will incorporate all feedback into the final version of the online education module. However, the centre has in fact stated that because some of the feedback is contradictory it would be impossible to reflect all feedback in the final version of the module. The article has also been updated to reflect the SVPSC’s statements.