Toward a decent, dignified masculinity

The St. Michael’s College School scandal shows that we need to shape a healthier culture for boys

Toward a decent, dignified masculinity

Content warning: discussion of sexual violence.

In mid-November, videos surfaced on social media that showed an alleged assault and sexual assault at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) — an all-boys private school just a few kilometres away from U of T. Hearing this news left me feeling physically ill. Six boys connected to the incidents have been charged, while the police continue to investigate other separate incidents. Recently, both the principal and president of the school have resigned.

The scandal compelled me to question what hazing entails, which is the common thread between all the incidents. The practice refers to the initiation of students into a group through humiliation.

Hazing and toxic masculinity

Professor Michael Atkinson of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education describes hazing as “a physical, psychological and emotional gauntlet [that] new members of [a] group must endure to be respected as legitimate insiders.” He notes that the practice occurs regardless of the respective gender of the team, group, or club, which is usually sports-related.

While Atkinson recognizes that this behaviour is not exclusive to men, it is essentially boys and men who undertake a larger risk when performing these said “rituals,” taking it to the “proverbial next level.” I now recognize that there is a spectrum of hazing, which I believe is synonymous with society’s understanding of bullying: public shaming and degrading, abusive behaviour, and varying degrees of violence and assault.

With this in mind, I believe that now is as important a time as ever for all of us to reflect on our complacency in a culture that breeds toxic male behaviour. The notion of toxic masculinity is a controversial one, and in this context it is not meant to be a targeted, gender-oriented criticism on men. My intent is to shed light on its very real existence, as shown by the SMCS scandal.

The boys in question are trapped in their own culture of what it means to be male. Misogyny, chauvinism, vehement toxicity, and the deep-rooted subversion of ‘emotion’ facilitates a lifestyle that many young boys observe, learn, and thus embody. Internalization of such beliefs stems from something much larger than the boys who committed these horrific acts.

Institutions like SMCS must be held accountable for histories of abuse and perpetuation of hypermasculinity, enforced by implicit values that are in turn modelled by teachers. Sports is the locus of pride and glory at SMCS, and after the story broke, alumni have spoken out about their high school experiences, noting that it is not just students that exhibit cruel behaviour, but also teachers and coaches.

But whether your coach slaps you in the face at football practice or your principal withholds videos of a gang sexual assault for a few days, being a boy in high school today means staying silent, complicit, and petrified.

My heart is with the survivors of these senseless, torturous crimes. I’m sorrowful for those boys and for the persistent neglect to acknowledge men and boys as survivors of sexual violence — not just perpetrators. The media attention and panic that have ensued do not help either.

Survivors are indeed subject to shame and trauma, the psychological aftermath that has the power to debilitate or disguise itself in various ways. It creeps and seeps into anything; it does not discriminate. But even more, being a boy in this context has an added stigma.

While it is crucial that the perpetrators are held responsible for their actions, it is important to acknowledge the bigger picture here: they are products of society. It is important that we do not simply dismiss bullies as the isolated ‘bad guys,’ because that doesn’t solve the problem. Their behaviour is one that is taught, learned, and assembled by culture — and society must take some responsibility for this.

What is important to consider is that what happened at SMCS is not unique: it could happen at any educational institution, including U of T. It has simply come to public awareness now. Any institution that covertly or overtly allows or ignores signs of humiliation, torment, and verbal abuse is one that can house crimes such as the ones at SMCS. It starts with the consistent normalization and lack of questioning of truly toxic behaviour.

Moving forward

I must admit, however, that bullying cannot be eradicated entirely, for I believe it is an exploration of power dynamics expressed by and through children. But there can and must be change within our schools and homes. Temperaments and conduct must be monitored exhaustively by the gatekeepers of our youth’s success: parents, educators, and mentors.

Even more, school policy must position visible tools and resources to navigate such situations at its forefront, and this begins at the top. As U of T students, professors, and leaders, we should ask our institution what it’s doing to combat a culture of silence.

The SMCS events should act as a wake-up call to all board members and educational leaders. We need to break the stigma. We need to show that it is an act of courage to reach out for help. An anonymous voicemail service that will be implemented at SMCS is a start that other institutions should follow.

Universities and schools should also strongly enforce a zero-tolerance policy for hazing rituals and any kind of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, while also implementing clear, non-negotiable consequences for such behaviour.

Additionally, school and university boards should implement curriculum surrounding emotional literacy. Equating sensitivity with weakness is outdated and needs to be challenged. Rather, learning how to manage emotion can help youth make rational decisions.

Inhabiting a healthier culture

The fact of the matter is that I’m a student and aspiring teacher who has no formal training in the field of education yet. Although I don’t have the answers to the issues of hypermasculinity and bullying in schools, I hope that our education system invests in the work, planning, discussion, and commitment required to find solutions. When I become a teacher, I will do everything in my power to realize and inhabit a healthier culture in our schools.

The goal is show boys how to be decent, dignified men. Parents, teachers, leaders, and adults: we can do better, for the sake of our succeeding generations and our youth. Let the events at SMCS serve as a reminder to take personal responsibility for our actions, and to question the behaviour we embody or witness.

Melanie Cohen is a fourth-year Book & Media Studies, English, and Religion student at Victoria College.

Bringing men into the #MeToo conversation

Reflecting on sexual violence at St. Michael’s College School

Bringing men into the #MeToo conversation

Content warning: discussions of sexual violence.

In recent weeks, the incidents that occurred at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) have garnered national attention. Opinions range from two extremes, from alumni arguing that the incidents reflect their experiences to angry moms yelling at newscasters that “there’s a bad apple in every crowd.”

This incident is about something bigger than a few bad apples. It is not just an isolated incident of bullying or hazing. Many journalists and commentators are quick to blame the mix of “regressive” Catholicism, the toxic masculinity that stereotypically defines all boys’ schools, and the elitism that comes from the privilege of a private education.

But this incident is bigger than that. It’s part of a bigger pattern where men, like Jian Ghomeshi or Patrick Walsh, thought their entitlement to someone else’s body superseded that individual’s right to life, liberty, and security.

This is part of #MeToo, and it’s about time Toronto sees it that way.

This behaviour extends far beyond high school. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada survey, 41 per cent of all self-reported sexual assault incidents were reported by students, and 58 per cent of male offenders are between the ages of 18–34. It is, and always has been, a pervasive issue on college campuses. U of T has as much of a responsibility to spread awareness about these issues as SMCS.

While the legal system is rightly treating these incidents as sexual assaults, many articles solely refer to the abuse as hazing. This fails to acknowledge the unique context in which sexual assault occurs.

For example, one SMCS mother was quoted in The Toronto Sun as praising the school’s response, highlighting the fact that hazing rituals exist at other private all-boys schools. But no one has bothered to ask why those boys used that particular method to ‘haze.’ Throwing water on someone or making them march in circles is not the same as using a sexual act to degrade an individual’s bodily integrity.

Sexual violence is about using sex as a tool for power and control. What happened at SMCS was sexual violence.

Sexual assault is thought to be about sexual gratification, so when an assault, like the one at SMCS, is not overtly sexually motivated, focus shifts away from the sexual nature of the crime. For many people, the incident does not align with the biased societal conception of the ‘ideal’ victim. The young boy subjected to ‘hazing’ doesn’t match society’s idea of a #MeToo victim: a young, innocent, white woman.

When society fails to appropriately respond to these non-‘ideal’ victims, there are grave repercussions. It took months for the police to recognize that the series of murders in Toronto’s Gay Village were connected. It took even longer for police to tie killer Robert Pickton to the women who went missing in Vancouver’s Lower East Side.

Many believe that sexual assault against men is rare. It’s not. From 2009–2014, 13 per cent of sexual assault victims in Canada were male. However, since not all sexual assaults are reported,  this number only represents about 10 per cent of all sexual assaults, resulting in little research or resources dedicated to supporting male victims. Researchers estimate that progress for male victims of sexual assault is about 20 years behind that of women.

When society fails to educate boys on sexual assault, we can end up with cases like this — where groups of boys believe that sexually assaulting someone and posting it online is just regular hazing. It’s considered ‘boys being boys’ instead of a crime.

The boys at SMCS believe such a thing because children learn from their environment. There’s a pervasive cultural belief that violence and aggression is a natural extension of male sexuality. If society doesn’t see this event as part of #MeToo, the boys won’t either. Worse, if the perpetrators don’t see their actions as sexual assault, it won’t stop them from committing similar crimes in the future.

So let’s see this for what it really is: a single sexual assault which reflects our broader lack of understanding about sexual violence. This is not just boys being boys. Let’s make space in #MeToo for men to come forward — a space where boys don’t have to fear that their accusations will be dismissed.

Ella Benedetti, Olivia Berkovits, Rachel Gordon, Christian Logue are master’s students at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies.

Why are we addicted to belittling the experiences of survivors?

Exploring why our criminal justice system allows sexual assault perpetrators to walk away without answering for their actions

Why are we addicted to belittling the experiences of survivors?

Content warning: discussions of sexual violence.

It is highly likely that while you are reading this article, a survivor of sexual assault is living through the following scenario or something similar:

A young woman reports a case of rape and is then subjected to a paradoxical investigative and judicial process.

Her role of survivor shifts, without her consent, to that of the bearer of guilt.

A nonexistent verdict accompanies the lack of actual empathy from the police and court system.

As a survivor of assault, she becomes the bearer of guilt and shame. Then the accused is given an inadequate punishment and she is left with the infamous words: “You asked for it.”

According to recent data provided by Statistics Canada, only one in 10 reported sexual assault cases will result in the criminal conviction of the perpetrator, with the vast majority being allowed to walk away from their actions. Survivors are silenced by a criminal justice system with flaws.

Why is society desperate to assume that most alleged victims are lying or mistaken? Is it because we’re afraid of how prevalent sexual assault really is?

The disturbingly low convictions for sexual violence have many explanations, but a major contributing factor is the prejudice and stereotypes that surround sexual assault cases.

For instance, survivors are often blamed for their own assault because of prejudices rooted in societal norms, which often suggest that the survivor put themselves in a risky situation. This furthers a narrative that the assault was bound to happen.

Alberta, 2014. Former Canadian Federal Court judge Robin Camp said to the 19-year-old sexual assault complainant in court, “Why couldn’t you just keep your knees together?”

Camp continued to engage in this misogynist rhetoric. He acquitted the accused, telling the young man that “sex and pain sometimes go together… that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Camp’s behaviour and response to this case is a clear demonstration of the prevalence of myths and stereotypes about sexual assault in our society and our court system. This is a serious concern and should be treated as such. Judges who display beliefs like Camp’s should have no place in our justice system.

Despite the recent rise of legal and social movements such as #MeToo and #WhyIDidn’tReport — which attempt to record the inequality of the outcomes of sexual assault — victim blaming remains a constant and fixed undercurrent in our culture.

The reality is that, as survivors stand to testify to their experience in front of judges and juries, they are often interrogated with questions of a highly intimate and volatile nature.

Defence lawyers actively strive to dismiss the case by using invasive tactics of questioning, which not only forces survivors to relive their experiences, but at times demoralizes and embarrasses them to the point where they have to drop out of the case entirely. This is yet another reason why perpetrators are able to slip through the cracks of our justice system.

Lawyers and judges often quickly dismiss these cases and move on to the next, allowing the perpetrator to continue harming others — who were, once again, simply ‘asking for it.’

Legal Director of the Women’s Legal Education Action Fund, Kim Stanton, addressed Camp’s conduct in an interview with FLARE, saying that “[having] a judge who is not adhering to the rule of law in Canada [is] very, very worrisome. For over 30 years, we have fought to have [women’s rights] protections in the actual letter of the law and if we now have a judge who knows the law and just simply chooses to ignore it or refuses to apply it — it’s a concern.”

The neglect from our criminal justice system is yet another problematic hurdle that survivors of sexual assault face.

It amounts to a system that allows perpetrators to walk away without having to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.

A system that is firmly founded on the concept of stereotyped female sexuality.

A system that will enable those in power to condemn the survivor as though it is their responsibility not to get raped in the first place.

Although Canada is, on the whole, socially progressive, we continue to struggle to acknowledge the problems plaguing our justice system with respect to sexual assault.

Checking men out — of power

Analyzing women’s place in politics following scandals around U of T alumni Tony Clement and Jim Wilson

Checking men out — of power

Content warning: discussion of sexual violence.

This month, a series of scandals in the federal and provincial governments led to three high-profile resignations. On the federal level, MP Tony Clement resigned from the Conservative caucus after admitting that he had been blackmailed for sending sexually explicit messages and photographs.

On the provincial level, Andrew Kimber, one of Premier Doug Ford’s key aides, and Jim Wilson, a cabinet member, resigned from their positions after staffers accused them of sexual harassment. Wilson also resigned from the Progressive Conservative (PC) caucus. Incidentally, and embarrassingly for U of T, both Clement and Wilson are alumni who served as members of the university’s Governing Council.

An old and timeless narrative

These incidents reveal a serious problem: men in positions of power continue to engage in sexual misconduct and harassment against women. This is especially concerning given that that we elect such men to govern important affairs in our society, yet they lack the character and ethical compass to respect women.

The abuse of women by powerful men is, unfortunately, an old and timeless narrative. These controversies follow uncomfortably close to the resignation of former PC leader Patrick Brown — yet another U of T graduate — after he was accused of sexual assault last winter.

On the provincial level, the resignations of Kimber and Wilson are particularly harmful to a government so recently elected. Ford has had to suddenly reorganize his cabinet and supporting staff, which severely undermines confidence in the ability of the ministers to fulfil their duties and manage the province.

What is another blow to the integrity of the PCs is that Ford’s initial response was to concoct a false story and omit the real reasons behind Wilson’s departure. To hide important information from the public contradicts the premier’s favourite slogan, “for the people,” which calls for transparent and accountable government.

For a party that so recently gained power, blatantly lying to the public erodes civic trust. We, the citizens, have a right to know information that bears significance on how and by whom the province is being run.

Though these specific incidents all concern conservative figures, sexist harassment or violence by men in politics is by no means exclusive to one party. Under the previous Liberal government, former premier Kathleen Wynne revealed to the public that at least two Liberal MPPs had had allegations of sexual harassment made against them. Hence, this issue speaks more broadly to a culture of entitlement and misogyny in which powerful men are grounded.

However, because conservatives frequently allege that their ideology is grounded in the maintenance of family values and morality, incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault reflect hypocrisy on the part of these politicians.

From punishment to rehabilitation

In the cases of Kimber, Wilson, Clement, and Brown, decisive and immediate action was taken against these men. It would seem that allegations of harassment or assault against women is treated as a serious matter. And yet one has to question how severe or lasting these consequences are.

Over the past year’s #MeToo movement, many women have come forward to speak out against the abuses that they suffered at the hands of powerful men, many of whom face some kind of punishment — for instance, the prosecution of Bill Cosby.

Yet many of these men are quickly rehabilitated. In January, Patrick Brown resigned as PC leader following a number of allegations of sexual misconduct. Just months later, in October, he was elected as mayor of Brampton.

Clement resigned from the caucus but retains his seat as an independent. Wilson resigned from his cabinet position and caucus, but not his seat, and had his resignation initially framed exclusively as a self-care issue. He was briefly approached with sympathy and well wishes from within the party and from the public.

Some men are not even punished to begin with: despite credible testimony from Christine Blasey Ford and widespread public outrage, Brett Kavanaugh was still appointed as a Supreme Court Justice in the US.

It is disillusioning that a man’s ill treatment of women is not enough to seriously impact public opinion — that he remains regarded as capable and worthy of holding positions of political power. It points to a societal disregard for women’s safety and well-being, and what we’re saying is that one’s treatment of women is not indicative of the constituency of one’s character.

Barriers to politics

Women already face significant barriers to working in politics. Despite making up half of the population, we are consistently underrepresented in government. Only seven of the 21 members of Ford’s cabinet are women.

Even when women are able to secure positions in politics, they are often met with mockery and disrespect. Consider that the allegation of sexual harassment against Kimber came from his female coworkers within the PC party.

Misogynistic rhetoric is to be frequently found in political debates, as was made clear in the public debates between Ford and Wynne as well as between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, where underhanded comments about the women’s appearances or temperaments abounded.

That women continue to be met with disrespect and have their boundaries violated by the men working with them is appalling, and only reinforces the gender barrier in politics.

As citizens, we have a right to a transparent and responsible government that takes incidents of gender-based harassment within its ranks seriously. We must hold these men in power accountable for their actions and ensure that women can safely access politics.

As students and youth at U of T, we are of a class that is currently making its way into the world as the leaders of tomorrow. It is up to us to craft a future that is grounded in transparent and ethical government and in fair and respectful treatment of women. It starts by not letting injustices like this slide by unnoticed and unaccounted for.

Meera Ulysses is a second-year Equity Studies and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations student at New College. She is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.

Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

The baseless fear of false accusations and avoidance of women in academia helps no one and hurts everyone

Academizing the anti-#MeToo movement

Content warning: references to sexual violence.

A few weeks ago, the swearing-in of Judge Brett Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court Justice not only filled the court’s ninth seat, but introduced a worrisome shift in American culture: a legitimization of the fear of false sexual allegations.

The #ProtectOurBoys movement is a testament to this troubling phenomenon: mothers, sisters, daughters, cousins, and friends alike are banding together to resist, in their perception, the threat of false accusers waiting to attack their male family members or friends. Even the President of the United States attests that “it’s a very scary time for young men.”

This is a dangerous ideology, as it portrays survivors in a warped light — that the ones who experience and come forward about sexual violence despite their own fears are the real threats. Unfortunately, this perverse phenomenon is spreading into academia.

In a recent piece for The New England Journal of Medicine, U of T-affiliated researchers, including Deborah Gillis, Sophie Soklaridis, and Catherine Zahn, wrote that men in academic medicine are shying away from mentoring women for fear of being falsely accused of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement is sadly being used to justify the unjustified fear of lying women.

Indeed, these fears are completely baseless because false accusations are statistically rare. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center found that false accusations account for between two and ten percent of reports. Moreover, the reports themselves are labelled as “inconsistent definitions and protocols” by the Center.

In Pacific Standard, Emily Moon wrote that “researchers relying on federal data often conflate ‘unfounded’ reports — when law enforcement labels an accusation false or ‘baseless’ — with entirely false ones.” This means that there are ‘false allegations’ that aren’t really false at all, but instead just don’t meet legal criteria.

It can be concluded from this, then, that the wide statistical range of two to 10 per cent leans, in fact, toward the lower end. The point is that survivors who come forward are almost certainly telling the truth about their assailant. A man who has behaved professionally his entire life has nothing to worry about. Therefore, men who are fearful feel this way because of a culture and system that supports their victim status — not because there is any empirical backing or rationale behind their fear.

One possibility is that men who refuse to mentor women are not scared of the prospect of false accusers, but rather because their own behaviour is no longer acceptable. As psychiatrist Prudy Gourguechon wrote in Forbes, “The essence of maturity is to be able to control and moderate sexual and power-related impulses in a context where they are not warranted. Like at work.” She explained how most men do not have to actively think about this control, because it’s subconscious. By default, they view the people they work with as respected co-workers or friends.

However, some men do worry — implying that they have heretofore viewed their female colleagues in a non-professional, non-friendly way, and that this outlook might now have consequences. Rather than professionally adjust their interactions and behaviours with women in an era where women are more likely to come forward, they choose to avoid them.

This response is detrimental to women. Currently, men dominate leadership roles in academia. According to University Affairs, in Canada, only 36 per cent of associate professors and around 22 per cent of full professors are women. For many women hoping to advance and develop within their academic fields, mentorship is a crucial asset.

The refusal of mentorship based on unfounded fears, then, hinders women’s chances in career advancement. Furthermore, they cannot close the disproportionate gender gap in leadership positions if they aren’t given the tools and assistance to do so.

Evading women in academia is also the least constructive solution for men who fear false allegations. It judges and reacts to the #MeToo movement by its false cover: a supposed male witch hunt. These men will never learn the important lessons that the movement is trying to teach — namely, how to treat women properly, especially in professional contexts.

Listening to, instead of avoiding, the movement would also make it clear that women are not the only people who are sexually assaulted. Men, too, can be victims of sexual violence. Consider the fact that, according to the Sexual Assault Centre Hamilton Area, one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Secluding yourself to only interacting with men is not protecting yourself — it is making a deluded assumption about how sexual assault works.

Fear and avoidance are also problematic because they put the onus of sexual assault on women in academia to not accuse others of sexual assault — instead of on the assailant to not assault women in the first place. It is not the woman’s fault if she is assaulted, and bringing her story forward is not an attack on the assailant but a call for justice and a change in culture.

Avoiding women also makes it difficult for women who have been assaulted within academic contexts to come forward, when the consequences for their fellow female academics is not only a more tense environment, but also fewer career opportunities. The act presents itself as a punishment for being a woman within the workplace and for being a woman who is assaulted within the workplace.

The final truth is that false accusations are rare, precisely because they rarely benefit the accuser in any way. Telling the world that you were assaulted isn’t a trophy to put on the shelf. For Christine Blasey Ford, her alleged assailant is a Supreme Court justice. She has had to deal with death threats, insults, and a life that has been uprooted with no result.

Men must learn that the #MeToo movement is not about living in fear; it is about changing the way that people are treated, and about making every environment safe for everyone. It is ultimately asking that they see everybody, especially women, as human beings — not as sexual objects, and certainly not as monsters lurking around the corner, waiting to attack you.

Nadine Waiganjo is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.

U of T students should listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Ford’s testimony is a familiar narrative for survivors of sexual assault on university campuses

U of T students should listen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Content warning: this article discusses sexual violence.

On September 27, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford spoke publicly about her alleged sexual assault by then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Ford’s speech resonates with many survivors of sexual assault, particularly those who have experienced assault on university campuses. The connection between Ford’s alleged assault and the assaults experienced by many university students lies in the political implications of speaking out.   

Consider Victoria College’s web page for current students, ‘Let’s talk about sexual assault,’ which suggests that women attending university are more susceptible to sexual assault as “attitudes toward and expectations about alcohol and drug use, sexual activity, and social interaction are different in a university setting.”

These expectations work together to create an environment that does not shame those who perpetrate sexual assault, but rather shames the survivors. This environment normalizes a lack of consent during sexual encounters and allows alcohol use to excuse predatory actions. The reasons for the susceptibility of young women to sexual assault, as described by U of T, overlap with themes discussed by Ford: alcohol use, shame, adolescent sexuality, and uncertainty.

These themes create a discourse that prevents university students from speaking out, just as Ford was fearful of speaking out. Kavanaugh attempted to belittle Ford’s claims by detailing his alcohol use as something “almost everyone did,” and that because of this, he could not be guilty of sexual assault.  

While the climate of university campuses makes it difficult for survivors to speak out, the particular climate at U of T adds another layer of coming to terms with one’s sexual assault. It has recently been revealed that, in 2019, U of T will continue to hold its position as Canada’s top university. The pressure created by this ranking is twofold.

Firstly, the ranking persuades the university to maintain a pristine reputation a reputation that does not include sexual assault. Instead of taking preventative measures including discussing consent and sexual assault, the university has an incentive to conceal sexual assault cases by creating bureaucratic barriers that prevent individuals from reporting assault.

Universities in Ontario are required to have specific plans and procedures that encourage students to report assaults. However, U of T has been criticized for dismissing claims put forward by students and failing to provide support for survivors.

Secondly, the ranking may cause students to pressure themselves to be exemplary.  Ford had said, “I was too afraid and ashamed to tell anyone the details.Her inability to come forward due to the fear of being labelled deviant or untruthful is something that resonates with young students striving toward perfection.  

When Ford spoke out, she was scrutinized by Republican senators, the Supreme Court, and the entire US population. When a U of T student speaks out, they may be interrogated by the university administration and fellow students. Regardless of the different stakes, both Ford’s testimony and a U of T student’s testimony are susceptible to institutional scrutiny.  

Ultimately, it is the individual’s choice to speak about their assault. Ford detailed the challenges that she has faced since deciding to speak out and name her accuser: “I am here today not because I want to be. I am terrified.” She experienced ridicule from her close peers and from anonymous strangers. However, Ford has also “experienced an outpouring of support from people in every state of this country.”

Ford demonstrated that power does not necessarily come from naming her accuser. Rather, power comes from the support given by those who believe and listen to her story. The U of T campus may discourage sexual assault survivors from coming forward. However, we can empower survivors by letting them know that we are listening, that we believe them, and that we stand by them.  

Morgan Powell is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and Book and Media Studies student at Woodsworth College.

Verdict in trial of U of T student: guilty of assault causing bodily harm, not guilty of sexual assault

Samuel Marrello convicted in crime against fellow U of T student

Verdict in trial of U of T student: guilty of assault causing bodily harm, not guilty of sexual assault

Content warning: descriptions of sexual violence.

U of T student Samuel Marrello has been found guilty of assault causing bodily harm against a female U of T student, but not guilty of the more serious charge of sexual assault.

Marrello was charged in connection with an incident that took place on the night of April 1, 2017 near UTSG. The verdict of the months-long trial was delivered on September 25.

The complainant, who cannot be named due to a publication ban protecting her identity, alleged that Marrello hit her and sexually assaulted her while she was intermittently blacked out from intoxication and could not consent to sex.

The complainant used ‘blacked out’ to refer to a lack of memory but not necessarily a lack of consciousness.

Justice C. Ann Nelson ruled that Marrello was not guilty of sexual assault because there is a reasonable doubt about whether the complainant did not consent to it.

However, the sexual activity that they engaged in was rough sex that was found to have caused extensive bruising to the complainant, and Nelson found that Marrello “was reckless when he applied physical force towards [the complainant] not caring whether she consented or not.”

The complainant and Marrello had met when they went on a date in 2016 but had not remained in touch afterward. On the night of April 1, 2017, they both separately went to Einstein’s bar near UTSG and happened to meet again. They spent several hours together at the bar, and during that time, they both became intoxicated.

It was after they left the bar and went to the complainant’s apartment that the assault took place.

Charge of sexual assault

A large portion of the trial centred on the fact that, due to her intoxication, the complainant was unable to remember much of the time when the assault and alleged sexual assault occurred.

“I am of the view that [the complainant] tried to be an honest witness,” wrote Nelson. “Her state of intoxication on the night in question, however, interfered with her ability to accurately recall events.”

However, the complainant testified that she did have some flashes of memory, including that she remembered feeling blunt forces on her body, and feeling as if she was being physically manipulated.

The complainant testified that she was “jolted back to her senses” when Marrello allegedly asked if he could take off his condom, to which she claimed to respond: “I can’t consent to this. I am too drunk.” Marrello confirmed that she said this, but said that she had done so suddenly. They both testified that he immediately stopped and left at her request.

In her decision, Nelson wrote that, “While [the complainant] suffered from significant effects of alcohol consumption during her sexual interaction with Mr. Marrello, I am not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that she was so intoxicated that she lacked capacity to consent to that activity.”

This was based on, among other things, Marrello’s testimony that the complainant was a conscious and active participant during sexual activity, and it was possible that she consented but could not remember.

However, Nelson added, “A final note: A reasonable doubt as to an absence of consent is not an affirmative finding that [the complainant] consented to sexual activity in the bedroom.”

Charge of assault causing bodily harm

The morning after the assault, the complainant woke up to find extensive bruises on her face, neck, collarbone, inner thighs, and legs.

Nelson questioned whether the complainant’s lack of consent to hitting also meant that she had revoked her consent to sexual activity.

The judge ruled that since it was previously established that the complainant may have consented to sexual activity, finding Marrello guilty of assault causing bodily harm did not mean that he was guilty of sexual assault.

Marrello’s defence on this was his claim that he and the complainant had discussed their preferences for rough sex on the walk to her apartment.

Nelson said that was “implausible” because the complainant had testified that she did not have that preference; only Marrello “admitted that he [had] a preference for rough sex.”

Furthermore, while Marrello did admit to gently slapping the complainant on the face twice, which he claimed to do so at her request, that did not explain why there were bruises elsewhere on her body.

As such, based on, among other things, the complainant’s memory of being hit, her lack of preference for rough sex, and the bruises on her body, Nelson ruled that Marrello was guilty of assault causing bodily harm.

The court will reconvene on October 4 to decide on a date for sentencing.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, you can call:

  • Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 (Toll Free), 1-866-863-7868 (TTY), and 416-863-0511 (Toronto)
  • Support Services for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse at 1-866-887-0015
  • Toronto Rape Crisis Centre: Multicultural Women Against Rape at 416-597-8808
  • Good2Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Gerstein Crisis Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

The Varsity has reached out to the defence and the complainant for comment.

Crown prosecutors declined a request for comment.

Scenes from the shadows

Four stories of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse from members of U of T campus theatre

Scenes from the shadows

Content warning: descriptions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, relationship abuse.

“The theatre community… helped me get through a lot of difficult things in my life. There’s a lot of people there I will love forever,” Janet* says. “But there’s also people there who, if I never see them again, I’ll be happy. That’s not just because they did anything to me [or to someone else]… but because they stood by and let things happen.”

Janet was involved in campus theatre during her time at U of T, and her ambivalence about the experience resonates with others. While many students consider theatre a wonderfully welcoming place, the stories of others reveal a darker side of the picture.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to fame, and it’s well worth considering what lessons it has to bear for theatre at U of T. With that goal in mind, I spoke to students within campus theatre at the university who experienced sexual harassment, assault, or abuse from fellow cast or crew members.

Women in power, men in control

A unifying thread in #MeToo cases was that men in powerful positions within the industry exploited their ranks to dominate women. On a smaller scale, gendered attitudes still play a role in many university interactions, and campus theatre is no exception.

Sabrina* held an executive leadership role in campus theatre in 2017–2018. An interesting thing about the U of T theatre community, Sabrina explains, is that unlike in Hollywood or other male-dominated environments, many of those in positions of power are women. But sexism doesn’t disappear when women have power; it just takes on a different form. As Sabrina puts it, “It’s almost like [men] are trying to get power in a female-driven community.”

Sabrina and fellow female executives have had numerous negative experiences working with men who didn’t respect their authority. Male directors would often scrutinize their leadership decisions or devalue their opinions in ways that Sabrina felt were unfair; some of this was accompanied by sexist remarks. Other men mocked the capabilities of female set designers, reflecting the common stereotype that women somehow aren’t suited for technical work.

During Janet’s time in theatre, while some theatre executives enforced “zero tolerance” policies for harassment, in many cases she saw men push boundaries and then get off the hook. Sometimes this would happen during productions scripted to include romantic scenes. In one audition Janet witnessed, one actor suddenly pulled their scene partner into a kiss without consulting them first. Incidents like these, Janet tells me, are often brushed off as “trying to make the scene better,” though she feels that some actors use intimacy scenes as excuses to be inappropriately physical.

Female representation in U of T theatre may also come with unintended consequences. Janet was frustrated to see men whom executives and cast knew as harassers continually get cast in plays, simply because there were too few men available for the part. Gender-blind casting could have avoided that problem altogether: her response was always, “Cast a girl.”

There’s no real way to quantify sexism, let alone to determine how pervasive it is within certain campus environments. But testimonies like these are significant, particularly coming from women in relatively senior positions. Repeated microaggressions, disrespect for women’s authority, and lack of accountability can lay the groundwork.

A similar toxic cocktail underlies the allegations against the now over 200 powerful people engulfed by #MeToo, most of them powerful men — from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching to full-fledged sexual assault.

Even when nefarious motives aren’t in the picture, theatre is an environment of intense closeness. The enormous amount of time cast and crew spend together can blur personal and professional boundaries, particularly in the campus context, where students are mostly young and often friends as well as colleagues.

Sabrina recounts multiple instances of male colleagues who seemed to get the wrong idea about the nature of their relationships with the women they worked with. One female crew member was repeatedly badgered by a male colleague until Sabrina and the executive delivered a pointed reminder about professionalism to the entire cast.

In another case, Sabrina and a female friend went to a cast party. Both of them held management roles and presumably deserved to celebrate their work on the production. An intoxicated male colleague’s aggressive advances made them so uncomfortable that they decided to just leave.


No typical abuser

#MeToo shone a light mainly on powerful men within the industry. But an inclusive perspective on the movement demands accountability for all perpetrators, even if they aren’t who we might expect.

When Melanie*, an assistant stage manager, became intoxicated at a cast party, a female theatre executive insisted on accompanying her home to her residence. Exhausted and ill, Melanie got into bed, but the woman refused to leave her alone. Taking advantage of Melanie’s condition, she forced herself on her and then stayed the night.

“The next thing I know, she’s in my bed and kissing me, and then she just didn’t stop,” Melanie says. “It took me a while to figure out that it was rape.”

In previous weeks, Melanie had noticed executives making inappropriate sexual comments and being overly touchy with the cast. She considered this inappropriate, but it wasn’t until her sexual assault that the significance of those incidents started to resonate. Melanie confided in a female cast member, and she found common ground — her friend confessed that a female director had also pestered her with uncomfortable comments like, “I only cast you so I could stare at you all day,” or “I only cast you because I wanted to fuck you at the cast party.”

But until it happened, Melanie didn’t feel unsafe around the woman who assaulted her. The theatre executive was a queer woman who advocated for equity and sex positivity, widely respected by her peers. The woman’s gender and the position she occupied within the community made it all the more difficult to process that she was capable of what she had done. It was only afterward, when Melanie was already traumatized and wracked with anxiety and guilt, that she found out the woman who sexually assaulted her had also raped two others.

While marginalized people have benefited from generally ‘safe spaces’ like theatre, Melanie is now concerned that myopic approaches to progressivism can isolate certain people from scrutiny. “They’re women and they’re gay and they promote female empowerment and self-love and hate the straight white male,” Melanie says. “They couldn’t possibly be dangerous — right?”

People who occupy powerful or privileged positions can be guilty of misusing them for their own gain. In big industry or professional entertainment circles, it’s often men who occupy those positions. Given the survivors I spoke with, that’s not necessarily true.

During their involvement in various campus productions, Lake* was thrust into an abusive relationship with Nate*. Nate leveraged their management position to exercise increasing control over Lake’s life, creating intense anxiety and splintering Lake’s existing relationship in the process. Though Lake has now broken off the relationship and reunited with their former partner, it still haunts them that Nate was able to abuse their position and get away unscathed.

Nate’s responsibilities included scheduling the cast, which, given the intensive hours associated with theatre, effectively allowed them to control Lake’s whereabouts. “It became very clear that they enjoyed being a stage manager not because, you know, theatre is fun, but because they enjoy power and they enjoy control,” Lake says.

On top of this, Nate was an experienced sex educator; offering to answer Lake’s questions about sex, Nate adopted a twisted sort of ‘mentorship’ role and thereby pulled Lake into a toxic sexual dynamic. In public, Nate brought elements of their sexual relationship onto the set without Lake’s consent, in one instance pulling their hair during a rehearsal. In private, Nate disregarded Lake’s boundaries and pressured them to use kinks as a method of conflict resolution, resulting in repeated physical and sexual abuse.

It’s difficult to come forward as a survivor in the first place, and it’s even harder when the person who hurt you is someone in power. Underlying both Melanie’s and Lake’s testimonies is a common dilemma. Keep quiet about your trauma, and you have to live with it alone. Come forward, and you may be judged, and you may not be believed.

Certainly, in an industry environment, it’s a bad thing to get a reputation, but that extends to smaller semi-professional and extracurricular spaces, too. “You’re so unsure about your position in the community, you don’t want to be known as difficult or causing a problem,” Janet says.

Then there’s the concern that even if you talk, no one will listen. When Lake told others about the abuse, a few were shocked, despite Lake feeling that the signs were obvious. Disturbingly, others revealed they were aware of Lake’s situation but were unsure whether to interfere — and ultimately decided it was none of their business.

“[Nate] not facing consequences is one thing,” Lake explains. “But the fact that there is this community that I feel in a lot of ways enabled this to happen, through not paying attention to what was going on, [that] says a lot.”

Change through conversation

Janet, Sabrina, Melanie, and Lake tell four different but related stories. Their stories don’t represent everyone’s experiences with campus theatre — but they’re also likely not the only ones.

We have to encourage survivors to come forward, and one approach is through policy. Many student-led theatre groups don’t have specific anti-harassment policies, but complainants can seek redress through standard U of T reporting procedures, through the policies of student society offices that oversee certain campus groups, or alternatively, through informal practices.

According to co-executive producers Marie Song and Sonny Nightingale, the Victoria College Drama Society requires its executives members to attend equity training, and it consults with the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council’s Equity Commissioner when they put on shows with sensitive content. The St. Michael’s College Troubadours’ production manager, Jeremy Hernandez-Lum Tong, says that the group seeks to ensure members’ safety by holding actors and crew accountable to the university’s general anti-harassment policies. The Trinity College Dramatic Society (TCDS) and the University College (UC) Follies did not respond to requests for comment.

Michelle Brownrigg, Senior Director of Co-Curricular Education and Chief Program Officer at Hart House, oversees Hart House Theatre. Brownrigg’s team is cognizant that its productions involve a mix of student volunteers, recent graduates, and professional and semi-professional designers, which cuts across age and experience. Hart House requires all of its members to conform to guidelines within an “artists’ handbook,” which provides clear expectations for cast and crew no matter who they are. The handbook also contains information about the university’s anti-harassment policies and procedures for filing complaints.

Hart House has also supported the U of T Drama Coalition by funding the launch of  “intimacy direction” workshops in 2017. Originating with Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, intimacy direction focuses on challenging power dynamics that could give rise to harassment. Inspired, Coco Lee, then the coalition’s alumni advisor, brought the practice to U of T.

“A lot of what intimacy directors do is be proactive about building a culture of consent in the rehearsal room,” Lee explains. As trained professionals, intimacy directors guide cast through choreography of intimacy scenes, from romance to physical fights; they also facilitate exercises that safely build emotional chemistry between cast members.

A challenge with programs like intimacy direction, however, lies in showing theatre groups the merit they have to offer. Although Lee received positive feedback from those who participated, uptake was limited, and Lee hopes that this will change. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to fit additional sessions within already-packed rehearsal schedules, but she is also disappointed that “people often don’t think they can spare the time to create that safety.”

It’s also important to convince directors that they can adopt these measures without losing control. “It wasn’t until the end of the year when we clued into the feedback from people that there was a fear that their agency in the process would be taken away,” Lee says. She notes a bit of irony in that: the purpose of intimacy direction is to give actors agency, and presumably, that will result in better productions and working environments.

Beyond institutionalized changes, a more positive environment will come with small, proactive steps from members of theatre groups themselves. Janet tells me that she made it her mission throughout her time at U of T to raise concerns whenever she saw something going wrong. She looked out for younger students at cast parties and made seemingly small gestures, like asking audition partners if they were comfortable with physical touch. Over time, a number of her colleagues had started to do the same, so Janet tried to keep people talking. Sometimes they listened, and sometimes they didn’t.

The beautiful thing about theatre, though, is that it can force people to pay attention. The medium itself is a vessel for conversation, and campus productions like What She Said by the UC Follies in 2016 or TCDS’ How I Learned to Drive in 2018 have critically engaged with stories of sexism and harassment and elevated the stories of survivors.

Like a hashtag, pieces like these can spark dialogue. And coupled with policies and proactive moves, the ideas behind them can help ensure that theatre remains the safe space that it’s meant to be.

“Bad behaviour like sexual harassment lives in the shadows where we feel we can’t talk about it,” Lee says.

It’s time to switch on the spotlight.

*Names have been changed.