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Believe them

Examining sexual violence in academic spaces through the Neil deGrasse Tyson case

Believe them

A problematic side effect of the #MeToo movement is its overrepresentation of the stories of celebrities who have experienced sexual assault, at the expense of the experiences and stories of ordinary people. We need to remember that sexual assault is not an issue specific to Hollywood.

Of course it’s important to listen when any person, famous or not, speaks out about their experiences. But by focusing mostly on the experiences of those who are wealthy and privileged, we inadvertently ignore the experiences of everyone else.

This mindset is pervasive — it exists here at our university, and at many others too. As a recent report by the group Silence is Violence has revealed, around 20 per cent of students surveyed had experienced an incident that may be considered sexual violence. The report includes alleged perpetrators who are academic authorities: professors.

In the academic sphere, the deep power imbalance at every level contributes to the pervasiveness of sexual violence. As students, we might feel pressured to go along with inappropriate behaviour to maintain a formal relationship with certain professors we may even think it is the norm. And when the person in question also happens to be well-known, respected in their field, and charismatic, it becomes that much more difficult to come forward.

Nowhere is this power imbalance better exemplified than with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is currently the subject of an investigation by Fox Entertainment and National Geographic, the networks that air one of one of his programs, Cosmos. His other program, StarTalk, was put on hiatus by National Geographic in early January while the investigation is being conducted.

Tyson is the crossing point between academic and celebrity. He is a household name, thanks to his accomplishments in astrophysics and scientific literacy advocacy. Thus, he presents us with a headlining case of how predators in academia can operate.

The accusations

Tyson has four accusations levelled against him. Dr. Katelyn Allers, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, alleges that Tyson grabbed and touched her inappropriately during an American Astronomical Society (AAS) gathering in 2009.

Ashley Watson worked briefly as an assistant and driver for Tyson, while the show Cosmos was being filmed. She alleges that he repeatedly acted inappropriately toward her, made sexual advances, and invited her to his home, alone, for alcoholic drinks.

Another woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, alleges that he made inappropriate comments toward her at a holiday party in the American Museum of Natural History in 2010. Then, there is the fourth and oldest accusation. A woman named Tchiya Amet alleges that Tyson drugged and raped her when they were both graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984.

In response to all but the anonymous claim, Tyson made a Facebook post on December 1, writing, “In any claim, evidence matters. Evidence always matters. But what happens when it’s just one person’s word against another’s, and the stories don’t agree? That’s when people tend to pass judgment on who is more credible than whom.

In and of itself, that is a valid point. In cases of sexual assault and harassment, which so often happen in private, with few or no witnesses, it can be hard to provide solid evidence beyond the memories of those involved, especially if the event happened years or decades ago.

Tyson’s response to Katelyn Allers and Ashley Watson

Tyson frames the incident with Allers as him taking a quick look to see if her tattoo of the solar system included Pluto. Allers describes Tyson’s behaviour as “uncomfortable and creepy” and says that he does not have “great respect for female bodily autonomy.”

Allers has also said that, had she been able to, she would have probably reported the incident as sexual harassment. But at the time, the AAS did not have a mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. Like so many academic institutions, the AAS took far too long to develop a response to what was a clear issue.

Here at U of T, resources for those who have experienced sexual violence are still few and far between. The tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre only opened in 2017.

As for Watson, Tyson similarly tries to reframe the incidents to make himself seem more innocent. He characterizes their relationship as being close and friendly during the time she was employed as his assistant.

He does acknowledge saying to her, “If I hug you I might just want more,” but he also describes the incident as a well-meaning attempt to “express restrained but genuine affection.” And then, rather than acknowledge the discussion that he allegedly had with her when she came to his home for wine and cheese, he skips ahead in his narrative to her coming to his office afterward to describe the event as “creepy.”

Tyson straddles the line between trying to say that he had, and still has, the utmost respect for Watson, while also casting doubt on her narrative. Tyson writes, “She viewed the invite as an attempt to seduce her,” adding that their conversation was similar to how they always spoke to each other.

Tyson is selective when responding to Watson’s accusations, which gives him the wiggle room to selectively apologize. In Watson’s telling of the story, Tyson took off his shoes and shirt, put on “romantic” music, began talking about how humans need “releases” including “physical releases,” and referred to Watson as being “distracting.”

Tyson reframes both Watson and Allers’ cases to his advantage. Merely reading his response to the accusation makes him seem well-meaning and apologetic, and the accusations less serious. But as Tyson himself points out, the different versions of these stories don’t line up.

Tchiya Amet’s allegation

According to Amet, she and Tyson were friendly but did not date during their time together as graduate students. Then one day, in 1984, Amet says that Tyson offered her water, which, unbeknownst to her, was drugged, causing her to pass out and awaken with him performing oral sex on her. When he saw that she was awake, Amet says, he got on top of her and continued to rape her, and she passed out again.

Tyson acknowledges the seriousness of Amet’s allegations against him, but he frames the story quite differently. First, he says that he and Amet dated briefly and had been intimate a few times at her apartment. And then, rather than simply deny the allegations, Tyson goes further and brings up several facts about Amet, most of which are irrelevant to her story. He discusses how she dropped out of her graduate program failing to mention that Amet says this was because she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the alleged incident — how she changed her name, and that she holds some unusual spiritual beliefs.

Tyson brings up Amet’s idiosyncratic ideas and beliefs for no other reason but to discredit her. He  tells his audience to associate her with something unscientific, thus positioning himself as correct, logical, and honest. This creates a narrative that we have seen time and time again. Instead of discussing Amet’s allegations at a human level, Tyson positions himself as a logical, calm, scientific authority, and characterizes Amet as ignorant and confused.

Indeed, he even writes, “As a scientist, I found [her beliefs] odd.” It is Tyson’s analysis of her actual story, however, that seems most disturbing. He repeats that some parts of her memory are fuzzy and that she cannot remember every detail, suggesting that she has a “false memory” of the event.

As a scientist, Tyson should be aware that trauma can have profoundly strong effects on memory. Indeed, a large part of PTSD, according to researcher Dr. Kristin W. Samuelson, includes “the inability to recall important aspects of the trauma” and “that memory deficits are a product of neurobiological abnormalities caused by PTSD.

Combine this with Amet’s claims to have been drugged and passed out several times, and it’s no wonder that she has some difficulty recalling details of the alleged event. But for Tyson, and for his supporters, nothing Amet claims really matters. As a scientist, Tyson is given the kind of benefit of the doubt that Amet would never be given. By merely pointing to his own credentials, he is able to dismiss her claims entirely, because, again, he is a scientist and academic, and she is not.

While Tyson responded fairly quickly to the accusations by Watson and Allers and the media was also quick to report upon them, Amet has been telling her story since 2010. However, her accusations have only gotten mainstream press coverage recently. Since Amet has such “odd” beliefs, and since she dropped out of her graduate program, she has likely lost some credibility. Also, unlike Allers and Watson, Amet is a Black woman, which likely contributed to her being seen as less believable.

Believe them

At the end of the day, the strongest evidence anyone has to go on about all of these accusations is what those involved say. Tyson presents himself as an honest and trustworthy scientist. Conversely, he presents his accusers, particularly Amet, as untrustworthy. He reframes incidents to seem more innocent and to make his interactions with Allers and Watson seem like innocent mistakes, instead of predatory behavior.

But it shouldn’t matter at all what his motivations were. It doesn’t matter that he’s a famous scientist, or if Amet has strange spiritual beliefs or not. The only thing that actually matters is that we have four women who accused Tyson of predatory behaviour. We have to listen to them.

In the beginning of his Facebook post, Tyson notes that, “For a variety of reasons, most justified, some unjustified, men accused of sexual impropriety in today’s ‘me-too’ climate are presumed to be guilty by the court of public opinion.” This argument is a misleading one. It suggests that such allegations should instead be dealt with in a court of law, because a “court of public opinion” unfairly judges the accused without due process.

But the #MeToo movement is not a legal phenomenon. I doubt most of the people who believe Tyson’s accusers want Tyson to automatically be sent to jail without due process. #MeToo is primarily about providing voice to those who have been long silenced.

For so long, survivors of sexual violence, be they Hollywood starlets or students right here at U of T, were not believed. They were — and still are — dismissed as liars or attention seekers. There was no public accountability. And so their anger turned into decades of silence and shame. Meanwhile, those accused were always given the benefit of the doubt.

Even now, as the recent report from Silence is Violence shows us, institutions that are meant to protect survivors too often let them down, especially when the accused are intellectual authority figures who have gained public trust. As a society, as a university, and as individuals, we have to do better at doing the work of listening to survivors and taking them seriously. So let’s listen to Amet, Allers, and Watson.

Adina Heisler is a fourth-year Women and Gender Studies and English student at University College.

Silence is Violence releases years-long report on sexual violence at U of T

20 per cent of respondents report experiencing sexual violence, marginalized students experience higher rates

Silence is Violence releases years-long report on sexual violence at U of T

A 60-page report from grassroots organization Silence is Violence (SiV) revealed major systemic issues regarding the prevalence and university’s treatment of sexual assault cases across all three U of T campuses.

A feminist activist group at U of T addressing rape culture and sexual violence on university campuses, SiV released its report on January 21 after beginning the project in 2016.

The report details statistics on identity and their relation to the prevalence of sexual violence, as well as overall awareness and attitudes toward existing resources and governing policies.

The findings come from a survey of more than 500 anonymous students, ranging in racial and ethnic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and programs of study. SiV acknowledged the limitations of its methodology, namely that it overrepresented women and that participants were anonymous.

Statistics across demographics

Approximately 52.2 per cent of participants indicated that their lives as students had been impacted by sexual violence.

Moreover, as many as 20 per cent reported experiencing at least one instance of sexual violence during their time at U of T or were uncertain whether the incident they experienced was an act of sexual violence. Further, 30 per cent of students indicated that they knew of someone who had experienced sexual violence on campus.

In an interview with The Varsity, SiV team lead and U of T PhD student Jessica Wright shared her concern with the high proportion of instances when students were unsure if what they had experienced was sexual violence.

“I’d say one of the most surprising findings for me personally was that there were so many descriptions of physical violence and experiences of coercion that students didn’t identify or think constituted sexual violence,” said Wright. “I think that speaks to a lack of awareness about what constitutes sexual violence and the epidemic.”

The study further found that marginalized students believed that their identities — whether racial, gendered, sexual, or regarding disabilities — affected their perpetrator’s actions. According to the report, marginalized students experience a disproportionately high rate of sexual violence.

Indigenous respondents reported a rate of 74.1 per cent. Survivors with a disability and mental health issue reported a rate of 92.3 per cent.

Out of the 544 participants, seven (1.3 per cent) identified as Indigenous. Furthermore, 12 (2.2 per cent) identified as disabled/deaf, 13 (2.4 per cent) identified as mad or having a mental health issue, and 13 (2.4 per cent) identified as both.

“It is imperative that the university recognizes that sexual violence disproportionately affects marginalized people and that survivors of sexual violence can never be effectively supported by a universal ‘one-size-fits-all’ response,” reads the report.     

Wright said that the fact that marginalized students experience higher rates of sexual violence must be “explicitly recognized by the university and considered in every action to address sexual violence on campus.”

“In order for there to be a response to marginalized students at the university, we need intersectional responses,” said Wright.

Reporting sexual violence cases

Of the students who experienced cases of sexual violence, 75 per cent said they were unable or unwilling to report their assault. A variety of factors played into students’ decisions, particularly distrust in receiving the necessary help from university officials.

“As a female, you’re supposed to be passive. You’re never in the right. You’re malicious and melodramatic. I believed, and to some degree still do, that it was my actions that put me in that place and that I was in no position to speak up about what had happened. Above all, I didn’t think anyone would believe me,” wrote one participant.

The 25 per cent of participants who were able to report their assault were not satisfied with the resources provided or did not follow through with the report.

When asked about their comfort level with reporting sexual violence to Campus Police, participants rated it a 5.47 out of 10 on average. When asked the same regarding university staff, the average score was 5.09 out of 10.

Some students experienced sexual assault from university faculty, with one student reporting an incident with an associate dean, accounting for larger distrust in senior staff. Only one student indicated that they were able to report with a clear end result.

Next steps for the university

Of the 544 participants, 11.4 per cent expressed confidence in the university’s efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence, while 33.4 per cent expressed neutrality.

Survivors criticized campus authorities and staff in their handling of sexual violence cases, questioning both the training and experience of officials and their commitment to prevention and adequate response efforts.  

“University of Toronto staff (especially those who are higher up the hierarchy) are deeply invested in protecting the institution’s brand. Their #1 priority is themselves and the institution, not the students,” wrote one student.

“I think that UofT doesn’t have a very deep analysis of the issue and they aren’t really committed to stopping sexual violence from happening, only to making it look like it has stopped happening,” wrote another participant about the university’s commitment to sexual violence prevention.

Overall, participants called for a series of transparent and accessible sexual violence resources on campus, as well as a more welcoming and open environment.

One of the major recommendations from the report was for an autonomous Anti-Sexual Violence and Survivor Support Hub. The hub would operate as a space for students to receive counselling and education, as well as a route for disclosing or reporting sexual violence.

Wright said that the hub would have to be autonomous from U of T “because we know that the university unfortunately does have a vested interest in protecting their reputation when it comes to the prevalence of sexual violence on campus.”

Currently, U of T operates a Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre to deal with disclosures and reports. However, respondents reported a low awareness of the centre, with only 4.2 per cent referencing it as a resource.

In contrast, 40 per cent of respondents referenced the Campus Police as their primary source of reference for sexual violence cases. However, racialized students found it a barrier when seeking assistance.

As of January 1, 2017, the university has a Sexual Violence and Harassment policy in place, detailing specifics about sensitive information disclosure, reporting, and resources for survivors. Critics have raised concerns over the lack of a sexual violence prevention committee and efforts on prevention-led education.

The Varsity spoke to Angela Treglia, Director of the university’s Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre, about the report’s findings.

The centre is fairly new — starting its tri-campus operations in 2017 — and Treglia acknowledges that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

“There is a recognition around the intersection of sexual violence and other forms of discrimination and harassment. We definitely recognize that there are individuals from marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence,” said Treglia.

“The Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre was developed as a space for individuals who experience sexual violence for them to go and get support, and we take an intersectional and client-centred approach to our work.”

She explained that the centre hopes to work  with equity and outreach groups on campus in order to respond to the needs of minority groups and continues to listen to student feedback.

When it comes to what the school can do better, the report states that, “The University of Toronto must be more intentional in its response to sexual violence on campus if it is to ever legitimately support survivors at U of T; there must be a move to transparent, accessible, well-advertised, and survivor-driven sexual violence resources, such as those outlined in our recommendations.”

With files from Josie Kao

Editor’s Note (March 7, 10:47 pm): This article has been updated to clarify the sample size of students who identified as Indigenous, disabled/deaf, and mad/having a mental health issue.

Ending the silence on sexual violence

The new SiV report means time’s up for U of T’s survivor-last approach

Ending the silence on sexual violence

U of T’s past and present policies on sexual violence have been consistently met with controversy and criticism. Trinity College student Tamsyn Riddle has previously detailed the ways in which U of T failed her. In 2015, the administration repeatedly deflected responsibility and gave Riddle the impression that her case was not important enough to be taken seriously after she was sexually assaulted by another student. At the end of the 17-month-long ordeal, she filed a human rights complaint against the university and against Trinity College.

More recently, a survivor of sexual violence on campus saw sexual assault charges against her assailant dismissed, although a judge convicted the assailant of assault causing bodily harm that took place at the same time as the sex act. These stories are only the ones that have received media coverage.

Now, criticism has come to a head. Last Monday, campus-community organization Silence is Violence (SiV) published a groundbreaking report on sexual violence at U of T. The group is experientially-led, meaning that survivors take on driving leadership roles in the fight against sexual violence on Canada’s university campuses. 

The three-year long research effort culminated in a 60-page document that held the results of a survey of hundreds of students on their experiences surrounding sexual violence at U of T. The report found that many students have been affected by sexual abuse, that students did not feel supported by U of T’s resources on sexual violence, and that marginalized students felt particularly neglected. 

The implications of this report are clear. U of T has failed to fulfil its responsibilities and respond effectively to the needs of survivors on campus. The SiV report has the potential to drive meaningful change by providing U of T with data on the testimonies and the needs of survivors, including instructions and recommendations for improvements to university services, processes, and policies. 

The data paints a picture of a chaotic, bureaucratic, and self-interested system, which survivors are forced to navigate in isolation with no proper understanding of what services they are being offered. This system is not friendly, but hostile to victims, especially as they may need to repeat the story of their trauma to numerous staff members. The onus is often placed upon students to research and figure out where they can report instances of sexual violence and where they can find support. 

Let’s not mince words. Survivors are in survivor mode. Some may not have the mental stamina to navigate this convoluted system, and we should not ask them to do so. If the university requires what is, for many, the impossible, in order to gain support and justice, then many will be excluded from such support and justice.

The university must not only play a role in helping students navigate the aftermath of such incidents, but should also proactively combat rape culture on campus. 

Yet U of T currently has no mention of rape culture in its policy on sexual violence. This is one of the reasons why, in 2017, U of T’s sexual violence policy scored a low letter-grade C from the nationwide student organization Our Turn. 

There are reasons why publicly and privately funded institutions like U of T may not address sexual violence on campus in the most effective ways. Consider, for example, that U of T does not adequately advertise the services it provides to deal with sexual violence on campus, leaving many students in the dark. Meanwhile, study groups, co-curricular opportunities, and other university services are thoroughly announced, often by professors on syllabus days. 

To advertise after-the-fact services like counselling for survivors, or to campaign and educate against the existing rape culture on campus, risks publicizing the simple fact that sexual violence happens at U of T. Acknowledging the problem does not elevate the reputation of the university. It disparages it. 

And recall that reputation is everything to an elite, top-ranked institution like U of T, because it justifies high tuition and boosts enrolment numbers. Applicants are on the hunt for the universities with the best rates of student success and the best academic and co-curricular opportunities, among other qualities. Hence, U of T has a vested interest in suppressing the magnitude of sexual violence on campus from the public. That kind of data and awareness has the potential to negatively affect enrolment and monetary contributions from donors. 

Based on the current system’s glaring problems, which survivors at U of T have to navigate, the university obviously has not completed its due diligence in consulting those touched by sexual violence about the services it offers to them. Victims are not asked what services, processes, and outcomes they need; they instead are told what the university is willing to provide. 

The research done by SiV means that U of T is in an excellent position to start tackling the problem. The report outlines the anxieties and concerns that students have about the process of reporting sexual violence and the support that U of T offers. U of T can choose to hear these voices and make changes accordingly to policies and service centres. SiV also provides a detailed statement of recommendations on how the university can improve and take meaningful action. 

The university must provide an accessible, navigable, survivor-first system to report and find support in the wake of sexual violence, as well as take action against an unchecked rape culture on campus. Time is up for U of T’s survivor-last approach to dealing with sexual violence.

Cameron Wheeler is a second-year English student at Woodsworth College. 

U of T releases survey on sexual violence

Survey driven by provincial legislation

U of T releases survey on sexual violence

Students are receiving email invitations from the administration to participate in a ‘Student Voices on Sexual Violence’ survey, an initiative mandated by the provincial government.

U of T is surveying all full-time students from February 26 to March 26 as a “tool for benchmarking and understanding sexual violence on university campuses,” according to a statement from Vice-Provost Students Sandy Welsh.

The survey is being conducted at institutions across the province by CCI Research Inc. on behalf of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. Ontario Bill 132, which amended the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities Act to include a section on sexual violence, is the legal mandate behind the survey.

The amendment sets requirements for Ontario postsecondary institutions regarding data collection and sexual violence reporting.

It also defines sexual violence as “any sexual act or act targeting a person’s sexuality, gender identity or gender expression, whether the act is physical or psychological in nature, that is committed, threatened or attempted against a person without the person’s consent, and includes sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, indecent exposure, voyeurism and sexual exploitation.”

Students are incentivized to complete the 20-minute survey with a $5 electronic gift card for Amazon, Starbucks, or Indigo.

The survey includes questions regarding personal information, experiences with sexual violence, understanding of consent, knowledge of support and reporting resources, and level of satisfaction with the university’s handling of sexual violence cases.

Silence is Violence (SiV), an anti-sexual violence student advocacy group on campus, has had its own sexual violence survey open to the public since February 13. SiV’s survey was launched after a year and a half of development, and it was not created in response to the university’s survey.

Jessica Wright, who conducts research at SiV, is critical of the fact that the initiative for the survey came from a government mandate. Wright expressed skepticism about how the information will be used and about whether the U of T survey will be effective. “Part of the culture of the university perpetuates the cultural conditions that make rape and sexual assault so horrifyingly common,” she said.

In a statement on U of T News, Welsh said that the feedback from the survey “will help us better understand the experiences of our students and their needs and concerns.”

Welsh further added, “This will ultimately help us improve the university’s support services for our community.”

If you have experienced sexual violence you can call Campus Police at (416) 978-2222 for UTSG and UTSC or (905) 569-4333 for UTM.

Support is also available through the Sexual Violence Prevention and Support Centre, which can be reached by phone at (416) 978-2266 and is located at 702 Spadina Avenue at UTSG, Room 3094G in the Davis Building at UTM, and Room 141 in the Environmental Science & Chemistry Building at UTSC.

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

Robyn Doolittle, Shannon Giannitsopoulou, and Lauren McKeon joined The Varsity to discuss responsible journalism for difficult subject matter

Responsible reporting on sexual violence

At the end of the last academic year, my friend Tamsyn Riddle announced she was filing a human rights complaint against U of T and Trinity College for their handling of her sexual violence complaint. Shortly after, I was elected as The Varsity’s Features Editor. Throughout the summer, while working a nine-to-five job, I began preparing potential feature stories for this year. Following the aftermath of ex-CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault acquittal, I was adamant that the issue of sexual violence needed to be covered in-depth in my section — I just didn’t know how.

It was sometime during my two-hour commute to work that I came up with the idea for a series on the subject. I wasn’t entirely sure how it would look, but I knew it would be a multifaceted endeavor.

In the middle of the summer I caught up with Riddle in a small Annex diner. I wanted to get her opinion on the potential series. She liked the idea, agreed the issue should be covered, and expressed interest in writing a feature on her experience reporting her assault to the university.

Her article was published on September 25. In the process of editing the story, I had multiple conversations with the Editor-in-Chief and Riddle herself on whether to name faculty and staff members relevant to her story. Because the story was a first-person narrative, it didn’t make sense to reach out to those mentioned for comment. Instead, with Riddle’s permission, we included an editor’s note at the top of the article explaining that “allegations made toward the faculty members and staff members identified in this article are unproven in court;” Riddle could write an open account of her experience, and The Varsity could protect itself legally.

The conversations we had in the newsroom regarding this article were crucial. We all recognized the importance of publishing the story, but the path to doing so was not clear-cut. I wanted Riddle’s story published, but I also wanted to ensure I was being fair to all those involved. Ultimately, the topic of the Responsible Reporting on Sexual Violence panel, hosted at The Varsity on November 15, stemmed from this tension: how should journalists cover stories of sexual violence in a respectful and responsible way?

I had the privilege of hosting this panel discussion and moderating it with Riddle. The Varsity collaborated on the event with a sexual violence activist organization at U of T that Riddle is a member of called Silence is Violence. The panelists came from an array of backgrounds and spoke from varying perspectives. Shannon Giannitsopoulou is the co-founder of femifesto, a feminist organization based in Toronto. She is also a contributing writer for “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a guide for the media when covering issues concerning sexual violence. Her perspective was valuable at the panel because it is not from inside the media itself, but rather from working to educate those who work in the media and how they should cover the subject.

Lauren McKeon, our second panelist, has primarily worked in magazines. She is currently the digital editor at The Walrus and a contributing editor at Toronto Life. McKeon also taught at Humber College and is the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism. Her article for Toronto Life, “Fifteen years of silence: I was raped three times in less than 10 years. I knew all of my attackers. This is my story,” was an honest and raw portrayal of the experiences of a sexual violence survivor. I was grateful to have her speak at the event.

Our final panelist, Robyn Doolittle, broke one of the largest stories in recent Canadian history on police treatment of those who formally report their sexual assaults. Her investigation took approximately 20 months, during which she explored instances of police dismissing sexual assault cases as “unfounded” — essentially, when police believed the assault never occurred. Before this “Unfounded,” article, Doolittle wrote for the Toronto Star covering former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Given the breadth of her coverage and implications it has had on policy, we were happy to have her attend the panel.

With the unique experiences of these three women, the conversation was extremely insightful. It explored questions that I had as a student journalist who has covered this topic, and it showcased perspectives I hadn’t considered. In this vein, I thought it was fitting to break down the key issues discussed at the event — for the public, for journalists, and for myself.

We need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told…what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.

SEXUAL VIOLENCE REPORTING IN THE MEDIA

Over the last few weeks, the outcry of sexual assault allegations against multiple men in Hollywood has been astonishing. Riddle asked the panelists how these stories and similar ones impacted conversations about sexual violence and its media coverage.

Giannitsopoulou began by mentioning that, when working on femifesto’s guide in 2011, a lot of these large stories were not yet published. She’s pleased that the guide was created before the Ghomeshi case and the Harvey Weinstein scandal because it’s readily available at a time when reporters need it.

Giannitsopoulou also discussed the importance of diversity of stories, paying particular attention to whose stories are told and which stories garner attention and space. She said, “Indigenous women from Saskatchewan that were missing… have 3.5 times less coverage than women in Ontario that were also murdered and missing. And they were less likely to have images of the women.” Giannitsopoulou continued by pointing out that Indigenous women who are shown in newspapers are more likely to be “on the corner of the page and not on the front page.”

McKeon agreed with Giannitsopoulou, saying, “I think we need to take this moment now as journalists to look at what stories aren’t being told… what we’re missing, what we’re going to tell, and how we’re going to tell it.” Given the increasing coverage of this subject, McKeon said that “now’s the time that there is this appetite for [sexual violence coverage] and people are really listening… which is both encouraging and a little depressing.”

Doolittle discussed the impact these stories have had on policy given the increased attention. She specifically spoke about the implications of her Unfounded series: “since Unfounded ran in February… something like half of the police services in this country have reviewed thousands of sexual assault cases, they’re passing policies around having supervisors involved in decisions, they’re doing a training overhaul that takes the neurobiology of trauma into account, the federal government has committed a hundred million dollars to address violence against women.”

MIN HO LEE/THE VARSITY

TERMINOLOGY IN SEXUAL VIOLENCE STORIES

Language was, unsurprisingly, discussed at length. I asked the panelists what process journalists should follow when choosing language and phrasing about sexual violence. The question stemmed from my understanding of sexual violence terminology, specifically the common use of the term ‘survivor’ over ‘victim.’

Acknowledging that wording can be “tricky,” Giannitsopoulou stressed the importance of ensuring the consent of a source when deciding how they will be identified in a story: “I personally prefer the word ‘survivor.’ I think it underlines resilience. But some people don’t like the word ‘survivor’, some people prefer the word ‘victim’ because it speaks to their experience of healing.”

While objectivity is key when reporting, Giannitsopoulou mentioned that all language has connotations and that “no language is neutral.”

Doolittle mentioned that the “Use the Right Words” campaign Giannitsopoulou has worked on in femifesto has taught her a lot as a journalist. “What it’s really taught me is that journalists are very careful about some of the language they use around sexual assault allegations and not careful around allegations for other crimes.”

Instead of removing the term ‘allegedly’ when reporting on sexual violence, Doolittle suggested that news reporters and investigative journalists actively include the term when referring to other types of crime. In doing so, the term ‘allegedly’ is no longer associated with sexual violence but rather all unproven crimes. Additionally, Doolittle doesn’t use the terms ‘survivor’ or ‘victim’ in her reporting unless a court ruling is made — she often uses the term ‘complainant’ instead.

“If I say someone was a victim of sexual assault, I am saying it happened. If I say they were a victim, I am saying it happened. And, it’s not that I don’t believe them… but I do the story a disservice by not being as objective as possible,” said Doolittle.

McKeon spoke on the relationship between language, communication, and trust, saying that once trust is broken between a reporter and their source there’s little way to reclaim it. Because sexual violence survivors already face high rates of skepticism, confidence in a reporter for accurately sharing their stories is imperative, McKeon added.

HOW #METOO AND SOCIAL MEDIA ACTIVISM SHAPES COVERAGE

Given the virality of the #MeToo campaign following Weinstein’s coverage and the popularity of the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported a few years earlier, I was interested in what the panelists thought about social media activism, if it has helped progress conversations, and if it has influenced their work.

McKeon said that social media activism encouraged her to come forward with her own story, and that online activism and hashtags have the potential to build a community. However, she said that journalists should use online sexual violence trends as “a launching off point.”

“What we have to do though is find a way to move beyond those hashtags in our reporting, because they don’t tell the whole story,” said McKeon.

Doolittle expressed that the power of #MeToo was in demonstrating both explicit instances of sexual violence and injustices that women face on a daily basis.

Giannitsopoulou discussed the subject of social media activism and the #MeToo campaign as requiring nuance: “I’m glad that people are sharing their stories, but I don’t want survivors to feel like if they’re not feeling safe or if they don’t want to share their stories that their experience as a survivor is not valid.

“I would also not like to put the onus on survivors to have to keep telling our stories when we know one in three women, one in six men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, and [for] trans and non-binary folks it’s disproportionately higher than that,” said Giannitsopoulou.

Throughout my process of organizing and moderating this panel, one common theme stood out: consent in reporting. While there are a variety of considerations to take into account when reporting on issues of sexual violence — and I definitely learned a lot — it’s important to remember that, as McKeon stated, “No survivor owes you their story.”

It is crucial for us as journalists to ensure open communication, respect, and to uphold the consent of survivors in each step of the publishing process. This includes consent with terminology, consent to going on record, and consent to sharing their story.

— With files from Priyanka Sharma.

MIN HO LEE/THE VARSITY

Watch the full livestream on the panel on Facebook.

U of T releases “Guiding Principles” for sexual violence education and prevention

Report released following criticism of the university’s handling of sexual violence

U of T releases “Guiding Principles” for sexual violence education and prevention

On June 23, U of T released a report entitled “Guiding Principles for Sexual Violence Education and Prevention Initiatives.” The report aims to develop a curriculum of university-wide training initiatives for staff, students, and faculty. The report is further intended to “provide advice and guidance on updating the content and delivery of existing programs.” Its release follows a tumultuous year of student activism against the university’s response to sexual violence.

In March, a postering campaign by campus group Silence is Violence drew attention to what it saw as negligence on behalf of the university in responding to sexual violence on campus. In addition, U of T student Tamsyn Riddle filed a human rights complaint this April against the university and Trinity College for allegedly mishandling her sexual assault investigation.

Riddle claims to have been sexually assaulted at a party sponsored by Trinity College in the spring of 2015. Following the assault, Riddle claims that the university was negligent and mishandled the investigation of her case, allowing her assailant to continue attending the university. The alleged assailant only faced a ban from the dining halls and participation from certain clubs.

Among the principles listed in each section of the report, the panel recommends that the curriculum define the various behaviours that are included under sexual violence and that all initiatives should “address power and privilege, and understand their historical context with respect to identified communities.” The panel also reports that the curriculum should not only be based on theory and research, but also lived experiences and “Indigenous ways of knowing.”

The report comes from an expert panel chaired by Professor Gretchen Kerr, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. In order to develop the report, the panel reviewed extensive research and literature on the subject and developed a campus engagement plan to acquire feedback from the larger U of T community. They also had to create a draft of the guidelines, make an anonymous feedback tool available, and revise the report into the document submitted to the Provost.

Kerr was selected by the Provost to chair the panel because of her research and applied experience in the area of abuse and harassment. The rest of the panel was comprised of students, faculty, and administrative staff.

These panelists were chosen from nominations made to the Provost in April 2016. Nominees were selected by Kerr and Provost Cheryl Regehr based on applicants’ “relevant background for the panel’s work, diversity, representation from the various stakeholder groups and representation across the three campuses of U of T,” Kerr told The Varsity.

The stakeholders that are referred to throughout the report encompass various intersectional identities, along with the different faculties across all three campuses.

“We will be looking at a diversity of perspectives, so that includes people from the Indigenous community, persons with disabilities, racialized groups, sexually diverse groups and those whose gender identity or gender expression doesn’t conform to historical norms,” Executive Director of Personal Safety, High Risk, and Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Terry McQuaid explained to The Varsity.

According to McQuaid, the curriculum is currently entering its planning stages. “Part of the planning process right now is to identify all the key groups across the university and to have a lead person in each of those groups — so somebody trained by the centre, knowledgeable of the centre’s activities, who can help roll out collaborative training with the groups. We’ll train a core group of individuals including these lead reps, and then the centre will work with these lead reps to roll out training.”

McQuaid said that the university is looking to develop more content for the curriculum with involvement from people knowledgeable in the field. In addition, they are going to begin training for each of the key stakeholders moving forward.