Sexual Violence

You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman”, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity.

From a rape survivor’s impact statement

Both men and women can be victims of sexual violence; according to Quebec government statistics, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. Despite these epidemic numbers, victims continue to be shamed and silenced, and the behavior often dismissed as a private miscommunication between individuals. Indeed, sexual violence is unique among violent crime in the consistency through which legal systems have punished the victims and justified the actions of the perpetrators. The fact that this perspective continues to hold sway today is underscored by the statistics that suggest that up to 90% of sexual assaults are not reported, as well as through the many myths that surround sexual violence, including the idea that women’s behavior or provocative dress provoke sexual assault, that sexual assailants are strangers, when in fact most perpetrators know their victim , and that a women must resist and scream for help in order to be a rape victim. Unfortunately many victims also believe these myths, making the shame that results from sexual assault even more devastating. It needs to be emphasized that sexual assailants use manipulation, violence or threats, and in some cases medications, drugs or alcohol, to force compliance and many women remain passive during an assault in order to minimize their injuries and not aggravate the perpetrator further.

Defining sexual assault and sexual violence is difficult. The latter term is increasingly used, but both cover many types of actions, among others, sexual harassment, unwanted kissing or touching of a sexual nature, and rape.  The Quebec government uses the following definition for sexual assault: Sexual assault is an act of a sexual nature, with or without physical contact, committed by an individual without the consent of the target person, or in certain cases, notably in those of children, involving affective manipulation or blackmail. It is an act aiming at subjecting somebody else to one’s own impulses by abuse of power, use of force or constraint, or by implicit or explicit threat. Sexual assault violates fundamental rights, in particular a person’s right to physical and psychological integrity and safety. (Government Action Plan Concerning Sexual Assault (Quebec, 2008, p. 9).  Sexual assault counsellors and experts, however, stress that ultimately it is only the survivors who can define this form of violence through what they have experienced.

College and university campuses, like all societal institutions, are places where sexual assault happens.  The statistics that we do have suggest a staggering problem.  It is estimated that in the US 1 out of 5 to 1 to out of 4 female college students are assaulted in the course of their college career. In a study of the rates of violence among social science students attending 31 universities across 16 countries, 29% of the students engaged in physical dating violence in the past year and about 9.4% of college students engaged in severe forms of physical dating violence (Sudderth, Leisring, and Bronson, “If They Don’t Tell Us, It Never Happened,” Canadian Women’s Studies 28.1 (2009)). In a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of North Dakota, nearly one in three college men admitted they might rape a woman if they knew no one would find out and they wouldn’t face any consequences; significantly, though, the numbers fell dramatically to 13.6% when the researchers used the word “rape”, demonstrating that many college men don’t view the act of forcing a woman to have sex with them with the crime of committing rape. (Edwards, Bradshaw and Hinsz, “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders,” Violence and Gender. 1.4 (2014)).

Despite this, few educational institutions have accepted their responsibility in this area; rather than acknowledge that sexual assault happens everywhere in society, including on their campuses, only a small minority of college and university administrators have sought to find out how much sexual violence occurs on their campuses, and victims have often been silenced or not believed when coming forward. Protecting the institutional brand is all important, and this has typically implied protecting the perpetrator at the expense of the victim, as described over and over in the explosive 2015 documentary, The Hunting Ground.

The long legacy of victim shaming and an ideology that legitimizes male ownership of women’s bodies continues to shape our responses to sexual violence. Change can only come through directly confronting the silences that surround the problem of sexual assault, and college and university have a direct responsibility that stems from their educational mission, but also from the fact that they are places where young people are particularly vulnerable and where a rape culture continues to be legitimized. Educational institutions can and must become leaders in confronting the epidemic of sexual assault by developing strong, victim-centered policies on sexual assault, initiating visible campaigns to educate students and staff about the meaning of consent, and undertaking research projects to uncover where and when students are most at risk. Most importantly, the victims of sexual assault must be heard and supported by well-funded counselling services and systems through which they can gain justice. This typically means a legal process whereby perpetrators will be punished appropriately, and there is certainly need for this approach, but we should also look at more restorative or transformative forms of justice, which seek to obtain real accountability and understanding from perpetrators about the significance of their actions. The choice of approach though must be made by the victim.


Change though is happening.

Survivors are speaking out more than ever, and by doing this, they are helping to end the shame that so many victims feel and transform a culture that normalizes sexual violence.

Encouraged by many other examples, Inspire Solutions, in collaboration with Dawson’s Women’s/Gender Studies Certificate, has developed a local initiative at Dawson College to promote a conversation about sexual assault with It Happens Here, an on-line space where students and staff can map their voices, tell their stories and offer their solutions to the problem of sexual assault.

Take a look at

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