Protesters march against sexual assault and victim-blaming in Toronto’s 2012 Slutwalk.
Image courtesy of loretta.lime via Flikr.
By Lindsey Addawoo
Sexual assault is not anything new and unfortunately may never become a thing of the past, either.
From country to country, in various forms of oppression under different regimes, governments and militaries, the patriarchy can easily become the dominant rule of society.
This is most evident in various parts of the world where women are often oppressed by the roles they are forced into (or deflected from) playing: from religious, cultural and traditional customs, right down to their very clothing.
James Brown said it best: this is a “man’s world” after all.
In a critical review of the role patriarchy plays in spousal abuse, University of British Columbia’s Professor Donald Dutton stated that patriarchy is a “systematic form of domination and social control of women”. In essence, men “benefit from how women’s lives are restricted because of their fear of violence”.
More specifically, patriarchy plays a significant role in this violence. Society has become so desensitized to gender-based violence that it has almost become accepted, with violent ideologies seeping through the gender divide and being reciprocated by women, too. Just ask the Mayor of Toronto’s lingerie-footballing niece, Krista Ford, who said a woman shouldn’t “dress like a whore” in order to protect herself from being raped, a perfect example of the hegemonic attitude towards victims of rape.
Just this past semester, however, patriarchy in the form of sexual assault hit just a little too close to home at Ryerson University in Toronto.
From late August to September, six accounts of sexual assault were reported in and around the Ryerson community.
The first assault on Sept. 5 involved a 20-year-old woman who was assaulted twice by the same man. When the victim screamed, the man fled. The second time around the man left only after she fought him off.
On Sept. 8, a man approached an older woman from behind, but fled when she screamed. Fortunately, her attacker did not return.
Another attack was reported Sept. 15 when a man in Ryerson’s local pub, Ram in the Rye, according to the Toronto Star.
The Ryersonian, a campus newspaper run by fourth year journalism students, ran an issue stating that security personnel said this is “perhaps the first time [Ryerson] has seen such a high number of sexual assaults within a short time”.
However, Ryerson Student Union’s Vice President of Equity, Marwa Hamad, was quoted in various publications for saying the attacks there have always been assaults on campus, there’s just “an increase sex assaults being reported”.
This leads one to wonder: how many attacks could have gone unreported in the past, or were considered unsubstantiated claims? Is a reactionary response really the best we can do?
First and foremost, it is essential to understand what sexual assault is, what its implications are, and how it can be prevented – with emphasis on preventing the perpetrator from attacking, rather than blaming the victim for their attack.
“A lot of people have misinformation about sexual assault being ‘only rape’; as though rape is the only violent form of sexual assault,” says Hamad. “We [live in] a culture that fosters sexual assaults and rape, and apologizes on behalf of rapists, as well as victim-shaming. I think the educational aspect is crucial. We [the student union] have postcards that say ‘consent is sexy’ on one side, and ‘sexual assault is not’ on the other. It outlines what it means”.
Last year, a woman walking in front of the Pitman student residence at Ryerson reported a man grabbing her from behind, kissing her neck, and promising to rape her when she was alone. The man even knew which room she lived in, and so far has not been found. Why did this not receive widespread recognition? Why was this intimate act that was literally on our doorstep not publicized as much as it should have been?
Maybe this kind of thing doesn’t happen enough. Or maybe it’s simply not reported.
Ryerson has over 28, 000 students, with about 55 per cent female, so one can imagine the sort of impact the recent assaults have had on the Ryerson community.
According to Ryerson’s VP of Administration and Finance Julia Hanigsberg, “[Ryerson] was very equipped to add additional patrol campus and increase visibility of security on campus”.
The student union immediately held a meeting to discuss the implications of the assaults, as well as potential security measures and what Ryerson can do as a community to get students and staff involved in prevention.
Media was not allowed to the meetings, as organizers asked for privacy due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Says Marwa Hamad, “there [is] an appetite to have a ‘Students Against Sexual Assault’ street team – an [open] group of volunteers who would come together and do outreach combatting sexual assault and talking about consent.”
Ryerson’s Women’s Centre also continues to keep its lines open for women who have been sexually assaulted.
Since the attacks, security watches from Ryerson’s security team started sending out notifications and cautionary reminders to the whole of the Ryerson community.
“I think [security watches] are extremely helpful to have a high degree of transparency about what we know to be going on” says Hanigsberg.
This can be compared to York University’s cautionary system. The school has had a long history of sexual assaults and threats of violence on campus that often exceed the number of reports Ryerson has received on a regular basis. The university has CCTV (or Closed-Circuit Television) cameras in parking lots and tunnels, blue light emergency phones situated in every corner, indoor safety phones installed at the Keele and Glendon campuses, and the installation of campus intrusion alarm systems.
In addition to the electronic security watches with links to different hotlines, Ryerson has a walk safe program, a service providing the community with one or two protective security escorts to anywhere on campus, an after hours building access policy requiring student ID after a certain time, bike patrol, and emergency call systems.
But although these preventative measures have good intentions, they aren’t foolproof; they are not exclusive to cases of sexual assault and have little to do with identifying perpetrators.
“I’m not aware if we have specific policies on sexual assault, but we have policies that relate to discrimination, loss prevention…safety, security, conduct on campus, etc.” says Julia Hanigsberg.
Perhaps a more specific approach is necessary. Th student has taken the liberty to introduce awareness on campus. With weekly pub nights set up with ‘outreach’ tables, the RSU offers‘”consent is sexy” and “no means no” materials by which students can engage with the issue.
“We are trying to create safe spaces – whether it’s in the pub, in the streets or in classroom,” says Hamad. “I think the first step [is] breaking that silence and then just continuing that conversation as frequently as possible and just keeping the momentum going”.
However, it is imperative to note that sexual assaults are not only a “woman’s” concern. Much of the educational responsibility lies with men, too.
First year Ryerson student Alyson Rogers stated in the Toronto Sun that there “needs to be more emphasis placed on educating men about sexual assault”.
“I think shifting the message to ‘don’t rape’ as opposed to ‘beware of getting raped’ sends a message to our male allies” says Hamad.
“We [must] make sure we are creating an environment that is inclusive, equitable, and respects everybody,” agrees Julia Hanigsberg.
Ryerson is of course not alone. Sexual assault is not exclusive to any specific campus, neighbourhood, or even the Toronto downtown core. It’s everywhere. Creating a social reform against the dominant views of society isn’t done with mere policies.
“It’s [about] how we can create a long-term shift in the culture on our campus and broader community,” Hamad says. “We want to make sure we’re deconstructing why it’s so acceptable and normalized to sexually assault someone in our society. There’s [always] more to be done. It’s not talked about nearly enough, there’s such a culture of silence around it. I think it’s everyones responsibility to be contributing to this discussion”. M