On Campus

How to stop sex assault on campus

A University of Windsor program aims to spot trouble before sexual assault happens

The first semester is weeks away, but there have been a couple of big controversies on Canadian campuses already that have people wondering what, if anything, can be done to reduce the risk that women will be sexually assaulted at university.

At Concordia University in Montreal, a student group organizing frosh activities, the Arts and Science Federation Association (ASFA), told another student group, the Centre for Gender Advocacy, that “froshies” wouldn’t have time for two hours of sexual-consent training amid all the partying they had planned. Their vice-president made things worse by telling the Montreal Gazette that sexual assault “is just not something that happens at our frosh,” and that “there hasn’t been a reported case to my knowledge, ever,” stoking outrage among those who point out that most aren’t reported, and that the first two years of university are, in fact, when women are most at risk.

Then there was the promotional video from a private company running frosh events for University of Ottawa students that showed drunk people injuring themselves, including two bikini-clad women dumped out of a shopping cart by some shirtless guy. The university’s Student Federation told CBC that such dangerous hyper-sexualized situations are exactly what the group, which organizes the official frosh week activities, is trying to avoid.

It’s all reminiscent of the rape-promoting chants that had Saint Mary’s University and University of British Columbia frosh leaders apologizing last fall. Clearly strict punishments and stern warnings from administrators aren’t getting through. But is it even possible to get through to all students, or at least reach enough of them that we can reduce the risk of female students being assaulted—a risk researchers peg at one in four?

The fact that student groups like Concordia’s ASFA aren’t convinced of the value of peer training suggests there isn’t much hope. After all, they’re supposed to be the leaders. But there is another solution. It just might not be in the form of the mandatory-consent training the Centre for Gender Advocacy is pushing.

Julie Michaud, an administrator for the CGA, says their training was modeled on a program delivered in all McGill University residences. Part-time student coordinators start by defining sexual assault and then move on to discussions about how we live in a “rape culture” with “pervasive victim blaming attitudes.” They then ask 17-year-olds to do media analysis and consider complicated feminist theories at a time when they’d rather be out exploring their new city, meeting new people and, well, having sex. On top of that, the CGA (unlike McGill residences) proudly reports on its Facebook page that it’s “in solidarity” with Gaza and Native blockades (it’s an advocacy centre, after all), hurting its credibility among those whose politics differ. Regardless of the politics, I doubt these workshops would get through to very many young men, especially with so much else to distract them during frosh week.

But Michaud is right that sexual assault prevention is too important for universities to ignore, so more of them should take on the responsibility.

They could start by looking to programs like the Bystander Initiative at the University of Windsor, a project with positive results that is the subject of a presentation at the American Psychological Association convention in Washington, D.C. this week. Windsor professors Charlene Senn and Anne Forrest developed the semester-long courses where upper-year students learned to facilitate a three-hour workshop called “Bringing in the Bystander,” which they in turn delivered to students in lower-year business, criminology and psychology courses. They reached hundreds of students rather than the handful of keeners who might attend voluntary training. And yes, it was on the final exam.

The workshop was based on the theory that people don’t step in when something wrong is happening, not because they’re callous, but because of barriers. “For example, if you don’t notice something, you can’t help,” says Senn. “[Sexual assault] is very unlikely to be the stranger on the path to the library at night,” she explains, “but very likely the person you know in a post-party situation.” Students also practice how to step in when they see something wrong. Their research suggests it could create a campus culture of stepping in.

Forrest explains how it’s different from mandatory-consent training. “It’s the more universal message,” she says. Rather than addressing all men as potential rapists and all women as potential victims, it assumes most people are good, but that it’s everyone’s job to prevent sexual assault. Don’t think it’s airy-fairy; it also explains how serial rapists target women.

It seems to me that starting from a place of good will and offering training that has research credibility and a professor’s stamp of approval (not to mention class credit) is going to get a lot more buy-in from young men than consent training delivered by an advocacy group.

Jennifer Drummond, coordinator of Concordia University’s year-old Sexual Assault Resource Centre, says she will start offering bystander intervention training this fall. It won’t be for class credit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is built into the curriculum eventually. Other universities ought to step up and step in too.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.