Frank talk about ’rape chants,’ campus life and cultural change

Anne Kingston speaks to Wayne MacKay about St. Mary’s plans to change campus culture
Jocelyn Bain Hogg / VII / Corbis

For the background on this  this story, read this feature by Anne Kingston: The real danger for women on campus

In the wake of the frosh-week “rape chant” controversy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, its president Colin Dodds assembled an independent “President’s Council” to study sexual violence on campus and to propose recommendations. Last week, the council issued a 110-page report with 20 recommendations, which included developing a university code of conduct, establishing a “sexual violence response team,” reclaiming orientation week and improving the school’s disciplinary and complaint investigation process to hold perpetrators more accountable. Dodds has responded by  saying the university is committed “to implementing the recommendations in a timely manner.”

Maclean’s senior writer Anne Kingston, who recently  examined sexual violence at Canadian universities, speaks with President Council chair Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University and former chair of Nova Scotia’s Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying formed after the suicide of Retaeh Parsons. Their wide-ranging discussion spanned  the proposed recommendations, incidents of sexual violence reported by Saint Mary’s faculty members, the debate over alcohol and sexual assault, the “date rape” label, why female athletes are at greatest risk of campus sexual assault–and whether or not the council’s recommendations will change anything.

Q:  The council begins the report saying its goal was “to avoid blaming as much as possible and to seize the opportunity to go forward in a positive and constructive way.” Why did the two things have to be exclusive? Why not assign blame? Without culpability how can there be change?

A:  It’s a good and important question. I have two responses. The first is technical: the mandate didn’t include that. It talked about making recommendations for a cultural change that would prevent sexual violence, promote respect and safety. But the more important strategic answer is that we felt that more progress could be made by looking at it constructively, and with interviews and our consultations on campus there already was quite a divide about what people were saying–people were sacrificed, or the blame was put unfairly on a particular group. It seemed to us as a council that that was not productive and that the reason we were doing this on a volunteer basis was to try to make change. So strategically we felt that was a better move.

Q:  The report says a university should be “a model of a more caring and respectful society.” But a university also has to protect its reputation, its recruitment and its endowments. At Saint Mary’s, for instance, there was incredible frustration among a segment of the population that there were no serious repercussions for behaviour after the “rape chant” and that any discipline that did occur occurred  in camera. Certainly there was no transparency of the sort people need to feel  change can take place.   

A:   Transparency is critical. Obviously it’s not our mandate to deal with the reputation of Saint Mary’s – we were asked to do a task and we did it – but obviously as Saint Mary’s goes forward it has to be concerned with its image and with how people perceive it. And the only way to really recover effectively from what happened in relation to the chant is to be very transparent that they are, in fact, making a new departure, that they are taking serious steps, following these recommendations, and other things (this is not a complete list) that will make it a better place, a safer place, one that’s more welcoming particularly for women but for all students, and one where, if not eliminating certainly greatly reducing sexual violence on campus. So I think in order to convince those out there nationally, internationally, that Saint Mary’s really is not that kind of an institution, then they have to be clear and transparent.

Q:   Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen a host of on-campus sexual violence awareness campaigns, safety audits, discussions of consent and so forth. Yet when you talk to sexual assault educators and counsellors, they tell you very little has changed in either incidence or reporting. What confidence can you have that your recommendations will?

A: Stating what needs to be done is only the beginning: it’s actually doing it and doing it in an effective way. There are a couple of keys to that– one, we state that it’s really important for the leadership on campus to be agents of this change and champions of this change.  One of our very first recommendations was appointing a champion and a team to oversee this because these things don’t happen automatically; and secondly, even though our consultation was small, that leadership – not just in terms of administration but within the faculty and within the student body – is very important, so we made some recommendations about increasing the presence of women in all of those settings but particularly in the student organizations where they really are under-represented. It’s a small recommendation there somewhere, maybe even just a comment – but important groups like the sports teams and the varsity teams modelling the kind of behaviour that needs to happen. For example, the Toronto Argonauts are involved in having their players talk about the importance of consent. There has to be real leadership and buy-in so that it’s not cool to do the kinds of things that led to this in the first place. And that’s not simple, it’s a large, difficult culture change process, but I think with the right leadership and with a real dedication to making that change, I think it can happen.

Q:  Speaking of jock culture, the report noted male athletes are consistently and significantly over-represented in university sexual assault records. It also claims women student athletes are exposed to a greater risk of sexualized violence than other female students. Why that is the case isn’t clear. It it because of their proximity to male athletes?   

A:  On the broader point – and it’s a really important point that hasn’t got a lot of attention–there is a lot of research that suggests that so-called jock culture does correlate with higher incidence of sexual violence. We didn’t find any specific examples at Saint Mary’s; it’s based on general research. But it’s interesting to note that Saint Mary’s has a significant athletic reputation in football and other sports.  In terms of  women athletes being more vulnerable– and the studies weren’t completely clear – male and female athletes would work together and play together and be in the same places as a natural grouping and as a consequence they would perhaps tend to be more victimized. The second, less clearly documented point, is that the need to be part of the team and the need to fit and the need to not be blowing the whistle on their colleagues may mean that they would be, like many, unlikely to report incidents even if they did happen.

Q:  Your report quotes a 2004 survey saying that sexual assault to police is only 8 per cent; other studies have it lower than that.  I talked to female students – both at Saint Mary’s and at other Canadian universities – who said  sexual violence  was grossly under-reported because there was not a  sensitive and responsive system in place to report without ramification; they also didn’t feel that there would be any consequences for the perpetrator, particularly if it was a fellow student. How do your recommendations pave way for better reporting and a more empathetic system?

A:   We definitely heard that  people don’t report because they don’t think anything’s going to happen so we tried to make some recommendations to address that. One is that there be anonymous surveys to collect data about the extent of sexualized violence at Saint Mary’s. A second very important component of that recommendations is that safe spaces and proper supports be provided so that survivors of sexual assault could come forward with their stories in a way that would have the necessary counsellors  – that they would feel comfortable with the people that are receiving the information.  As a panel of 10 with very limited time we definitely were not such a group.

Most important is an absolutely clear plan in terms of an action team to respond to sexual assault and clear indication of what you do if you’re a victim of sexual violence in any form. Who do you contact? What are the steps? Communication of that [at Saint Mary’s] was  problematic—and that’s unfortunately typical of a lot of universities. One of the challenges is how do you communicate to students in the social media age.  Another issue is empowering bystanders, and this is partly drawing on my experience with the cyberbullying task force. Friends or bystanders, third parties, are so critical in recognizing these things. So it’s important to  educate them so they can do that;  if safe for them, intervene themselves, or if not then to report it in some fashion. I think it really does go to creating this climate of safety where people feel, “I can do something about this.”

Once that does happen then there have to be some transparent sanctions: “Okay, it was reported. What actually happened? What kind of process?” Obviously you have to be fair, presumptions of innocence and so on, but at the moment there really isn’t an internal discipline structure, it simply is referred to the police. But  we recommend that there we a parallel discipline structure in these kind of cases as well. So, transparency, clear consequences, clear communication and a supportive environment would be all big.

Q:   The report states the council was “struck” by Saint Mary’s current sexual assault policy – the university does not formally adjudicate allegations of sexual assault but prefers an informal system that accommodates the wishes of both the victims and alleged perpetrators.  Could you elaborate?

A:   We had presentations from Saint Mary’s and also from Dalhousie and Mount St. Vincent on their policies and approaches to this, so part of what struck us was that Saint Mary’s was different from those other two in terms of not adjudicating, not having some more clearly-spelled-out sanction. Even more importantly they didn’t appear to treat these serious cases very different from other kind of conflict resolution situations. Now, they did, as a matter of policy, report it to the police when in fact reports came forward, but as we said earlier that’s not very many, and in any event that doesn’t prevent the university from also pursuing its own discipline process.  I guess as a matter of principle they felt they should not get into adjudication but should treat it in a sort of more restorative or conflict-resolution kind of way, which may be appropriate for all kinds of things but not particularly appropriate, in our opinion, for a sexual assault situation. So I think that probably was the “struck” point.

Q:  What struck me when I spoke with universities administrators about sexual assault was their use of  nurturing, politically correct language about needed to be  “inclusive” and “restorative,” which is more about upholding the status quo than addressing or disciplining sexual violence or misogynist behaviour.

A:   I think that’s exactly the point.  One answer they would give to that is, “But we do send it to the criminal process.” Well, that’s fine, but that’s the social sanction. What, as an institution, are you sending as your response to these serious matters? In the high-profile Rehtaeh Parsons case in Nova Scotia where it was an alleged sexual assault  followed by cyberbullying, one of the things that she identified as really damaging to her psyche was that nobody was taking it seriously. Not only were the police not willing to lay charges but the school was not willing to do any discipline for the alleged perpetrators who continued to go to her same school. And, interestingly, their answer was kind of the same: “Well, it’s in the criminal process, we don’t want to mess anything up there.” But that’s not legally necessarily true, you can have a parallel process that is done carefully so as not to damage the criminal process – obviously that’s important – but from a victim perspective to have everybody seem to not take this seriously is obviously a further kind of victimization or a further blow to them.

Q:  One  important point made  in the report is that sexual violence is not about sex, per se, it’s an act of violence and power over another person. Yet when we discuss sexual assault – and this is true within the report itself– there’s a focus on how sexual violence has been normalized in a hypersexualized culture and hang-wringing about hook-up culture. It becomes very difficult to untangle these two things.  

A: That’s an extremely important point as well, that really sexual assault is about power and violations of trust, it’s not about sexuality or about sex.  A hypersexualized society generally – not just universities—adds to the complication of where are the lines. The blurring of lines or the grey area – as so many people talked about – in terms of consent is partly in this context of a highly sexualized society.  So at what point does the modification and objectification of women become problematic, because it’s happening everywhere: it’s happen in the media, it’s happening in the general public, it’s happening on campus. So how do you then say, “Well, okay, it’s okay up to this point but once you cross this line, now, that’s really problematic.”

Q: The report alludes to the “group-think” that prevails around sexual violence but I wonder if at places it’s guilty of it also. At one point it notes the heavy use of alcohol among university-age students blurs lines relating to consent. But aren’t lines concerning consent – legally at least– very clear? Isn’t the actual problem reporting and discipline? Most people know when they’ve participated in sex that they’ve not agreed to—at least if they’re sober. And if they’re drunk, they couldn’t have given consent in the first place.

A:  First of all you’re correct that the law is much clearer than most students we talked to – and probably the general public – thinks about the ability of someone who is significantly impaired by alcohol or drugs to consent. I think it’s relatively clear, but that’s not widely known. So you’re right in that respect, that it’s partly a matter of awareness and education around these things, and that’s why we advocate that as an important part of what needs to happen. However, on the second part – again in very limited amount of consultation – many students were saying, well, really it’s not so clear anymore what’s consensual or what’s not, particularly in the context of alcohol and drugs where you wake up the next morning and think, “Oh, something happened last night. Oh, I wonder…” you know, it’s not that they don’t remember totally, but, “Was that really consensual?” and, “Did I send the wrong messages?”

There’s a fair bit of pressure on young women to accept the hypersexualized society, “Well, it’s just sex, it’s no big deal.” And you don’t want to sort of ruin somebody’s life because, after all, maybe,  you were part of it, you didn’t intend to and you really didn’t want to do it but maybe you weren’t clear enough about that, which is not the right approach at all. One of the other things we talk about is in supporting the Ontario approach about enthusiastic consent; silence is not consent, reluctant okay is not consent, it’s enthusiastic consent, and we have little buttons – I’m wearing one now – “Consent is sexy.” I think education about it can make the lines clear, or make it less grey, but I think to be fair to students in this overly sexualized society and this hypersexualization on campus, there’s a great deal of pressure to say, “Well, sex is not a big deal, it’s the hookup culture,” like, “Get over it, no big deal.” I don’t agree with that, by the way.

Q: There’s such  judgment about  casual sex and “hook-up culture,” and even more toward women who engage in it, that it makes it difficult for many people to untangle the notion of sexual violation taking place in such a context.

A:  It does, and that leads to another really important point – and I hope we succeeded in this – we tried to be very careful in not in any way to be blaming victims, so that if you engage in hook-up culture or you drink too much, well, it’s your own problem, that we tried very strongly  to make it clear that that’s not the case. The essential difficulty is men need to know – mostly men, sometimes women but mostly men – need to know that it’s your responsibility to determine whether or not there’s consent, if there isn’t you should not proceed. That’s the main point. And when we talked about things like alcohol and drugs it was not so much in relation to victims – which can be a kind of victim-blaming – but rather in relation to perpetrators.

Q:    Let’s talk about the role of alcohol consumption in sexual assault, a huge hot-button subject. The report says that women are “more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and they’re at greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence while drinking heavily.”  Already some Saint Mary’s students have reacted; one, Lewis Rendell, who sits on the board of the Saint Mary’s Women’s Centre, called the President’s Council “victim-blaming, misguided, and uninformed” on her blog. But isn’t the focus on women drinking a red herring? Obviously if you get smashed you’re putting yourself at risk of all sorts of things including being preyed upon sexually. But what separates a woman who is drunk from a woman who is drunk and has been raped is a rapist. The rapist is the problem. So why are we  focusing on the woman?

A:   I could not agree more. And we had a very effective presentation from Todd Minerson from the White Ribbon campaign. Clearly the focus needs to be on the fact that men need to have a better understanding and stop raping, that’s the whole point. It’s not to restrict women, that “Well, if you drink too much or if you go in unsafe places, you’re on your own.” That’s not appropriate, and completely contrary to the safe and respectful and kind of campus and society we’re looking for. It is very tricky, as you say, when you run into factual things like, well, there’s many studies that say alcohol makes you more vulnerable. More importantly – and maybe we weren’t as clear on this as we should have been – that’s even more so in the case of the alcohol-impaired perpetrator. If you’re drinking as a male, then your judgement’s impaired, you may not be adequately equipped to assess whether or not there’s consent, and that’s no excuse, and therefore don’t do it. If you’re not sure there’s consent and you’re real drunk then don’t do it.

Q:   Your report also suggests sexual violence is a problem within Saint Mary’s faculty.  Three Saint Mary faculty members report experiencing sexualized violence in the course of performing teaching and research duties– two were raped, one on two different occasions while conducting research off-campus while the third reported sexual harassment and stalking. Were these reported to the university?  And how did you find out about them? 

A: I can’t say this categorically, but I don’t think they were reported through the university system. In terms of how it was reported to us, one account was one on-line – because you could either contribute in an on-line website or we had individual consultation – two were personal and not necessarily to the whole committee;  a couple of our women members meet with the person and hear their story.  But anyway, very courageous and somewhat surprising to us that these people did come forward, and so anyway that’s concerning. To be fair, again, we don’t know the full details in terms of whether that’s completely atypical or any of that, and that’s almost another whole study.

Q:  The cyberbullying task force resulted in the federal government tabling legislation. Was there discussion of advocating for legislation in this context like the Clery Act in the U.S. that legally requires universities to report on-campus assaults? Is something that you see as germane?

A:    I think it is germane, and again the limits of time didn’t allow us to pursue all the avenues we’d like to have. we did make a statement early in the report, that unlike the U.S. there is no legal requirement on universities to report. I think, I don’t believe we made a precise recommendation on that in part because we felt that that would require a bit more analysis and time than we had to see how effective that was, but certainly I think that’s something to look at. We don’t claim that our 20 recommendations are the only things that need happen, there may be lots of other things and this might be one of them. And, as you say, comparing and linking that to the kind of cyberbullying and Bill C-13, I think it is, on the intimate images, sometimes sending a clear message by law can be part of changing a culture.

Q:  Your report references the research of American psychologist David Lisak who studies student sexual predators who target and groom women on campus; consent isn’t on their radar. He has said that a big problem with dealing with campus sexual predators is wilful blindness: people don’t want to believe “nice” guys with a great SAT scores can rape. Did Lisak’s work contribute to your recommendations?

A:  We were concerned and surprised at the kinds of things that Lisak’s very thorough, long-term research identified in terms of breaking down some of the myths. Most people know that the stranger in the bushes is not your main threat.  A second is the sort of alcohol-related bad decision of the moment kind of thing, which isn’t to justify it. But the third category, the one that Lisak talks about, is quite alarming because he’s talking about calculating predators who, almost like the pedophile situation, identify an environment where there’s lots of vulnerable victims and systematically pursues them.

Q:   Lisak rejects the term “date rape,” which he says sounds like “rape lite.”  Certainly it softens the fact that we’re talking about unlawful sexual violence. Yet your report use the term. Why don’t we get rid of it?

A:  I think there is some good reason to get rid of it. The idea of using it initially was in part to break down the stereotype of the stranger rapist – not that that doesn’t happen – but that the greater threat is someone you know, and not necessarily in a date context.  But I don’t think date rape is “lite” in any real sense. In some ways a date rape may well be more violative because this is a person you trusted and you thought was okay.

Q: The report repeatedly refers to the constraints of the limited three-month timeframe you were given. What would you have done with more time?

A:  Things like the legislation point you mentioned is one. There  could have been more extensive consultations with students and faculty and others on campus to get their views; consultations with alumni over a longer period of time – we did have some alumni but mostly just on a volunteer basis. It would be interesting to have some kind of longitudinal sense of, “Okay, is this a newer thing, is this a long-standing thing, did it used to be worse and now it’s better?” And the one you just talked about, which we really only touched on–the Lisak research. Are there actual predators? And can we develop a better understanding and way of detecting who they might be? And once they’re identified obviously remove them from the campus and go through the criminal process and all the rest.

Q: What did you learn during this process?

A:   To avoid going quickly to judgment and assuming that it’s kind of an isolated university younger generation problem, it’s a much bigger problem. And not go to the kind of easy solution and be judgmental about young people, you know, “Oh, well, the younger generation, they’re just sort of off the rails and don’t have any standards,” and so on.  Part of that was an easy lesson to learn in that the students on our council were so excellent and thoughtful and positive in assisting us. A second major learning thing, particularly as a lawyer, was the extent to which people didn’t have good understanding of consent. The final one  is a further identification with what a terrible thing this is from the point of view of the survivors, that the consequences are so significant for them in so many ways. And this is similar again, to the cyberbullying experience – that we somehow haven’t got the message even out there that this is a really serious problem, this is not a minor thing. When  I started off  talking about the chant itself, a lot of people were saying, “Well, it’s much ado about nothing, you guys are getting all carried away, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. They didn’t really mean any of that, that’s just one of these things that happens.” Well, it’s not if you really think what it represents and not when you look at as  a manifestation of attitudes and a culture that are out there, and if you think about those who are the victims of that kind of thinking and culture.

Q:   You refer to the recommendations as a “roadmap.” Is there a way to measure whether they are being taken seriously at Saint Mary’s or even fully implemented–as opposed to being some goodwill measure that whitewashes a huge problem?

A:   First all of we have no role anymore, we passed the torch, but I think the dialogue and the very positive debates around these things that have emerged are going to really put a pretty high standard on the administration and the other leaders to respond effectively. Organizations like the Women’s Centre, the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, others who are very knowledgeable in these things will be watching it closely– the faculty, the students – so I think the community awareness is at such a high level that I think they will be certainly not easily accepting just ticking off a recommendation and saying, “There, we did that,” but rather will be saying, “Okay, and what difference did that make? Has it been effective?”

Another way of stating the question is that if it’s a roadmap, what does the destination look like? I think the destination should be one where  there is clear accountability for responding to these kind of problems; and we tried to build that in a little bit over the six-month reporting over a three-year period. More importantly, that on surveys – that would again be anonymous  – you could actually gauge whether women in particular and students generally felt safe on campus, that they were safe to engage in learning to engage in the critical thinking and the kinds of things that universities are supposed to do.   The main  big-picture  point  is first, people will feel safe. But if these kinds of things do happen, they know what to do, that the resources – both human and financially – are there to respond to minimize the significant damage that comes from sexual violence. So that would be a much better destination as well. And I suppose another very broad one: an education system that really focuses within a campus on respecting one another and being inclusive.