Trigger warning: This story examines women’s experiences with sexual assault and how women are advocating for a safer environment for students. Names have been changed or abbreviated in order to protect student privacy.
Some experiences simply can’t be understood by looking at the stats.
Statistics Canada (2004) estimates that less than one out of 10 sexual assaults will come to the attention of the police and overall, actual victimization is much higher than official statistics.
In 2012, McMaster Campus Security reported three sexual assaults, but if national statistics are any indication, this number could be a gross underestimate of the total number of sexual assaults experienced by Mac students.
The Silhouette spoke with several individuals associated with advocacy efforts, as well as survivors of sexual assault. Their stories reflected how sexual assault is largely unacknowledged among students and the university community.
A., a woman involved with social justice on campus, explained how her own peer group saw rape as something that happens and should be addressed. But she explained attitudes among the general student body varied: “people are horrified by rape and sexual assault. But no one wants to label it. And it something that needs to be spoken about but isn’t.”
While events like SlutWalk have tried to build mainstream awareness about “slut shaming” and victim-blaming, students often still face an alienating and stigmatizing environment on campus among their peers.
Survivors interviewed reported that rape jokes were prevalent in their peer groups and that they would commonly be accused of exaggerating their experience or told that it “wasn’t a big deal” or that they were “just drunk.”
Sarah, a sexual assault survivor, emphasized how common victim blaming is among students.
“Questions such as, ‘why was she walking home alone in the first place?’, ‘was she drunk? ‘ or ‘was she wearing a skanky outfit?’ come to mind immediately. Victim blaming is never okay and it’s very hurtful for me to hear comments like that.”
Others suggested that the stigma has been perpetuated in the reporting process and discrimination occurs through the entire legal system.
A. explained how criminal law unfairly classifies sexual assault by levels. These levels place unequivocal emphasis on certain types of assault while negating others.
“I haven’t yet seen an approach within the law that is appropriate. It’s a hierarchy of hurt. Being raped isn’t a simple thing, [it’s not something] you can put levels on. [Categorization] doesn’t put emphasis on a lifetime of pain.”
Similarly, Sarah expressed her disgust at how the legal system approached survivors and their experiences.
“One of the big problems is that when an officer is dealing with sexual assault they tend to ask questions such as, ‘were you drunk?’, ‘did you make advances on your own?’ and ‘did you say no clearly’, which lead to the victim feeling like they themselves are on the stand for the crime. That is not okay.”
Jyssika, QSCC Co-ordinator, also described how security concerns remain a huge issue on campus.
“We have measures in place like SWHAT and the red emergency posts on campus. But places where we’re most susceptible, like coming out of labs at night or secluded spaces in the library, we have nothing.”
While the people interviewed spoke from different perspectives, they all concluded that access to resources remains limited for students.
Sarah described how she did not seek help for one of her assaults because she feared being judged and as a result became depressed and has a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
“As a survivor I know what it feel like to feel unsafe going to a regular health centre, so I 100 per cent support a woman and trans* centre on campus.”
Jyssika described how QSCC operated one of the few consistent “safe spaces” on campus. She emphasized how a safe space for anyone who has experienced sexual violence would provide a specific and much needed forum for outreach and a channel to connect survivors with resources.
“To the young men of the McMaster community: We do not think that every single one of you are out there to sexually assault us but there is absolutely no way for us to tell the difference when we first meet you. So next time a female doesn’t respond to your ‘Hello’ on the street, especially after dark, instead of calling her a ‘bitch’ or saying she is rude, take into account that she does have the right to not say anything to you if she doesn’t want to,” concluded Sarah.
While survivor’s stories remain only partially told, a willingness and commitment to open up campus dialogue seems apparent.
The newly established Ad-Hoc Committee for the Women and Trans* Centre met for the first time on Nov. 6. The committee, which was created through a motion at the Oct. 14 SRA meeting, is focused on establishing whether or not there is a need for such a centre on campus. Elise Milani, SRA Services Commissioner and the committee chair, was pleased with the first meeting.
“It was a great turnout,” she said of the twenty-plus people who attended. The attendees came from a number of different areas of the university, including the MSU and the Graduate Students’ Association, as well external organizations, such as the YWCA and SACHA, a women’s centre located in downtown Hamilton.
There is currently no service of this kind that exists on or near the McMaster campus. Mac did have a women’s centre from 1979 to 1985, but it was closed because it had allegedly ceased to be an open and inclusive space.
At their inaugural meeting, the committee established an action plan to follow in the coming weeks and months. In the midst of increasing reports of sexual assault on university campuses, including Ryerson and York, Milani and others feel that a women and trans* centre would fill a need not currently addressed by other health-related services on campus.
In order to assess the need, the committee will seek input and information from a variety of groups. Affiliates of both the YWCA and SACHA will be compiling information about violence on campus, while student groups, including I am Woman and Feminist Alliance McMaster, will be invited to provide different perspectives.
“We’ll basically just find out if there’s anyone that has anything to say to it, because we shouldn’t just target certain groups because we think they’d be interested,” Milani explained. “You don’t know what people’s different stories are and what they hear in different environments.”
The committee hopes to work with the Office of Human Rights and Equity Services in order to get further information from advocates of trans issues on campus as well.
“It’s not just focused on women,” Milani noted. “We need to get that part of the story as well.”
The plan is to complete the assessment by the end of January, at which point the committee will report back to the SRA.
“And if we establish a need,” she said, “we’ll move forward from there.”
The Student Representative Assembly created an Ad-Hoc Committee to investigate the establishment of a Women and Trans Centre at their Oct. 14 meeting. While the motion to create the committee did not actually mandate the creation of a Women and Trans Centre, it is part of the ongoing discussions to better service women and trans needs.
Elise Milani, SRA Services Commissioner, proposed the idea, which aims to assess the need of, and create a model for, a potential on-campus centre.
In 2009, a student referendum was held to gauge students’ opinions on the creation of a women’s centre. The referendum failed because it did not reach quorum.
Last year’s SRA mandated an interim report that explored the overall process of opening a women’s centre and looked at case studies from other universities. The report was compiled primarily by a Women’s Studies class, led by professor Karen Balcom.
A new report, another step in the consultation and research process, would offer a specific operational model to address funding issues and logistical concerns and to conduct a needs-based analysis.
Milani expressed concern about simply interpreting need based on statistical data. She stated that a focus on quantitative evidence had come up in SRA discussion but that she felt strongly that “numbers don’t necessarily represent what a need is. If one in ten women need this, as an example … is that enough? Is that not enough? It’s [about] how do you measure when a need is valid.”
David Campbell, the Student’s Union VP Administration and member of the Ad-Hoc Committee, acknowledged that the committee’s primary task is determining and measuring the need for a campus women’s centre.
“I think [the SRA motion passing] is a good sign that we should look into the issue seriously. The issue needs to be addressed, whether it be through a women’s centre, expansion of our current service or better promotion of services.”
Campbell also mentioned that the MSU operated a campus women’s centre during two periods in the 1980s. Both times the centre was disbanded; the second time it was disbanded because it had ceased to be an open, inclusive and safe space and was therefore not fulfilling its mandate.
However, this time seems different. With growing reports of campus sexual assault, most recently seen on York and Ryerson’s campuses, Milani asserted that a women’s centre represents a fundamental and distinct service, especially in providing a safe space for women to speak about sexual assault or trauma.
“This [centre is] something that women at McMaster have been trying to do for a while … from talking to other women who have experienced trauma … and they feel disconnected from the issues. They are having mental health issues. And the closest place for them to go is a 20-minute bus ride downtown.”
She suggested that “SHEC is not necessarily prepared or trained to deal with these issues. And from what I’ve heard, the Wellness Centre reportedly has long wait times … [overall] it seems like women feel more comfortable going to a women’s centre.”
Milani welcomed input into this issue and also disclosed that the committee will have a diverse body of interests represented. Members on the committee will include representatives from the MSU, SRA, SHEC, Student Wellness Centre and McMaster Security Services.