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Reflecting on women's safety on college campuses

CBC’s The Current recently played Piya Chattopadhyay’s interview with Jon Krakauer. Krakauer is a reporter better known for his books on adventures gone wrong. His most recent book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town was published April 21, 2015. The book is described as “a stark, powerful, meticulously reported narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana — stories that illuminate the human drama behind the national plague of campus rape.”

As we approach the new university year, Krakauer’s words are a timely, sobering and important reminder that the “plague of sexual assaults” and the accompanying risk to the safety of women students occurs at Canadian universities too.

A series of sexual assaults at UBC in 2013 remain unsolved and assaults continue at and near UBC. That same fall, frosh week “rape chants” at UBC and St Mary’s University shocked Canadians. The fact that these chants had been going on for years left most in disbelief.

Last spring’s scandal at the Faculty of Dentistry at Dalhousie University involved a group of male students that demeaned their female colleagues and ranked them based who they’d like to have "hate sex" with. An investigation identified a culture of “sexism, misogyny, homophobia and racism” at the school.   

Women continue to be blamed for their own rapes. The perpetrators are protected and concern is focused on the impact of a charge on the man’s future rather than the impact of the trauma on the woman victim’s future and well-being. Women are often asked to be silent and not report. When they report, they are often silenced by the rules and procedures universities use to handle reports of sexual assault.

Women often silence themselves as well. The “blame the victim” belief seems to be an undercurrent in the lives of girls and women, internalized early and reinforced in multiple subtle and disturbing ways. And when women do come forward, they are often re-victimized

How early in life do girls learn to second guess what it means to be a girl and who is to blame when things go wrong? What experiences lead girls to conclude that they must present themselves to the world in certain ways and not in others? Why do so many girls grow to adulthood in disguise?

Even power, fame, competence and success don’t inoculate women against internalized rules adopted, often unconsciously, in childhood. Rules about what to wear, how and when to speak, where to go (and not go), which behaviours are okay and which are not are part of a pervasive, cloak of acceptability and responsibility. Sometimes women behave as if they are free from rules – until something bad or unexpected happens that starts the questioning, the self-blame, the fault finding.

Alicia Keys recently wrote a powerful piece in which she had to remind herself that

You are allowed to be smart

You are allowed to be beautiful

You are allowed to be radical and have strong thoughts that others might not agree with

You are allowed to be tough

You are allowed to be sexy

You are allowed to be bold

You are allowed to be shapely

You are allowed to be kind

You are allowed to be yourself!!  

Krakauer credits “a few brave women” for reporting the Missoula rapes and fighting for justice. Works like his, and the heightened awareness through reports of sexual assaults and sexual predation on campuses are a start.

Don’t be that Guy campaigns are changing the conversation. The Canadian Football League has announced a violence against women policy based on the successful BC Lions Be more Than a Bystander partnership with EVA BC. 

Let’s hope that universities are successful in their commitment to changing a campus culture that condones violence against women. Most of all, let's hope that this fewer women experience the trauma of sexual assault this school year.


PS: It’s a sad reflection of our society that women’s issues won’t be formally debated in the 2015 federal election

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