UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES IN CAMPUS SEXUAL ASSAULT CONTEXTS IN THE UNITED STATES AND CANADA
June 10, 2016
by Paniz Khosroshahy
Last month, the British Columbia government introduced a bill to mandate postsecondary institutions to develop stand-alone sexual assault policies. A number of UBC community members disclosed sexual assaults last year, and the university’s administration was widely lauded as having handled these “scandals” well; these events catalyzed the bill’s introduction. Other provinces have also taken steps toward province-wide implementation of sexual assault policies. This is nothing new in the US, where Title IX mandates universities to have policies grounded in eliminating sexual violence. In Canada, it can be easy to get caught up in American news about The Hunting Ground, Emma Sulkowicz, the Dear Harvard letter, the Rolling Stone article and the Stanford rape case and forget the crucial differences in legal context between the two countries. How much is being done to fight sexual assault on university campuses in Canada?
While sexual violence is a hallmark of rape culture in every society, its prevalence and the obfuscation of its common occurrence is facilitated by specific environments. Compared to the U.S., university experience in Canada is less structured and hence creates an environment that is differently prone to sexual violence. To adequately support students, administrators and policymakers need to respond to students’ needs that arise from their context. Furthermore, while the gaps in Canadian policy does not necessarily make sexual assault more common, they do give more leeway to universities in how they handle disclosures.
University life in Canada tends to be much less structured than in the U.S. While many students in the U.S. spends all four years in residence, it is less common for Canadian students to live on campus after their first or at most second year. Because the drinking age is lower in Canada, Canadian Greek life has smaller social capital and membership. In fact, in Canada, fraternities and sororities are not even in contractual agreements with universities; they are simply extracurricular activities, not a lifestyle.
Furthermore, while McGill University and the University of Ottawa have had recent high-profile cases of athletics-related sexual assault, unlike in the U.S., student life in Canada is significantly less centered around college athletics. Hence, students spend disproportionately less time socializing on campus and often engage in social events that don’t involve fraternities or athletics. When parties happen off-campus, chances are that sexual violence does, too. As such, to adequately support students, administrators cannot ignore the impact of students’ off-campus interactions on their academic performance and safety on campus. At McGill, using this loophole is an easy way for the administration to refuse responsibility for students’ well-being.
In the U.S., Title IX, a portion of a law that forbids gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational institutions, is often used by student activists to protest university administrations’ lack of accountability towards sexual violence on campus. On its own, Title IX is not anything extraordinary; gender-based discrimination is prohibited in Canada under both federal and provincial human rights codes. What gives Title IX real weight are the Supreme Court decisions and the guidance from the U.S. Department of Education that give the law its broad scope and power. Even the White House has joined by starting It’s on US, an initiative to end campus sexual violence.
According to a letter sent to educational institutions in 2011, secondary and postsecondary institutions in the U.S. have to subscribe to a variety of regulations or else they’ll be found in violation of Title IX and subject to a loss of federal funding. For example, universities must have stand-alone sexual assault policies, employ a Title IX coordinator on campus, judge cases on a “preponderance of evidence” as opposed to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and wrap up investigations in no more than 60 days. Furthermore, the Clery Act requires universities to make statistics on campus crimes public, a stark contrast to Canada, where many universities report zero sexual assaults in a year, or simply don’t release data.
Title IX does not magically eliminate sexual violence. Currently, there are 228 universities under federal investigation for violation of Title IX. This is disappointing, as much campus sexual activism is centered on policy creation and reform. However, Title IX and sexual assault policies do give students what Canada lacks: a solid platform with which to hold perpetrators and universities accountable.
In Canada, there is limited external oversight over universities’ support of survivors. Frequently, it is those most impacted by sexual violence—women and non-binary people—who have to shoulder the burden of developing policies or pressuring administrations to employ adequate support and prevention mechanisms. Often, this labour is unpaid, unacknowledged and used to simply boost a university’s image (looking at you, McGill).
Most universities in Canada have sexual assault resources, consent education programming or sexual assault climate surveys. However, Glynnis Kirchmeier, who is filing a human rights complaint against UBC for ignoring and covering up sexual assaults on campus, told me that often this information is not used to support survivors. “UBC’s Equity Office produces guidebooks which encourage victims and bystanders to report. Yet the very same guidebooks state that some reports will not be acted upon—but that the person should still report. It also encourages people to write down what they see, but again, with no guarantee of action. What is the purpose of soliciting such reports, then?”
Two years have gone by since the St. Mary’s and UBC’s rape chants were made public, and while UBC had more assault disclosures and an entire documentary devoted to it, both universities still lack adequate mechanisms for holding their communities accountable when members experience sexual violence. Universities are experts in covering up. Though it is not likely that a law similar in scope and power to Title IX can ever exist in Canada, due to education being under provincial jurisdiction, Status of Women Canada and the Department of Justice could play a bigger role in pressuring provincial governments and universities to address gender-based discrimination.
A lack of external oversight and ability to force reviews of universities has left the fate of sexual violence survivors entirely at the mercy of whoever happens to hold relevant administrative positions. This, Kirchmeier said, “is directly responsible for the ongoing tolerance of sexual violence.”
Paniz Khosroshahy is a women’s studies major at McGill University. She enjoys learning, reading and writing about the the intersection of race and gender, Orientalism, homonationalism, and diaspora. She also enjoys biking in a sundress, rolling her eyes at edgy white liberals, and making Iranian food.
Image via Flickr.