Last September, news broke of a fifteen-second video showing students from Saint Mary’s University chanting a song advocating rape. The students, who were participating in a frosh-week orientation, can be heard shouting in the video, “Y is for your sister […] U is for underage, N is for no consent […] Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.” A few days later, a similar chant was reportedly sung by frosh leaders at the University of British Columbia. Administrators from both universities were swift in their condemnation of the incidents. The dean of the Sauder School of Business at UBC, for instance, insisted that the students’ behaviour was inconsistent with the values of the school. In his short media soundbite, the dean was unable to elaborate on these values. But we can easily imagine his answer: liberal, forward-thinking, open-minded, equality-oriented, truth-seeking. Despite cut-backs, increases in tuition, and corporate reconstruction, the academy remains edenic in the popular social imaginary.
Rape Culture in Academia, a three-part series helmed by three scholars, grapples with the contradiction between the academy’s progressive values and its legacy of reproducing and enforcing hierarchized gender relations. With a particular focus on the “rape culture” of an unnamed university residence, authors Alana Boileau, Caroline Grego, and Christina Turner, explore the apathy towards sexism that can fester in such environments.
by Alana Boileau
I was incredibly privileged to be the member of a graduate residence in a West Coast university during my Master’s degree, to live in a space premised on the combination of “ideas and friendship.” For two years, I played, grew, and learned in a place literally swarming with brainwaves and commitment to community, and had countless opportunities to generate thoughts and feelings that I had never come across. However, over time, it became clear that our home was not always the safe haven we had imagined it to be. To be sure, for many, it most likely never had been. For months now, I have been putting off writing this piece. This is for a number of reasons. One of them is that I am unsure how writing about this is useful or helpful. Another is that I want these incidents behind me. It feels easier to get on with my life. It feels easier not to harp on what happened, to only think of these events as “unfortunate.” But they weren’t simply that.
While there is no doubt that homophobia, racism, and ableism were present in this space, as they are in most, here I wish specifically to address women’s experiences at the college. The stories I will share here are indeed symptomatic of the pervasive nature of sexism and the institutional structures that secure it firmly in place. It is this institutionalized sexism that trivializes violence against women, and makes it somewhat easier for us not to say anything against the order to which we have become accustomed.
To name a few incidents:
A fellow resident’s female guest was threatened by a man in the common kitchen area when she attempted to use the oven that his piece of meat was already occupying. “If you were a man,” he said, “I’d send you to the hospital.” And then: “A woman doesn’t stand between a man and his steak.” Because this particular man was a fellow resident, my friend (whose guest was threatened) chose not to make an issue out of the confrontation.
A dear friend of mine had a male resident that she had been casually sleeping with “jokingly” threaten to rape her on a night when she did not particularly feel like having sex. This same man was one whom male residents felt they had to keep an eye on during parties because of how uncomfortable he made women feel. What’s more, a female resident who had slept with him at one of the residence’s many parties felt terrible about it and unsure that she had even consented to sex.
On one particularly drunken evening, a female resident became the bout of some physical teasing, and was pushed around by a group of mostly men (but some women) until she hit her head on a stone wall, ultimately resulting in a concussion.
Female residents were constantly accused of being frigid by a particular male resident who found it unfathomable that women did not constantly want him in their personal space. His inappropriate touching and general demeanor were widely recognized by residents, and tolerated for what I can only imagine was the sake of avoiding conflict.
These are a few of the things that made our living space occasionally (for me) uncomfortable at the college. The following event, though, was very personal and struck a chord that continues to affect me.
In an email sent out to the residents’ listserv, a male resident referred repeatedly to the college’s newly acquired punching bag as “she” or “her” in describing how the bag should be cared for and stored. When a female resident (yours truly, moi!) tried to flag the inappropriate use of a female pronoun in a (in all humility) humorous way, what followed was nothing less than an absolute shit storm. The female residents who had publicly shown their support, myself included, were told to stop being so sensitive, hysteric, man-hating, and just get over it. We were accused of policing language, called appalling, and implored (seriously, someone said, “Please, I implore you”) to stop. To further the assault on our attempt to generate conversation about sensitive use of language, some residents went so far as to suggest a whole new listserv be created in which they would not be subjected to these “kinds” of conversations (what exactly these kinds of conversations were, it is hard to say—political? uncomfortable? educational? debate-worthy?). For me, the listserv fiasco culminated in my being presented with the Bitch Slap title at the spring gala’s after party, a dubious awards’ ceremony. A heartbreaking moment indeed.
The previous year, peers had bestowed upon me the Eternal Sunshine award—I assumed this meant that I had been thought of as a cheery person, someone who was friendly and easy to talk with. In year two though, things were different. For calling someone out publicly (and to be clear, this person was okay with my having called him out—it was others who were offended on his behalf), for openly being a feminist, for having a reputation for bringing up issues of social justice in public, I was chastised. The whole thing made me retreat. After the email debacle, I felt alienated and uncomfortable. I avoided a number of social gatherings, and retreated to the group of incredible women who made me feel safe.
I want to share this because it has been so hard for other women and myself to actually shed light on these events, to denounce the sexist climate, and to help further existing conversations about spaces of privilege and higher education. It has been a year since those emails were written, and it is with reluctance that I have finally written about them here. In the wake of the UBC’s rape chants fiasco, I want members of communities in higher education to ask themselves what their responsibilities are. As members of the residents’ council, we organized a town hall meeting (to which a whopping 30% of residents showed up and expressed their opinion, though little arose out of the gathering other than an in-person, rather than online, discussion). Three female residents also set up a formal peer support system where students could obtain guidance for how to deal with any problem they might experience at the college.
However, these were mechanisms put in place by residents for dealing with things once they have already happened—and this just isn’t enough. How can administrators, those who ensure continuity in these institutions (because students, as long as it takes us to finish our damn dissertations, do eventually leave), help to create safe environments for women in the academy? How might they make use of the institutional memory that they have the privilege of carrying forward to prevent these harmful cycles? There is no doubt in my mind that institutional change is necessary to disrupt the successions of harassment and sexism in the academy.
Part two of Rape Culture in Academia will be published this Wednesday.