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.