This year has been filled with some drastic examples of rape culture on campuses across Canada, McMaster not withstanding. But while the large-scale media concern around the topic is somewhat comforting, I find its coverage allows bureaucrats and image managers to polarize the issue by acting drastically, and without long-term goals in mind.
When I first heard about the engineers’ songbook, I couldn’t say that I was surprised. I knew it was just a matter of time before something like it occurred, whether it was the Redsuits, the Maroons, or a group of as-of-yet unknown students. I was more curious about how the University would respond – would they try to understand the issues surrounding rape culture on campus and help dismantle it in the long-term, or would they strike quickly, to arbitrarily reprimand the students who overstepped the line far enough to garner media attention? Again, I was not surprised.
The engineering students are being treated like children who ought to have known better, when neither the University, nor student societies have made the effort to point out this type of worrisome behaviour in the past. In fact, I will go as far as to say that both the University and the students have inadvertently endorsed it.
The question that needs to be asked about the drastic examples of the songbook is: how did the University let it get this far in the first place? Shouldn’t there have been safeguards or education mechanisms in place to help students and staff understand how these actions can create a normalized culture of exclusion and prejudice on campus?
And I am not removing myself from this jumble of blame. In fact, I have also unintentionally endorsed the engineers’ behaviour in the past. The example that stands out the most occurred during my welcome week.
But my discomfort around the memory doesn’t really come from being in that situation, rather, it comes from what I did: in that moment, I went along with the “silly antics” of those “hilarious” welcome week representatives. I reinforced something that I didn’t even know I could be a part of: rape culture.
In first year, the words “rape culture” projected an image of viewable physical violence – rape, domestic abuse, overt exclusion. At that time, I could not believe that drunken college sex, which has often been presented as a staple of the “college experience”, would be labeled something so drastic. But the definition is more complex than just a series of unmitigated action or inaction by a bunch of fumbling undergraduates, it’s much more than the engineers’ songbook and it’s much more than the University’s ignorance. Don’t get me wrong, all of those act as the nuts and bolts, but I think we fail to see how these individual actors function in relation to perpetuate and maintain rape culture on campus.
Loosely linked, events like this could onto subliminally message the individuals of the culture. Our experiences surrounding these cultural experiences range in a spectrum, given how engaged with the issue we are. There are also various degrees of influence that this cultural subliminal messaging goes on to do.
It ranges from taking the presentation as a joke, a caricature so far removed from our realities that we cannot help but uncomfortably giggle. “Who would be so stupid to try something like taking someone home drunk?” The horror of what that could mean is too ludicrous to process, and so we disengage and laugh.
Others are enraged at what this simple and comedic presentation of rape could possibly mean. They can map out the social network and influences that will go on to perpetuate this kind of thinking. They imagine the first year, who comes from a community that doesn’t talk about consent or rape, or who comes from a mindset that cannot imagine the anxious, helplessness that floods a person’s mind after instances of gendered violence.
Even others, who unconsciously adhere to the culture that assumes that the university experience is one of aggressive sexuality, are internally affirmed that their experiences or assumptions are valid. They go on to consciously commit these instances of violence without awareness of the horror they are perpetuating.
When I was in first year, I straddled the line between extreme offence and uncomfortable giggles. But I have been wondering about why I didn’t voice my discomfort in my first year. I imagine how the scenario would play out: I was a first year student, who had no idea what the protocol to report such an incident was. If voiced out loud, I could imagine comprehension dawn on the faces of my friends of 24 hours.
“Oh, she is one of those people”. You know a prude, a killjoy, a complainer. Her culture probably prevents her from doing it – they would whisper behind cupped hands.
None of the reasons for not speaking up, and expressing my discomfort, but I think there should just exist more places on campus where students can go to with these thoughts, that don’t serve to punish students or ignore the issue, but instead listen and try to help both sides understand how their actions could be perceived as hurtful. The sanctions against the engineers have only served to pit students against one another, and made the dialogue about political correctness instead of gender inequality. The students have not acted any better. It has become a blame game, which shifts the lens from the issue of gender inequity to student politics and office bureaucracy.
As university students, we’re never taught that we have a responsibility for one another. We operate under the delusion that our successes and failures result from individual action. But that’s not true; we’re constantly straddling the divide between selfhood and culture. Culture is sieved into our brain through the systems that we’re in (education, government, media) and as individuals and organizations with various lenses; we filter through this information to come to gradual conclusions. Then these organizations and individuals go on to influence culture. The process is cyclical and one from which we cannot remove ourselves.
We have a tendency to quickly cry out “but that was not my fault” but we need to start thinking about these culture-forming and culture-informed events in a different way, not in a way that framed in politically correct dialogue, but in a way digs deeper to point out where this culture festers in the first place, and in a way that recognizes that the culture outside of the university is one that permits gender-based violence in casual interaction.
Instead of arbitrarily imposing sanctions, which act to fuel the feeling of injustice in the minds of engineers, the student lens needs to shift to show the potential implications of such a songbook, and steps need to be taken to better educate all students on campus about sexual and gender-based violence before they happen.