By: Sara Jones
WARNING: This article contains mentions of sexual assault, sexual violence and rape.
Roughly one year ago, McMaster instated the Sexual Violence Response Protocol in order to offer better and more consistent support to survivors of sexual assault. In conjunction with this change, Meaghan Ross was hired as the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator to facilitate the implementation of the protocol and to deliver education around sexual and gender-based violence for McMaster students.
Ross describes the creation of the McMaster Sexual Violence Response Protocol as a response to a project two years ago that looked to address violence against women on campuses.
“One of the things we realized was that there wasn’t a consistent and clear response to survivors when they disclosed on campus. So some teaching assistants, or professors, or academic advisors, or a staff person that received a disclosure had a really good response; they knew the resources and knew how to do non-judgemental listening, those kinds of things. Some folks were well-intentioned but didn’t have those skills. And then some folks were doing really victim-blaming or slut-shaming responses. And so the protocol was designed so that everyone on campus had a really consistent response and one that was grounded in a survivor centered response.”
If you’re not yet familiar with the Sexual Violence Response Protocol, that is fairly common. While there is still work to be done, the net benefits of the protocol currently, and especially once it becomes well-known as a resource, are worth the investment.
“I would like folks to know that the protocol and the work that I do is about providing options for folks and making sure that folks know that there’s a space where they can come and work through options before they figure out exactly what they want to do,” she said.
“They can work through what counselling might look like before they access counselling or they could work through what sort of reporting options exist before they make any decisions if they want to go ahead and report. Also, one thing that I find a lot of students are surprised by is that I can help students to arrange for academic accommodations so when they’re coping with their trauma of sexual assault and they’re not able to fill the requirements of school, I can help.”
What’s more, these services apply more broadly than many expect.
“I think that one thing that people don’t know is that it applies to all students, staff and faculty. Anyone can access my services; it’s not just for students. Though the majority of folks who do come in the door for me at this point in time are students, staff and faculty can also access my support.”
Even those who are familiar with the protocol may find that Ross’ work is much more involved and diverse than they expect. “One of the things that I’m not sure folks know about is that I do lots of training for McMaster Students Union services, for folks like Peer Support Line, or the Women and Gender Equity Network, or the Student Health Education Centre. Folks who maybe don’t know about the position don’t also know that I do a lot of education that’s broader than just the protocol that is generally about addressing sexual violence and rape culture.”
Unfortunately, there is not only a lack of awareness about the protocol, there are also misconceptions surrounding the issues it addresses. “I think about all the rape myths that we internalize: all the myths about survivors, about what survivors ‘should or shouldn’t have done.’ We look to survivors’ actions to try to make survivors responsible for what’s happened to them rather than thinking that this shouldn’t have happened at all and rather than saying that it’s not their fault. All the misconceptions about sexual violence and about why it happens and how it happens are definitely some of the things I see in my job.”
The nature of Ross’ work is sensitive and impactful, and while an awareness of the protocol and the issues that it targets is increasing, there remain challenges and institutional barriers.
“I think it’s hard to keep trying to make things stay survivor-centered and that is really there for the support of survivors. I think that’s widespread — at all universities. It’s hard to make the institution itself a survivor-centered space.”
Despite this, Ross is able to overcome the challenges of her work by focusing on its impact. She lights up when describing the greatest rewards of her work.
“Certainly seeing the resiliency of folks. Seeing folks come in who are super resilient, really strong, have lots of courage, even when they don’t feel like they have lots of courage, even when they don’t feel like they’re being really strong — that’s really rewarding. And then seeing other folks on campus like staff or administrators who are really trying to be survivor-centered and are really trying to do the best they can from a survivor-centered perspective. Having those allies out there is really important.”
Many students continue to echo those sentiments, however, according to Ross, campus culture has changed since her time as a student. “There’s a lot more on campus now than there used to be. And I think that one of the best things that’s changed is the Indigenous Studies Program, really seems to have been validated a lot more in terms of the practical tangible ways that the program is given credit. So things like the new open learning space outside; the open classroom is a really interesting space that I think is important to have. And the fact that the Indigenous Program is in a new building now where they finally have a good space and an accessible space. I think that that’s really important. I think that’s one of the better changes that I’ve seen.”
It is inspiring to consider the positive impacts that former and current McMaster students have on our school’s culture and community members.
Ross encourages that even students can make profound impacts in supporting her role.
“I think that the number one way is to practice consent in everything that folks do. So those folks who are out there really trying to make sure that they are using consent every time that they have some sort of interaction with someone. That really goes a long way to challenging and changing the kinds of cultures that exist on campus and in society. I think supporting survivors, actually following the protocol — knowing what the protocol is and how to provide a good response for survivors. That is really important work that folks can be doing. And challenging rape culture wherever they see it and however they encounter it, and trying to change it into a consent culture rather than a rape culture is really important.”
Ross’ work sets a valuable example for responses to sexual violence, but there are many cases where students themselves take on a supportive role to a survivor. Ross offers advice to students in these situations, saying “I think the number one thing that folks can do is not reinforce any of the rape myths that we learn. Reinforcing that it is not the survivor’s fault that sexual assault has happened to them and saying that they believe survivors goes a long way into changing the kinds of responses that people tend to get when they disclose their experience of sexual assault.”
Ross’ work for the McMaster Sexual Violence Response Protocol and her commitment to the education of McMaster students is an impressive part of an important step forward in supporting survivors of sexual assault and dismantling rape culture and misconceptions about sexual violence.
“Take a look at the protocol and to make sure that folks are familiar with it and know about it. Folks can come chat with me at any time if they have any questions or want to talk about things.”
Resources on and off Campus
Equity and Inclusion Office
Provides confidential complaint resolution according to the University’s Sexual Harassment Policies.
(905) 525-9140 x. 27581
Megan Ross, Sexual Violence Response Coordinator
(905) 525-9140 x. 20909
Provides confidential peer support, referrals on and off campus, anonymous and confidential pregnancy testing.
(905) 525-9140 x. 22041
Student Wellness Centre
Provides a wide range of counselling options and medical services and testing.
(905) 525-9140 x. 27700
Provides confidential support for all victims of sexual assault.
(905) 525-9140 x. 20265
Provides a 24-hour support line, counselling services and public education.
(905) 525-4162 (24-hour Support Line)
Hamilton General Hospital, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre
Provides a 24-hour support line, counselling services and public eduction.
(905) 521-2100 x. 73557
Hamilton Police Services
Takes crime reports from city constituents.