Kimberly Marin says she was sexually assaulted during a Hawaiian-themed frosh week at École de technologie supérieure, an engineering school in Montreal, in 2015. The master of engineering graduate says five young men grabbed her from behind and ripped off her costume.
“A few seconds later I realized my bikini was down and my behind was showing in front of everyone and no one was helping me,” says Marin.
She went to the director of student services for help, but says that’s not what she got.
“He told me that I was the first person to ever make a complaint to the school and that I was victimizing myself,” says Marin. “After I left his office I felt abandoned by my school, like I was worth nothing.”
Empty policy offers no protection
One in five women at post-secondary schools are sexually assaulted, according to the Canadian Federation of Students. The actual number is likely higher, as it’s estimated that only one out of every 10 attacks is ever reported.
In recent years, a number of alleged sexual assault and harassment cases have occurred on campuses in Canada. Last fall saw a series of break-ins at a Université Laval student residence and several victims reporting sexual assault. Two accused men were expelled from the school and face charges, with one of the men charged with sexual assault. In 2014, Dalhousie University suspended 13 male dentistry students from clinical work for advocating violent sex with female dentistry students on Facebook. All 13 men returned to school, participated in a restorative justice process and faced no further punishment.
Even university professors say the way administrations handle cases is lacking.
“Universities have been very slow or ineffective in responding to survivors, and that’s a problem because historically rape victims have been reluctant to come forward for those very reasons,” says Shaheen Shariff, a professor of integrated studies in education at McGill University.
Of more than 100 Canadian colleges and universities, only about 24 had sexual assault policies in place in 2016, according to the Canadian Federation of Students.
Since then British Columbia and Ontario have implemented new legislation making it mandatory for all public post-secondary institutions to have sexual assault policies. But some say the mandatory policies miss the point.
“Some universities, including my own, have the mentality that we need a policy. Period. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good policy, it doesn’t matter if it meets the needs of the university community, so it’s really piecemeal what we’ve ended up with,” said Dawn Moore, a law professor at Carleton University.
Victims agree the current model isn’t working.
“If you say that sexual harassment is not accepted but when you find out there is sexual harassment you do nothing against the students, it means that it is accepted,” says Marin.
Researchers look at ways to dismantle rape culture
Dismantling rape culture is a huge endeavour.
Shariff has taken on the challenge, spearheading a seven-year research project aimed at tackling the rape culture pervasive in universities. The largest project of its kind, it began last fall and has received more than $6 million from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and five McGill faculties.
“We want to develop preventative educational, sustainable responses that actually make a difference through a ripple effect that starts in universities but makes for a better society,” says Shariff.
The study is divided into three projects — law and policy, arts and popular culture, and news and social media — with the aim of defining rape culture and its roots.
Sandi Curtis, a professor in music therapy at McGill who is involved in the research, says one of the goals is to dismantle a culture that makes it acceptable to treat women badly. This culture is so deeply embedded in society and institutions that people, including women, often don’t even know they are part of it.
“Shaming women for they way they are dressed, women being accused of inviting sexual assault, what Trump said when he was taped talking about women,” says Curtis, “the blatant sexism that is so ramped, people are saying ‘oh that’s just locker room talk’ but when you say it’s locker room talk that has a significant impact.”
She hopes the use of pop culture can help the situation, rather than hinder it.
“How does pop culture condone rape culture and influence the way women are portrayed? How can those mediums be mobilized to raise awareness to engage university students to address this effectively and through society?” asks Curtis.
Marin says while change will take much more than one research project, there can never be too much discussion about an issue that affects millions of women across the country and the world on a daily basis.
“We need to speak more and more about this,” says Marin, “because girls feel shameful if they are sexually assaulted, they feel like it’s their fault, and rape culture tells them that they are the ones who are wrong.”