How Are UWindsor Students Feeling in the Wake of Sexual Assault Reports & Allegations at Western University?
Trigger Warning: This article includes discussions of sexual assault which may be upsetting to some readers.
On Friday, September 17, at noon, about 9,000 students at Western University participated in a walkout from class, as reported by Global News.
The goal of this walkout? To protest what students termed “a culture of misogyny” on campus following a series of sexual assault reports and allegations the week prior.
Allegations that up to 30 women were drugged and sexually assaulted at Medway-Sydenham Hall—a first-year residence at the University—surfaced online, as reported by CBC News. These allegations have not been confirmed or formally reported to London, ON police, who are still investigating the matter according to the CBC.
However, four reports of sexual violence on campus unrelated to these allegations were received by police within the same week. Combined, these events effectively sparked the student protest on September 17.
In response to these events and the ensuing student walkout, Western University has announced new strategies for preventing and responding to sexual assault on campus.
As reported by Global News, the University will now be requiring mandatory in-person training on sexual violence for all students who live in residence. Western has also announced plans to hire 100 upper-year undergraduate and graduate students as “safety ambassadors” to help during the night shift and improve campus safety at night.
But is it enough?
UWindsor Students Respond
These events shook students not just at Western University, but throughout Canada. University and college-goers across the country flooded social media with posts expressing outrage at the events that took place at Western and demanding change.
To get a better understanding of how our own campus community was feeling about the recent sexual violence at the London University, I conversed with some UWindsor students, including Saher Zaidi, a third-year in Social Work, Shaye Bernard, a third-year in Women’s and Gender Studies, and Bailey, a Master’s student in English (who has asked to be referred to by an alias to preserve her anonymity).
These students’ initial reactions to the events at Western consisted mainly of disappointment and disgust, and yet, they weren’t surprised, as they had gotten used to hearing about sexual assault on University campuses.
These feelings are in no way misplaced, as a 2019 Statistics Canada study showed that a whopping “71% of students at Canadian post-secondary institutions witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting in 2019”.
Saher, for example, says she is disturbed, but that she can’t pretend to be shocked. “Even though I am so appalled by what happened,” she says, “a part of me is not surprised because of the prevalence of sexual assault in society and on campuses specifically”.
Bailey, in expressing her disappointment, also points out the desensitization surrounding sexual assault: “I feel disgusted. I feel that often sexual assault on campus is one of those things looked at as, “Oh well it’s just a given that it’s going to happen,” much like partying, and that is disgusting”.
In addition to aversion, the events at Western have created feelings of insecurity among students who once felt safe, and amplified feelings of insecurity among those who already felt unsafe.
Saher tells me: “When something like this happens, so close to you and to people you know, the reality of how prevalent sexual assault is in our society is really apparent. It makes you fearful of who’s around you, where you are, and what you need to do to be safe.”
Bailey, on the other hand, says: “It hasn’t made me feel less safe necessarily, it’s just reinforced my belief that I am not safe, and that I will not be protected here.”
Shaye, who herself is a survivor of a sexual assault on campus, describes the fear she feels despite attending UWindsor, which admittedly is relatively advanced in terms of sexual assault prevention and response compared to other Universities thanks to its implementation of programs like the Bystander Initiative.
“It makes me afraid that even at an educated school where we are educated and told of the importance of stepping in during attempted sexual assault, it could take place,” she says.
Factors Contributing to Sexual Violence on Campus
When asked what factors they think contribute to sexual assault on campuses in Canada, these students offered a variety of answers, ranging from poor grade school and high school sex education to poor sexual assault prevention strategies from residence services.
Shaye, for example, says: “I think that the lack of education before arriving at university affects how many cases come up a year”.
Saher echoes this point: “A lot of university students are young and have a lack of knowledge about sex, coercion, and consent. There is minimal sex education offered to students in high school, which does not adequately prepare them for life and various sexual situations”.
These students’ comments makes me immediately recall the controversy over Ontario’s updated sex ed curriculum in 2015. The 2015 curriculum introduced by Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne added material about topics like consent and diversity, but was repealed by Conservative Doug Ford when he took office in 2018 in order to pander to the traditional elements of his party’s voter base.
After various court challenges and consultations with Ontario parents, who overwhelmingly supported the 2015 Liberal curriculum, Ford released a similar version to it in 2019.
The precarious nature of our province’s sex ed curriculum and the hesitancy to teach about topics like consent lends credence to these UWindsor students’ points about the poor quality of sex ed in Canada.
Our inadequate sex education leaves many survivors unaware that they’ve even been assaulted. Shaye makes this chilling point when she says: “A lot of victims do not even know they are victims until they are further educated on the details of sexual assault and the reality of their assault has been recognized”.
Saher also identifies “high drinking and party culture” at colleges and universities as another contributing factor to prevalent sexual assault on campus.
“Some perpetrators take advantage of it to assault their victims,” she elaborates.
Studies show that the alcohol-fueled partying that occurs during frosh week is often coupled with high gender and sexual-based violence, which is why many commentators have called for frosh week to be cancelled, or at least seriously revamped.
Bailey feels that residence services in particular inadequately address sexual violence on University campuses.
As someone who has personally lived in res during much of her University career, she feels that “residence services do not do enough, and that is a huge factor. Sure, there are posters around with information about consent and stuff, but those are very passive actions. Residence services need to be more proactive in protecting their students”.
Importantly, intersectionality cannot go unmentioned when we talk about sexual assault, which Saher points out.
“Overall in society, factors like gender inequality, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, settler colonialism, and systemic racism can explain why sexual assault is so prevalent,” she says.
“It also points out why specific communities like women, Indigenous peoples, and people in the LGBTQ+ community are targeted and assaulted at higher rates.”
The higher rates of sexual violence against various marginalized communities are demonstrated in the 2019 Stats Can study mentioned above.
Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Resources for Students at UWindsor
But what recourse do UWindsor students have if they experience sexual violence at school?
Shaye tells me about the Sexual Misconduct Response and Prevention Office, which provides a range of different supports for survivors of sexual assault. The Office can help students connect with counselling and medical services, report their assault to the University and/or the police, arrange academic and work accommodations, and more.
Saher also mentions Prevent Resist Support, UWindsor’s three-pronged strategy for addressing sexual violence on campus.
In connection to this, Shaye touches on Flip The Script, a sexual assault resistance education program that is part of the “Resist” prong of the University’s strategy. This program teaches women about risk cues for sexual violence, strategies for keeping themselves safe, and ways of examining their own desires and boundaries. It debunks social norms about assault and emphasizes that women are never to blame if they have been assaulted, no matter where they go or what they wear.
The resource that all three students seem to know the most about, however, is the Bystander Initiative. The Bystander Initiative is a sexual violence prevention strategy which includes 3-hour sexual assault prevention workshops and two undergrad courses designed to train workshop leaders.
According to the Bystander website, “students who take the BI workshop and courses learn why it is important to speak out against comments and behaviours that normalize violence against women, how to identify situations that commonly lead to sexual assault, and what to do to help a friend or stranger in need.”
Saher appreciates this program because “it takes the onus of preventing sexual assault away from women, and it is targeted towards the general public, which includes all genders”.
Bailey says she has taken the Bystander Initiative workshop, and although she believes it’s an “amazing program”, she feels that its effectiveness is hampered by its optional nature. “Students are only encouraged to participate in it if their professor offers an extra 3% to the overall grade in a course for attending,” she asserts, “and out of 40 courses in my undergrad, I had only 2 professors do this”.
What More Needs to be Done?
The students I talked with were eager to give suggestions for what universities and colleges still need to do to combat sexual assault on campus.
Making consent and sexual assault prevention education mandatory for all students was a common thread in their responses.
Shaye emphasizes that in addition to this mandatory training at the postsecondary level, sex education should ideally start from an early age: “I think that we need to be educating children about the importance of consent, and how harmful sexual violence is.”
Bailey feels that programs like the Bystander Initiative workshop at UWindsor shouldn’t just be offered for extra credit in select courses—it should be a requisite for all students in their first year.
“This can be achieved by making that 3% bonus mark part of the curriculum for first year courses, and I believe that this would greatly improve the reach of such important programs,” she says.
She thinks it’s equally important for residence services to offer a similar workshop at the beginning of each semester for all students in residence. “They already do this for practicing safe sex,” she says, “so it really shouldn’t be that hard for them to do this for preventing sexual assault and violence, too.”
She feels that residence services should also inform students more overtly about the relevant resources available to them on campus for dealing with sexual assault, such as their local sexual misconduct office.
“Often students [who have experienced sexual assault] don’t know where to go, so they turn to the people at residence services, who are not equipped to deal with such a situation,” she estimates.
Saher feels that “more universities should have the Bystander Initiative, as it promotes prosocial behavior for people of all genders, not just women. There should also be more workshops and services that help dismantle rape culture, victim-blaming, and common rape myths”.
Redesigning orientation or frosh week activities and placing less emphasis on partying and drinking would be equally beneficial in her opinion.
What really bothers Saher is how performative universities can be when it comes to sexual assault, and how they seem to care more about how it affects their reputation than student safety. I think what she says on this topic perfectly summarizes the frustration students are feeling right now about the way postsecondary institutions respond to sexual assault, so that’s what I’ll leave you with.
Saher says: “I think that universities like Western really need to stop thinking about their public image regarding sexual assault. That shouldn’t be the first thought that comes to mind when such things happen on campus. Their first priority should be making sure victims have what they need, and second to deal with perpetrators. Many university institutions and organizations systemically enable perpetrators and protect them to help preserve the name of the school. Often, survivors are discouraged from reporting, investigations and disciplinary reviews are bungled, and only light sanctions are administered to the perpetrators. I think campuses need to make sure they are not rape-tolerant and offer the necessary support and services for those victimized.”