Speak up about sexual violence

This September marks the one-year anniversary of Ryerson’s Security Watch initiative, which informs all students, staff and recent graduates by email whenever a violent incident is reported on campus.

Having our inboxes filled with reports of assaults, robberies and sexual harassment doesn’t exactly bolster our back-to-school spirits. But the actions of a group of Canadian students last week remind us why programs like Security Watch exist — and why the frequent notices we receive are more than just inbox clutter.

We were dismayed to hear about the tasteless frosh week cheers that hit Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. We were shocked when we found out that orientation leaders encouraged the cheers, which included verses like “Y is for your sister, U is for underage, and N is for no consent.”

Most of all, we were surprised. We were surprised that none of those involved spoke out until after the video of the cheers made it online. We were surprised to learn that the event was not a one-time blip but a yearly tradition. We were surprised that so many student leaders could suffer what SMU student council president Jared Parry called “a lack of judgment.”

We like to think that campus culture is progressive and inclusive. First-year university students are educated adults and our peers. The students should have known that glorifying rape — even jokingly — is wrong. So why didn’t they?

We are becoming a less violent society. Recent statistics reveal that virtually every violent crime — including sexual assault — is in decline.
But one crime is on the rise: reports of criminal sexual harassment (different from assault) increased by seven per cent from 2008-2009. And while women make up half of victims of overall crime in 2009, three-quarters of the victims are women when it comes to criminal harassment.

When we consider that as many as 60 per cent of sexual harassment incidents in Canada go unreported, it’s no wonder we were caught off-guard by what happened at SMU last week. Sexual violence is pervasive, but it’s largely invisible.

Students who make crude sexist jokes aren’t criminals. But a cavalier attitude toward sexism and rape is a big part of what allows an unsafe culture to flourish on our campuses. That’s why publicizing and condemning violence is so important.

According to Ann Whiteside, Ryerson’s discrimination and harassment prevention services officer, frosh organizers at our school undergo training to recognize and prevent discriminatory behaviour.

But she also acknowledged the utility of services like Ryerson Security Watch to get students thinking and talking about campus safety. “It’s all about education, education, education. Awareness, awareness, awareness,” she said.

School should be a safe place for everyone. That’s an uncontroversial statement at The Ryersonian, and we believe the Ryerson community shares our conviction.
But as long as violence — sexual or otherwise — continues to be a problem at Canadian universities, we will be calling attention to it. Loudly.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on September 11, 2013.

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