Wynne’s plan for sexual assault policy on university campuses gives hope

This week, the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson and the Ryerson Students’ Union are holding an open discussion about what the university’s sexual assault policy update should include.

It’s the second time this year that Ryerson student unions are engaging with the people most affected by sexual violence on campus: students. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has released a plan that would “make sure all students have information about preventing sexual violence and harassment and are informed of resources and supports, starting with their first week of orientation.”

In this Jan. 16 file photo, Premier Kathleen Wynne meets with Ontario university and college representatives at Queen's Park. (Courtesy of Tristan Simpson/Ryersonian Staff)

In this Jan. 16 file photo, Premier Kathleen Wynne meets with Ontario university and college representatives at Queen’s Park. (Courtesy of Tristan Simpson/Ryersonian Staff)

Wynne laid out the 40-page plan to end sexual violence and harassment in the province on Friday.

The plan, named “It’s Never OK: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment,” details the province’s hopes to end the culture of misogyny — including rape culture and sexual assault on Canadian campuses.

“(We) know that far too often adapting to life on campus includes navigating rape culture or surviving an experience of sexual violence or harassment,” the plan states.

Though some may be tired of hearing the term rape culture, “It’s Never OK” couldn’t come at a better time for Ryerson.

With Wynne’s proposed plan, Ryerson may be receiving the uncomfortable, but necessary, nudge it needs to go beyond supporting survivors.

If the province follows through, it means that the onus will no longer be on survivors alone.

Meanwhile, Ryerson’s vice-provost for students, Heather Lane Vetere, told The Ryersonian this month that the university hopes to release an updated sexual assault policy by the end of the academic year.

Student involvement in Ryerson’s updated sexual assault policy is necessary — and, with Wynne’s proposed legislation, it could become mandatory for universities and colleges to combat sexual violence and harassment with students’ help.

But moving forward, Ryerson needs to do more than engage students if it wants to effectively combat rape culture on campus.

In November 2014, the Toronto Star singled out Canadian universities and colleges, including Ryerson, without a “special policy” geared toward sexual assault. In its response, the university said that it has several policies to provide support for victims of sexual assault.

But Ryerson’s approach to combating sexual assault needs to evolve. Some of its support for survivors, including security and emergency services and counselling, puts the responsibility on survivors to take action. Ryerson offers free rape aggression defence classes for women and men.

But they are often criticized for asking the targets to focus on defending themselves, rather than creating a social and cultural context in which perpetrators of violence are taught not to attack.

In many ways, “It’s Never OK” is groundbreaking. A public figure, let alone the province’s leader, is discussing rape culture and consent. Wynne’s plan is doing much more than just encouraging universities to take action: it’s telling students that their fears, trauma and experiences are valid. It encourages them to speak out. Rape culture is real, and we should stop hugging the term in air quotes as if it doesn’t exist.

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