Open Letter Re: Policy on Sexual Assault on Campus

*** Sent to the account towards consultation on policy re: sexual violence on campus***

To Whom it May Concern,

first off I’d like to commend the university on embarking on this consultation process to update and form much needed policy regarding the wide gamut of potential sexual misconduct and violence on campus. It has for a long time been unclear what regulations there are, who might one turn to and what they can expect; who has what power to help effect a situation and what responsibility different university structures have to both survivors and accused. I’d like to share a few thoughts and raise a few issues.

First off, as the steps read right now in terms of ‘what can you do right now’ following an episode of sexual violence, they read completely inadequate to me. There is an implication that a complete and immediate rape has happened, the police will neatly collect evidence and the case is clear cut, the ‘perfect rape’; alternatively the procedure on sending someone to SFU counselling implies that they have experienced a mild emotional disturbance and it is up to them to solve it with the help of a counsellor (a perpetrator-less crime). Neither of these situations read as particularly relevant and in fact I imagine that in 95% of the cases, the situation would be one of the following:

  • a student is sexually harassed or assaulted by another student in various ways that may or may not have direct ‘evidence’ (e.g. inappropriate language and touching, stalking, or violence and force) in which case a student might confide in a staff member or teacher, or even initially just to a friend. Currently there are NO clear steps as to what staff or faculty can do besides brush it off to another department. The problem is students are coming to us as trusted allies and confidants and we re-victimize them by not being able to take any measures or make anything happen logistically in our respective departments.
  • same is true for graduate students being assaulted by another graduate student. because of unclear policy the department and student’s advisor can do NOTHING to mitigate the fact that a victim might have to continuously encounter her (or his) abuser on a daily basis. This is NOT acceptable. It completely undermines the educational experience and the student’s sense of self, and in many cases has cost people their academic standing and future careers.
  • a student might experience sexual harassment from someone in a position of power to them – teacher, staff, administrator, employer – right now the policy stipulates nothing as to how that will be dealt with from a workplace perspective at the first line of complaint, or ongoingly.
  • a staff or faculty may experience sexual harassment by someone in a position of power – again, the same situation; very unclear in some cases whose responsibility is to deal with the situation and how.

The question ultimately is not one of how to deal with ‘reported’ incidents – we need to care about all the many assaults and microaggressions that happen on campus that will never get reported – we need to target rape culture directly and foster a different kind of social and educational environment for students on campus!

Now the important parts of this discussion that need to change – institutionally, and in terms of campus culture – are the issue of consent, the burden of evidence and the placement of responsibility. We need to foster, via education and initiatives, a culture of consent. We need to understand that 1) most forms of assault, violence and coercion might not leave convenient physical evidence – we need to believe victims first, no exceptions! that does not mean convicting anyone, that means just what it means, believe victims; 2) there are a huge variety of reasons women (or men) won’t come forward right away after an incident – they are in shock, they are in a vulnerable position of power, they are ashamed, they are scared, someone is coercing or advising them not to – failure to come forward immediately is NOT a reason to doubt or disbelieve a victim. There needs to be very concrete immediate steps fitting the situation (for the cases described above) that someone in specific positions can take, and assume responsibility. Sending folks to Health and Counselling services is utterly inadequate and only communicates to victims that no one can do anything for them and they need to solve their problem on their own.

Ultimately what I’d like to see is not only policy and procedures for how to deal with reported incidents of sexual violence, but initiatives for education and prevention including standardized training, at undergraduate and graduate and faculty and staff orientations. Proper conduct needs to be clearly defined and frequently communicated at all levels. Right now all of these steps and policies are fuzzy and unclear. There has to be a clear entity in each case that takes responsibility and clear next steps to alleviate the situation of people who have been victimized. The consequences for such misconduct have to be serious and seriously taken, again at every level.

I am concerned. I am concerned because in the “What we’ve heard so far” section I see much of the familiar refrain of ‘what if women are making this up’, ‘let’s not jump to conclusions’, ‘where’s the evidence’. I am writing and urging others to write because I want to see these antiquated, privileged and frankly misogynist sentiments gone from SFU’s culture and governance. I don’t want to read more media stories about how SFU has actively swept sexual assault allegations under the rug and left the slow functioning of institutional process cost young people their emotional sanity and academic futures.

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