Trigger warning: This article discusses victim blaming, rape culture, misogyny, and sexual violence.
From highly publicized events such as the Dalhousie dentistry scandal, to the wave of unsolved assaults at UBC in the fall of 2013, to Emma Sulkowicz’ anti-rape mattress carrying activism, discussions surrounding rape culture, gender-based violence, and sexism on campuses across Turtle Island reveal how students are mobilizing to combat an atmosphere of simmering anxiety and fear. Spearheaded by outgoing VP Academic Sydney Snape, the UBC Political Science Student Association (PSSA) is using their influence as an elected student body to address issues of gender-based violence and sexism within the Political Science department. The PSSA is working with faculty on a proposal to implement an anti-sexual harassment policy within the department. While a lack of outright institutional commitment to change signals a tacit approval of the assumption that gendered violence is inevitable, students and community members are leading protests, direct actions, and consciousness-raising efforts to broaden the conversation about what consent is and what constitutes harassment.
While UBC does have equity policies regarding discrimination, there is no university-wide policy that explicitly deals with issues of sexual harassment or consent. The PSSA’s proposal is a collaborative effort to address UBC’s lack of pragmatic improvements. Snape says that the more she talked to her fellow students – who she is quick to say are a particularly conscious and critical group – the more it became apparent that there was a serious gap in the system; while many students expressed concern that issues of gender based harassment and discrimination were not being recognized or prioritized, a lack of clarity and consensus left many feeling ill-equipped to broach the matter. In order to foster a common base of understanding on issues of consent, sexism, and harassment, Snape’s proposal addresses a wide variety of student backgrounds.
The proposal consists of a variety of initiatives: changes to course syllabi, increased awareness of pre-existing resources, and voluntary workshop attendance. Overall, the PSSA aims to be an educational tool, with the recognition that many students are well intentioned but unaware of the resources that already exist. They hope that their proposal will result in a statement of unacceptable behavior and department policy being included on the front of every course syllabus. Syllabi would also include links to campus resources, such as the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC) and Access and Diversity, in what newly elected PSSA President Parmida Esmaeilpour calls an effort to familiarize, normalize, and destigmatize access to support. They also want to increase the availability of printed pamphlets and posters by having them in the department office. Additionally, the proposal includes workshops that cover department power dynamics, consent, and rape myths. While voluntary, the hope is that a community of accountability is created where students and faculty want to participate in these events to address gaps in their knowledge. Essentially, the proposal is about crafting a direct policy and funneling increased access to pre-existing campus resources. Snape commented that “the more awareness around it and the more media attention around it, the more people start to see it as an issue, because it’s in their everyday lives. People don’t see it as an issue unless they’re confronted with it themselves.”
Acknowledging that there are limitations to the proposal, Snape affirmed that the central purpose of this initiative is to start a dialogue. The PSSA hopes their example will prompt other faculties and departments in the university to look inward and see how they may go about implementing similar policies to address sexual harassment and sexism. Snape says that it’s important to keep in mind that “it’s not a department issue; it’s a university culture issue”.
The tone of the proposal is not accusatory in design, but one rooted in a proactive and preventative accountability. Esmaelipour attributes the positive reactions to the proposal thus far to a receptive and responsive department. While one may argue that a proposal of this nature is neither radical nor swift enough change, Snape and Esmaelipour maintain that strategizing to go through institutional avenues where their voices will be most effectively heard is but one method to address sexual harassment on campus. They envision that by getting a foothold in the bureaucratic process, they are opening doors for future students to openly critique the university. When asked if their efforts will attempt to tackle more insidious forms of sexism, such as the unchecked male dominance of many curricula in their department, they were optimistic that any contradictions between official policy and disingenuous actions will check themselves over time. They felt that students would notice a lack of compliance to policy and would work to keep their peers and instructors accountable. At the end of the day, Snape remarks “we don’t want to talk down to you, we don’t want to talk at you, we want to talk with you… so starting that conversation and bringing that awareness to it is all beneficial.”
These types of conversations are by no means new to the political science department. Unbeknownst to most current undergrads, the department was rocked by massive allegations of discrimination in the mid-90s, in what is now referred to as the “Political Science Affair.” In 1995, a group of graduate students made allegations of rampant racism and sexism in the department. The subsequent maelstrom of events divided the department, made national headlines, and culminated in a costly legal report that was later dismissed. While the Political Science Affair wasn’t the inspiration for the PSSA’s current proposal, it gives important context to the pervasive issues and recurring conversations of sexism on campus as well of questions of institutional accountability. Professor Krause recently wrote an article for the Talon that delved further into UBC’s history of silencing and erasing instances of sexual assault.
Snape feels that the Political Science Affair would have been handled differently today, but concedes that “in twenty years we’ve come so far and yet we haven’t got anywhere. Taking it into perspective, what we can do now is address issues that were a concern back then and are still a concern now.” Snape and the PSSA are fully aware of the necessity of looking inward to enact positive steps to address where the university is lacking. Snape reflects that UBC can feel like a bubble at times. “When you’re not self critiquing and looking at your own backyard and your own self, then that becomes a problem.”
This initiative speaks to broader anxieties about how to mobilize student voices, demand institutional accountability, and create a safer campus. Snape says that some of the challenges they have faced have been more indirect instances of people not knowing about the severity of gender-based violence at UBC, or having no interest in being fully informed. That ignorance is in itself a political choice is very apparent when it comes to issues where neutrality and passivity perpetuate social dynamics that allow sexism and gendered violence to continue. It is an immense challenge to see patience as a virtue or give people the benefit of the doubt when one encounters the suffocating results of sexism, sexual harassment, and rape culture on a daily basis.
It is difficult to know how policies like those proposed by the PSSA will look in practice. Having resources available does not necessitate change, yet it does provide a gateway to acknowledge that these issues actually exist. Gendered violence does not take place in a vacuum and must be put into discussion with the trajectory of violent colonization and the fact that UBC is on unceded Musqueam territory. It is vital to address how the intersections of racialization and colonial dispossession contribute to the increased marginalization of some students. Additionally, the simultaneous erasure and hyper-visibility of queer and trans folk must be understood in order to address whose bodies are subject to heightened levels of violence. Perhaps instances of sexual assault and harassment can be mitigated if people understand what harassment entails and seek to unpack what it means to live in a rape culture. The throws of neoliberalism means it is difficult to ascertain when a powerful institution is protecting itself or seriously trying to champion the safety and concerns of its students. The lack of specific university-wide policy on sexual assault and harassment contributes to an incessant apologism, that when left unchecked contributes to the myth that gender-based violence is inevitable and inescapable. The PSSA’s initiative and the myriad of other instances of student resistance to rape culture showcase the ability of students to stand up to unacceptable attitudes and mobilize to enact change. One thing is certain: Snape is sincere in her hard work to create accountability and compassion within the student body. The challenges of grappling with oft unwieldy institutional bureaucracy has been an exhausting process, yet Snape remains optimistic, committed to the process, and willing to prioritize her proposal with the knowledge it that it is an indispensable, and enduring contribution to campus life.