Trigger Warning: discussions of sexual assault and rape culture.
“Don’t be a creep” posters are still peppered across the Point Grey campus, serving as tattered reminders of the series of sexual assaults that occurred at UBC last year. In August, the university published the final recommendations from the Safety Working Group that was established to address and respond to those events.
Moving forward, UBC will invest $750,000 to improve campus lighting, by installing new fixtures and refining landscaping to minimize shadowed areas. An additional $250,000 will be spent on the other recommendations of the group: educational programs to combat the systemic and cultural causes of sexualized violence, improvement of the blue phone system, and the development of a mobile application that will share updates about campus safety and connect users more easily to campus programs like Safewalk. The Safewalk program itself is also to undergo some improvements, but it is unclear from the press release whether that funding is included in the above or will come from elsewhere.
I was quoted in the Ubyssey saying that the working group’s decision to include longer-term, educational efforts in their recommendations was “a step in the right direction.” Still, for a number of reasons, I remain skeptical and critical of the plans. As such, I have a few questions:
UBC could spend millions of dollars on increased lighting and security cameras, but it would make no difference without any effort to tackle the normalization of sexual assault that runs rampant in our culture. The root of gendered violence, as it occurs in Western society, is rape culture – “a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent.” Rape culture is the idea that a woman who wore a short skirt at the time of her assault was ‘asking for it’. Rape culture is when I walk down the Buchanan hallways and hear rape jokes or cavalier comments such as “I totally raped my midterm”. Rape culture is the guy who took advantage of me when I was drinking and said afterwards, “I was just trying to get as much as I could, that’s what guys do.”
While we continue to live in a rape culture, gendered violence will always be a significant problem, on campus and off. We need systemic, cultural change and that can’t wait. Thus, the educational efforts are the most important part of the working group’s plan, the most important way of ensuring that UBC becomes a “safe” campus for women in the long run. Why, then, are the long-term educational efforts slotted in for just a quarter of the funding? Why are they included in the same budget as improving the blue phones and developing a mobile app, both of which will surely be costly endeavors? Why are they not the priority, when both quotes in the media release stress that “ultimately the best crime prevention is a caring, connected and respectful community”? Why are the efforts at conceptual change not listed as “important improvements” in the press release? Did the Sauder rape chants teach us nothing about how the normalization of sexual violence is embedded into campus culture at UBC?
In a cultural context where over 80% of sexual assaults are committed by a person known to the victim and where 60% of assaults occur inside private homes, we need to break this cultural stereotype of a rapist who lurks in the bushes and attacks a woman he does not know. Though stranger rape does occur and should not to be taken lightly (and is indeed what happened last year), it is not the most common form of sexualized violence. Why, then, is UBC’s biggest priority improving the lighting and landscaping around campus? Do they realize that they are perpetuating a narrow idea of what a rapist looks like, both in their funding efforts and in their choice to focus on design-based solutions in discussions of these topics? Do they care about the students who are being sexually assaulted at parties, in dorm rooms, and in well-lit “safe” spaces all across campus?
The working group’s mandate was explicitly tied to gendered violence as it occurs and has occurred at UBC. According to the Centre for Disease Control, 19% of undergraduate women experience sexual violence during their time at college. Some groups experience sexual assault at even higher rates. 57% of indigenous women have experienced sexual assault and over 50% of trans people will experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Why, then, did men make up the majority of people on the working group? Why are all of the quotes coming out of the working group spoken by a white male member of the team? Why not take this opportunity to spotlight the voices of women, who are five times more likely than men to experience sexual assault? Why are women once again being pushed to the sidelines in a discussion that is supposedly centred on their safety?
The development of a new mobile app is indeed an innovative way to reach many students who use that technology on a day-to-day basis. However, it is inaccessible to anyone who cannot afford a data plan (or a phone full-stop). Is the working group aware that this initiative will exclude low-income students or students who otherwise are unable to access an app of this type? Are they going to ignore accessibility issues when they funnel tens of thousands of dollars into the development of this app? Is campus security planning to make it an important part of their communications strategy moving forward, meaning that those without phone access will be unable to access other safety programs or updates?
As I said to the Ubyssey, I’m glad that the working group included long-term educational efforts in their plans for UBC. But the conversation can’t end there if we truly want to move from words to action on these issues.
Note: An original version of this article accidentally over-reported the relative rate of male vs female sexual assault. The piece has since been updated to reflect more accurate and appropriate data. I apologize for my oversight.