On a university campus, one in four female students will experience rape or attempted rape during their time at school. The greatest risk is in first year.
This devastating issue is something with which many, if not all, campuses struggle.
“We’re dealing with a major social problem,” says Dr. Dusty Johnstone, head of the University of Windsor’s Sexual Misconduct Prevention Office. “It’s going to take years to make an appreciable impact. Like how the social norms around drunk driving didn’t change overnight. It’s a public health issue.”
The creation of Johnstone’s office, in fall 2016, was an outcome of the campus’ 2016 Sexual Misconduct Policy launched last fall as well.
Education, along with prevention and support, underpin the policy, drafted partially in response to the 2015 Ontario government initiative, It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. Under the “Safer Campuses” portion of the plan, the province required colleges and universities to:
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 and continuing throughout the year, for students in all years of study.
The University of Windsor steering committee—of which about a quarter was students—had already laboured over its policy for a year before being mandated to by the province.
Understanding what sexual misconduct actually is a challenge on its own, says Johnstone. “The terms ‘sexual assault’ and ‘sexual misconduct’ are not the same.”
She explains that “sexual assault” is a legal term, whereas “sexual misconduct” includes a wide range of behaviours—from unwelcome sexual advances and indecent acts to displays of suggestive calendars, vulgar sexual comments, and “creeping” via social media.
The UWindsor policy also sets out such things as the rights of the survivor, disclosing, reporting and complaint options and processes, and such institutional responsibilities as providing support and protection.
The most common reaction to unburdening themselves is “relief”, says Johnstone. “They’re relieved there is someone to help, to help bear the burden and to give them the information they need. DR.DUSTY JOHNSTONE
”The policy can be downloaded from the university’s Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct website. The website also includes such critical information as where to go for immediate help and on- and off-campus resources.
How many women have been assaulted on the University of Windsor campus? It’s impossible to get an accurate count, says Johnstone. “Some people don’t consider what happened to them as sexual assault. Or, they don’t wish to make a report. No stats are going to be a reliable reflection of the reality.”
Her role is to provide confidential support, referrals and assistance to individuals who have experienced sexual misconduct. She can also assist them in making informed choices and in navigating relevant institutional and community processes.
“People can come to me to disclose an incident—simply to share their experiences,” she says. “They can report misconduct to document an event but maintain confidentiality. Or, they can file a complaint, which will trigger an investigation.”
Her office does not investigate complaints. Instead, Johnstone points the survivor in the right direction and helps the person through it. Depending on the type of complaint, it could be handled by a variety of such on- or off-campus offices as the University of Windsor Human Rights Office or Windsor Police Services.
“I’m there to make sure people feel supported and to act as a liaison if they need that,” she says.
Since the office opened, Johnstone has directly supported 18 people. “I would not be surprised if those numbers double or triple as people will become more familiar with the office.”
While she only saw two people last fall, 16 approached her between January and April. Typically, a student will email her. “Sometimes, a friend has told them about the office, or they were referred by another office on campus like Student Health Services.”
Others see her, “just to tell their story once. They wanted to be heard and to be understood. Once they’ve had that space, they are able to go on with their lives.”
The most common reaction to unburdening themselves is “relief”, says Johnstone. “They’re relieved there is someone to help, to help bear the burden and to give them the information they need.”
Many who’ve sought her out are doubly stressed because of the worry about managing their academic performance at the same time. “I usually arrange academic accommodations—delay writing an exam, or handing in a paper, for example. Faculty have been super supportive and are willing to be helpful.”
Johnstone knows there are other students who have experienced sexual misconduct but have not come forward for a variety of reasons. “They feel this wasn’t ‘bad enough’. It could’ve been worse. They shouldn’t make a fuss.”
Self-blame is a huge barrier, she says. “They’ll think, ‘I shouldn’t have been drinking.’ ‘I shouldn’t have been so foolish.’”
Adding to the reluctance is the fact that the perpetrator is often someone the young woman knows. “This means she might not want to report it because she doesn’t want to be ostracized and alienated by their group of mutual friends.”
The campus policy’s broad definition of the term “sexual misconduct” may be helpful in such situations. “Sometimes, a person is more willing to come forward to talk about their experience if they think it wasn’t as bad as sexual assault.
“They’ll tell me, ‘I don’t want to say it was assault. But it was inappropriate and I’m really upset about it.’”
Not every complaint occurred on campus. “About one-third of them happened before the student arrived here,” says Johnstone. About 50 per cent of sexual assault cases happen to women between the ages of 14 and 24.
Increasingly, sessions and classes are being offered to educate UWindsor students on the sexual misconduct issue.
This September, the university also made training under the Bystander Initiative available to 500 incoming first-year students. This is in addition to the many hundreds of students in all years of study who take the workshop in their courses. In the fall of 2018, every first-year student will have this opportunity—a first in Canada—and receive a $50 gift certificate.
The Bystander Initiative encourages workshop participants to see themselves as potential bystanders who could intervene and stop an assault before it happens. Students learn the importance of speaking out against social norms that support sexual assault and coercion, how to recognize and safely interrupt situations that could lead to sexual assault, and how to be an effective and supportive ally to survivors.
UWindsor’s Office of Student Affairs offers a workshop that gives faculty and staff a set of tools to proceed confidently if they are approached by an assault survivor. The three-hour workshop, supported by the University’s Strategic Priority Fund, is to help them feel more prepared, but not pressured, to be experts.
In March 2017, Johnstone’s office launched a “Keep it Consensual” campaign, leading up to St. Patrick’s Day—a time of increased risk related to alcohol. She will do the same leading up to Hallowe’en.
She also collaborated with the university’s student orientation team to bring in a speaker on sexual ethics for Windsor Welcome Week, an event attended by hundreds of first-year students.
This September, Johnstone will employ a poster and social media campaign on campus to encourage people to come forward for the help they need.
“We’re dealing with a complex social problem,” she says. “This is a co-ordinated effort across campus.”
In Johnstone’s estimation, “Windsor’s strength is that we’ve had people champion different aspects. A lot of schools do neat things. We’re doing a lot of big things.”
What those involved hope is that the issue of sexual violence against women will reach “The Tipping Point”. According to author Malcomb Gladwell, a tipping point is “a moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”
When social norms shift—drunk driving, for example—people may still commit the act, but people around them no longer accept it.
“You don’t have to change everyone to change the way something works in your society,” explains Johnstone. “If we change the behavior in 10 per cent of people, that has an impact on everyone. If you make it less acceptable to have sexual misconduct in the workplace, or at school, it shifts the norm into daily life.”
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