University Combats Rape Culture With Innovative Program
University Combats Rape Culture With Innovative Program

The discussion about rape culture and sexual assault on Canadian post-secondary campuses has exploded over the past year in light of several high-profile student assaults and controversies.

Revelations of pro-rape chants at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, repeated assaults at the University of British Columbia, and rape charges against two University of Ottawa hockey players whose court cases began last week, have highlighted the problem of sexual assault on campus.

Several universities have scrambled to address the issue, building task forces and hiring liaisons to better protect both students and their institutions’ reputations.

But long before rape culture became a catchphrase in the media, the University of Windsor was quietly developing a program to deal with sexual assault on campus—a rampant problem they had witnessed for years. 

An oft-cited statistic is that one in four female students experience rape or attempted rape during their post-secondary education. Although that figure has been questioned, by all accounts sexual assault is pervasive on campus.

Young women aged 18-24 are by far the most likely group to be raped, and perpetrators are most often young men known to them in social situations both on and off campus. This is why bystander intervention can be particularly effective, says Dusty Johnstone, a post-doctoral fellow who helped spearhead UWindsor’s Bystander Initiative.

“Most of the time when sexual violence occurs, somebody has been around before, during, or even after who could have changed the way that that went down, or who could have provided significant support after,” says Johnstone.

A workshop originally developed at the University of New Hampshire, the Bystander Initiative was adopted by UWindsor in 2010. The program taught students to view themselves as potential bystanders who could intervene and stop an assault before it happened. Students learned how to recognize and safely interrupt situations that could lead to sexual assault, and how to be an effective and supportive ally to victims. 

But instead of simply offering a workshop, which would likely be attended only by a small number of students already engaged in the issue, the UWindsor faculty adapted the program in a unique way.

They decided to build it into the structure and culture of the university by making it a mandatory component of certain undergraduate classes. Peer facilitators were also trained to provide the workshop to first-year students, in order to reach as many as possible.

Changing Attitudes

Johnstone, who trains the Bystander Initiative’s peer facilitators, says its ability to reach large numbers of people consistently over time (at least 700 students per year) is key to changing attitudes.

“Sexual violence isn’t an individual-level problem, it’s a community-level problem,” she says. “So if we’re going to change it we need to actually be thinking at the level of the community; how do we change the systems and cultures that support sexual violence and allow it to endure.”

The program’s focus on bystanders rather than perpetrators or victims is also unique. Targeting perpetrators can be virtually impossible, as potential rapists—a small minority of men—usually do not identify themselves as such and rarely exhibit obviously abnormal behaviours. 

Programs that target the victims also have limited effectiveness, says Johnstone, because it sets vague, unrealistic demands on women, such as “don’t walk alone” or “don’t get drunk.”

It is difficult to gather hard numbers on the effectiveness of programs such as the Bystander Initiative due to its focus on changing culture over time and the under-reporting of sexual assaults in general. But surveys show a dramatic change in student views toward sexual assault after taking the program, Johnstone says. 

There have also been numerous reports of successful interventions in potential sexual assaults, especially by those trained as peer facilitators. 

“Students learn to see problems that they didn’t even realize were there before,” says Johnstone.

“[They] become more engaged, and see a greater sense of responsibility. Definitely there is a change in their behaviours, how they see themselves in relation to other people, and the actions that they engage in.”

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