Hot Topics | Sexual Harassment on Campus by Steph Guthrie

This week we’re kicking off our first in an ongoing ‘Hot Topics’ series. We’re going to bring you topical discussions from our expert speakers on issues taking prominence in the news cycle. steph-guthrie_highresThe public conversation around sexual assault and gender-based violence on campus elevated in the latter part of 2014. Several news-making events highlighted the importance of colleges & universities taking proactive steps to address misogyny and rape culture on campus. Efforts such as the recent Sexual Assault Round-table organized jointly by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, highlights the ramped-up effort in preventing and addressing the issue. Today’s guest blog comes from Feminist Advocate for Gender, Culture and Technology, Steph Guthrie. GSA-Divider The past year has opened the floodgates in our discourse about sexual violence. From sexual assault charges and reports of an unhealthy team climate among University of Ottawa hockey players, to Dalhousie dentistry students’ jokes about rape on Facebook, post-secondary institutions were at the epicentre of many of these conversations. When a blockbuster investigation from the Toronto Star revealed Ontario campuses’ startling dearth of clear policies around sexual violence, Ontario colleges and universities swiftly announced plans to address the problem through policy. But can new policies change the deeply felt, long held cultural beliefs and power dynamics that underlie sexual violence? Sexual violence is not random. I’m inclined to agree with Premier Kathleen Wynne, who argues “we’re dealing with cultural norms that need to be shifted.” Any campus policy that seeks to challenge or prevent sexual violence needs to meaningfully address the fact that our culture teaches perpetrators how to inflict violence, and upon whom to inflict it. We learn to speak the language of sexual violence early, so most students are already fluent by the time they reach college or university. Our cultural norms teach boys that they have a right to sexual satisfaction, girls that they will be punished for it, and transgender youth that their sexuality is freakish. We learn other warped and harmful things like “Asian girls are sexually subservient”, “Black girls are animalistic and hypersexual”, and hundreds more lessons that leave some more vulnerable to sexual violence and others more likely to commit it. The sexually violent attitudes and behaviour that dominated 2014’s post-secondary headlines are no accident. Whether we mean to or not, we choose these outcomes whenever we say “boys will be boys” as a 12-year-old snaps his classmate’s bra strap, or impose a dress code on adolescent girls because their clothing is “too distracting” for male students. If we want to create safe learning environments, we need to take a hard look at how power disparities influence who feels safe and who doesn’t – and how we can challenge those power disparities as educators, parents, colleagues, fellow students, and fellow human beings. GSA-Divider For more information on Steph and how she can help raise the conversation for your campus or organization, visit her NSB Speaker Profile. Be sure to check out our other Hot Topic speaker guest blogs looking at sexual harassment on campus, including: Community Engagement Manager at White Ribbon Campaign, Jeff Perera. Educator and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, Michael Kaufman.