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A study from RAINN found that over half of all sexual assaults take place during the first three months of the school year. Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.

How the U of O is responding to the most dangerous time of the year for sexual assault

When one thinks of the term “red zone,” they might picture a place that is dangerous, possibly even forbidden. But on post-secondary campuses across North America, the term has taken on a whole new sinister meaning.

The United States-based Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) has begun using the term “red zone” to refer to the first three months of the school year where over half of all sexual assaults on campus take place, according to a study they put out in 2017.

Overall, a staggering one in three women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual violence during their lifetime, according to the Ontario government.

According to Ally Crockford, a public educator at the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre, 101 Week could be one of the main culprits contributing to the red zone.

“When you put all of this together with a large group of new people, lots of social interactions, and the expectation of heavy drinking, it unfortunately creates a situation in which sexual assault is more likely,” she said in an email to the Fulcrum.

Outside of 101 Week, Crockford added that students are experiencing anxiety and nervousness while managing living on their own for the first time with little knowledge of consent, creating the perfect storm.

“Even though our schools are now making more of an effort to ensure that consent and sexual violence are part of the sex education curriculum, often students don’t really know what consent looks like in practice,” Crockford said. “Sex (is seen) as something to ‘get’ rather than as an activity that two people engage in. It’s as if the other person only exists to ‘give it up.’”

The statistics on consent speak volumes.

Just one in every three Canadians understands what sexual consent means as of this year, according to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

A Maclean’s investigation from March of this year, which surveyed more than 23,000 undergraduate students from just over 80 schools on campus sexual assault, reveals how consent is understood among U of O students in particular.

According to their survey, 40 per cent of respondents from the U of O said no one had educated them on how to report a sexual assault. Meanwhile, 33 per cent of U of O respondents said they weren’t educated on university services available for people who had been sexually assaulted.

Rather than learning the ins and outs of consent through a reliable source, Crockford said, students are often forced to turn to much more precarious channels of information such as television and movies.

“Movies and TV shows constantly use romance tropes that are misleading at best or dangerous at worst: that asking for consent ‘ruins the mood’, that threats or manipulation or coercion is worth it in the end if it results in love, and worst of all, that romance and sex looks the same for everyone,” she explained.

The U of O’s approach

As of 2014 all post-secondary institutions in Ontario are mandated to develop a stand-alone sexual assault policy that must be renewed at least every four years.

The U of O’s framework for tackling sexual assault on campus is known as Policy 67b, introduced in 2016 and in need of renewal by 2020. The policy includes all members of the U of O community and encompasses all spaces, both on and off campus.

The U of O “is adding more programs to ensure that students are receiving the proper information to make knowledgeable decisions but to also keep themselves and their peers safe,” Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn, acting manager of the university’s media relations department, said via email.

One program Mailloux-Pulkinghorn points to is a six week long sexual violence prevention program open to anyone at the university, that runs from September to mid-October.

“During these weeks, students are invited to participate in various activities, aimed at establishing a culture of respect and equality on campus and at supporting survivors of sexual violence,” she said.

The U of O is also working to revise their bystander training program, Mailloux-Pulkinghorn said, a program given to first-year students on how to intervene when someone is in a potentially dangerous situation. She added the U of O is partnering with the three other post-secondary institutions in the city, Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cité, to develop sexual violence prevention initiative, while also maintaining their partnership with the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre.

Crockford spoke to the importance of these connections.

“Universities need to be taking proactive steps and working with community-based organizations who have been working on sexual violence prevention for decades,” Crockford said. “A lot of universities tend to do things internally due to the scale and size of the institution, but that isn’t always the best thing for survivors. Listening to survivors of sexual violence from within the university community and from community leaders is crucial at every step.”

The road ahead

Crockford also noted that change doesn’t just need to take place at the institutional level, but the societal and individual level as well.

“As a society, we need to be a lot better at talking about sex and sexual violence,” she said. “It isn’t enough to have one or two classes about consent in high school. We need to be constantly encouraged to challenge the messages around us that teach folks—particularly women and gender non-conforming folks—that it’s on them to protect themselves.”

On the individual level, Crockford noted, change can be made as well.

“Talk about sex honestly with your friends; challenge them when they say something that objectifies someone or misgenders them or makes fun of violence,” she said. “It’s easy to attend a rally or share content online, but having one conversation with someone you’re close to can have much more of an impact.”

“We need to look at ourselves and how we devalue women (and other minorities),” added Margret Arnason, outreach coordinator at the Toronto-based Assaulted Women’s Helpline. “(We need to) hold each other and those around us equally responsible for their actions.”

If you or someone you know is affected by sexual assault, please contact: 613-725-2160 (Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa) or 613-562-2333 (Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre). To make your first appointment with U of O counselling click here or visit Health Services at 100 Marie Curie Private. A full list of sexual assault resources is available here.