A string of sexual assault incidents just off Humber College school grounds at both the North and Lakeshore campuses in recent months have caused a wave of alarm among both students and faculty.
While some of the most troubling incidents have involved attacks by strangers, many cases of sexual violence are not perpetrated by predators lying in wait but constitute “acquaintance assault.”
“Most sexual violence is acquaintance-related, by someone that’s close to the victim or (someone) that they know or that they’ve met,” said Corinna Fitzgerald, director of Humber Student Life Programs.
Liz Sokol, a counsellor at Humber’s Counselling Services, said this is a concern on any campus and added that school residences can be especially worrying.
“It’s not about stranger rape. It’s not that (Humber) residence itself is particularly concerning, but that’s where the concentration of students is after hours and when you’re drinking and you’re new and you’re anxious and communication gets muddled, and maybe you don’t have the savvy to know what to do,” said Sokol.
With streams of freshmen pouring through the college doors each fall, anxieties and hormones rage, and alcohol often enters the mix – “a fact of life at the residence, part of the culture,” according to Sokol.
“I think it creates the conditions that are often precursors for situations that lead to sexual assault,” said Sokol.
Humber has ramped up its efforts to increase sexual violence awareness this academic year, with initiatives designed to educate and raise awareness on consent and sexual assault. September has even been declared Sexual Violence Awareness Month.
One such initiative is the Consent is Sexy campaign spearheaded by the Humber Students’ Federation. Mikki Decker, HSF Vice-President of Student Affairs and fourth-year Family and Community Social Services student at University of Guelph-Humber, is a lead organizer of the program, and a survivor of sexual abuse.
She said the focus of the program is to engage students in conversation and break down the stigma around talking about sex and consent through sex-positivity.
“The idea is to have conversations with students around (the question of) ‘Do you know what consent is? Here’s a scenario, do you think this is consent?’ It’s also about taking a step back, looking at our lives, and what we do in society day to day and how that plays into consent,” Decker said.
Decker’s mention of societal and individual behaviours that relate to consent and sexual violence are frequently referred to as “rape culture,” a hot-button topic Sokol agrees needs to be addressed by looking at the behaviours that feed into it.
“The definition [of rape culture] changes over time but I think helping people understand that objectifying people, making comments in the hallway, even to your friends – ‘I wouldn’t say no to that!’ Is it violent? No. Is it objectifying someone? Yes. That’s a precursor to rape culture,” said Sokol.
“Everybody knows rape is wrong. Everybody knows that you have to get consent. They know the facts of what that means practically speaking, but I don’t think there’s a bigger picture understanding. We still do the victim-blaming. We find ways to create distance between us and them so that we are not threatened,” said Sokol.
Fitzgerald agrees that victim-blaming is a prevalent and ingrained problem.
“If the dialogue is around how women keep themselves safe, I don’t believe we’re going far enough. It’s blaming the victim, I think. We have to talk to all genders about how to have healthy, safe relationships, how not to hurt one another,” said Fitzgerald.
“According to statistics, most perpetrators of sexual violence are men and that’s either on women or on people in the trans community or other men, so I think there’s also dialogue around how do we talk to men about not doing this to people. Sometimes we miss that. We haven’t fully tackled that on campus yet so I think more of that will come as we roll out more education,” said Fitzgerald.
What everyone Et Cetera spoke to agrees on is that the time for progress is now and students, staff, and faculty within the Humber are prepared to engage in the dialogue.
“I think people are ready and wanting and needing to talk about consent, to raise awareness and to be engaged in a way that I haven’t seen before,” said Sokol.