Supporting victims of sexual assault at university

Women have been active, contributing members of Canadian universities for more than a century. However, the past three years have seen a string of sexual assaults at high profile institutions reaffirming the tenuous position of women on campus and raising anew the call for action.

Although the journey to making Canadian campuses safer is certainly uphill, a strategic study released last month by the University of Saskatchewan offers new hope for supporting victims and innovative prevention.

Why university campuses?

There is no need for this article to revisit the events and debates that have brought sexual assault at university back into the public eye. A quick scan of headlines confirms the deeply concerning truth that sexual assaults at university are common. Rather than fixating on disturbing news stories, an essential step to transformative action involves asking why this is the case, what is being done and what can be done.

In the Canadian context, these questions have been taken up by a research team from the University of Saskatchewan, under the direction of Elizabeth Quinlan from the department of sociology. Their recent study, published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, examines the prevention and support services that are addressing sexual assault at universities and colleges across Canada.

Their study begins by highlighting several distinct features of the university that make sexual assault more likely. The population at post-secondary institutions is young, largely independent and continually changing. This often means less group cohesion or sense of community, factors that increase crime in general.

And of course, the use of alcohol and drugs has long been part of the social scene at most universities – all of which increase the vulnerability of women.

Canadian universities

The majority of this study examines what is being done and what can be done to support victims and prevent future assaults at Canadian universities. After a review of 243 institutions across the nation, the research team found that only 54 institutions had a specialised centre addressing sexual assault. Some of these had been designed specifically to tackle sexual assaults while others focused on sexual assaults as one of several goals at a women-focused centre.

Fortunately, despite the small numbers, the centres that do exist have relatively stable funding and offer a range of tangible, innovative strategies to counsel victims and educate their campus for prevention.

Strategies for prevention and support

Currently, the majority of institutions that do have a centre for victim support and prevention operate on a coordinator plus volunteers model: a paid coordinator trains and supervises a team of dedicated volunteers.

Though such operations may seem minimal, the volunteers at some institutions number more than 100. More importantly, the commitment of the volunteers reveals the dedication of the student body. Centres coordinate regular prevention events, trainings, anonymous disclosure lines and face-to-face counselling.

Future possibilities

The most impressive component of this study was its final stage of data collection: a practitioner symposium. Stakeholders from the surrounding community, mainly professionals employed at victim support or assault prevention services, were invited to a workshop to review the findings and make suggestions for future practice.

Participants called for data collection on campus crimes and increased funding for centres. One particularly innovative suggestion that emerged from the symposium, and borrows from the healthcare field, is the creation of the SANE – Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. SANEs are a new type of public health nurse with a targeted mandate; they use their technical expertise to support victims through medical examinations but also focus on educating the community with the aim of preventing future assaults.

Currently, SANE positions have been created in almost every province across Canada and universities would benefit from funding these positions on campus to complement and advance the work that is currently being done at sexual assault centres.

Another important suggestion to come out of this report is ‘bystander intervention programming’. Although the transient nature of universities has been shown to increase crime rates, universities have a long and valuable history of intentionally building community through various means – from sports teams to service projects.

By infusing these community events with intervention training, campuses can develop students, faculty and staff who feel comfortable intervening on behalf of women who might be at risk.

Researchers as advocates

There is no question that strategic prevention of sexual assaults is a great need at university. Many institutions promote their university as an important, social experience in students’ lives, but they have the social responsibility to ensure that their campus experience does not pose a threat to their female population.

Community advocacy, education and the development of a culture of ‘intervening’ are essential tools to build social cohesion and community on campus, decreasing crimes of all sort and especially allowing women to thrive.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a post-doctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada.