Carleton University athletic teams say no to sexual violence

The first moments of the 26-second public service announcement are stark: close-up shots of two female and two male members of Carleton University’s (CU) varsity teams speaking in turn.

Against the background of a stripped-down piano score that moves from discordant high notes to lower chords, the student athletes’ words verge on the foreboding: “Hey, you. Yes, you”; “Carleton Ravens say No”; “Say No”; “To sexual violence”.

Produced by the varsity players who volunteered for a programme to combat sexual and gender-based violence both on and off campus, the announcement exemplifies the philosophy behind CU’s new Champions for Change (CfC) programme.

The idea of creating a public sector announcement that would be shown at the Ravens’ football games, as well as its words and tenor, were the students’. Even more importantly, as the announcement’s last words make clear, the CfC’s central message is that students have the responsibility to “hold one another accountable” to combat sexual and gender-based violence.

The CfC programme goes beyond what every student at Carleton learns in orientation about CU’s policies against sexual and gender-based violence, the legal requirement in Canada for consent by all parties engaging in sexual relations, what actions constitute sexual harassment and sexual violence, and what resources are available on campus to someone who has experienced harassment or sexual violence.

“Despite both campus sexual violence policies and the Criminal Code and other legislation, we know that sexual violence and gender-based violence are issues that persist in our society and not just on campuses,” says Bailey Reid, CU’s senior advisor for gender and sexual violence prevention and co-creator of the CfC programme with JR LaRose, a former professional football player in the Canadian Football League.

Reid says: “Champions for Change differs because it is about creating prevention. We know that not all criminal justice responses work. Not all survivors want to engage in the criminal justice process.

“So we’re trying to tackle it from the root cause. Rather than address it with policy after the fact, we want to think about how to prevent sexual and gender-based violence from happening in the first place.”

What the statistics say

Although CU’s reported numbers of sexual assaults in 2021, the last year for which numbers are available, are low – 90 ‘informal disclosures’ and four ‘formal reports’, 23 of which were for on-campus incidents – these figures tell only a small part of the story, as both Ontario’s 2018 ‘Student Voices on Sexual Violence’ survey and the ‘Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Alberta Post-Secondary Education’ survey released last month, show.

Ontario’s survey showed that province-wide, 23% of university students and 17% of college students had been victims of sexual assault during the 2017-18 academic year. Twenty-six percent of CU’s students responded that they were victims of at least one non-consensual sexual experience.

Alberta’s survey asked students not about the past year but about their post-secondary career. It found that almost 45% of Alberta’s post-secondary students who identified as ‘straight’ had been sexually harassed or assaulted since entering college or university.

The Alberta study shows, also, that the rates of sexual and gender-based violence endured by the LGBTQIA+ communities are even higher than for the straight community. Sixty three percent of lesbians, for example, were victims of sexual and gender-based violence since entering college or university: the figure for bisexuals was 66%, 59% for gays, 74% for queers and 60% for questioning.

Fatima Ramadan, a third-year student majoring in linguistics and minoring in Japanese and psychology, told University World News that while she has not been sexually assaulted, she has been harassed by males both inside and outside of organised sport.

Speaking of her female friends’ experiences, she introduced an issue not directly addressed by either the Ontario or Alberta studies: sexual manipulation (though it is possible that some respondents had this in mind when they answered the question about harassment).

Sexual manipulation occurs, she says, “when you are trying to trick the other person into believing that they want what you want, whether they do or do not. Let’s say there is a situation where you do not want to engage in a sexual act with a person or partner, but that person constantly nags: ‘But tonight, let me just do this.’ You’re not necessarily into this act, but just don’t want to deal with what comes with the nagging. So, in the end, you just agree. That’s manipulation.”

A different perspective

The CfC programme takes place in four-hour segments over three mornings in sessions when the male and female athletes are together and in sessions segregated by gender. The sessions when the males and females are together include explanations of the statistics, asking the athletes themselves to give real-life examples and watching videos.

Since he’s in his third year studying criminology, football player Shamond Carlisle was not overly surprised at the statistics around sexual assault. What did surprise him was hearing that some females are frightened for their safety if they go out alone at night.

“They can’t go out on a walk, even if there are two women together. They feel it’s not safe,” he told University World News. It sucks that they can’t go. They feel they need to do everything before night time because during the night it becomes scary for them.”

For her part, Ramadan was struck by how some of the males in the room were affected by both the statistics and the stories they heard in the videos and from their female varsity peers.

“It was an opportunity for them to learn and open their minds to how it’s a lot more than gender-based violence against women. It was great for them to be able to sit down and listen and hear a different [female] point of view. Some didn’t know the statistics were so high and what was causing these numbers. They realised that men who don’t stand up [against sexual and gender-based violence] are part of the problem.”

Both Carlisle and Ramadan discussed the importance of language, that is, how males speak about and to women and vice versa.

“One of the most important parts of the workshop was when we discussed ‘normalised language’.” Referring to males’ use of language, Ramadan said: “There’s language that’s used, whether in the locker room or just out and about when you talk to people around you about women that normalises negative views of women.

“Sometimes people try to pass it off as a joke: ‘We really never actually meant to do those things or say those things about people’.”

“But this then evolves into something so much worse. We have to stop it at its root. Small things can slowly build up into bigger issues that could have been prevented at the start,” she says, knowing that it was not necessary to give specific examples of the kind of language to which she was referring.

The meaning of masculinity

The sessions in which the male and female athletes were segregated were quite different. According to Ramadan, her session focused on the support available for women, especially at CU.

“We also discussed how it was really important for us to help each other and to help people outside the CU Ravens community.” Central to this, she says, is “getting to know the people around you so that they know the kind of knowledge we have and that they can feel safe speaking to us”.

Carlisle’s group, which was led by LaRose, focused on discussing “masculinity”.

“We talked about what it takes to be a man. So, for example, someone would say to be ‘protective’, says Carlisle.

Carlisle didn’t have to give me an example here either because earlier in our discussion he had told me of an incident in a Montreal nightclub this past summer. Carlisle, who doesn’t drink, was with a few friends and saw a man speaking to a woman who kept stepping back away from him.

“She was talking to him, but she looked scared. Her body language said she was uncomfortable. He’s quick to touch her and she tried to push him away.” Carlisle, who is six-foot tall and 265 pounds, went over to them and interposed himself between them, and then walked her to the table where she had been with some female friends.

“They were both a little drunk, but what he did was still wrong,” he said. (Canadian courts have ruled that being drunk is not a defence against the charge of sexual assault and that someone who is drunk cannot give consent to a sexual act.)

As discussed under LaRose’s guidance, masculinity had nothing to do with stereotypical ‘macho’ behaviour and even less to do with the kind of behaviour that Donald J Trump showed when it emerged in 2016 while he was a presidential candidate that he had once said in 2005 that because he was a celebrity he could “Grab ’em by the p****” when speaking of the women on the Access Hollywood show.

Rather, Carlisle says: “We discussed how masculinity involves treating others with respect, empathy, responsibility and self-improvement.”

The role of student leaders

Both athletes had a message for their fellow students, both inside and outside North America. Ramadan stressed that the CfC programme provided some of the tools necessary to take a stand against sexual and gender-based violence.

She called on female athletes and other student leaders on other campuses to be “someone your friends can confide in or your teammates can confide in because you have the knowledge and experience and resources to help them”.

Carlisle called on male athletes and other male leaders on campus to make themselves aware of the prevalence and impact of sexual abuse.

“Leaders must have a zero tolerance for sexual violence. They must make it clear that sexual abuse and assault should have no place in any setting,” he says.

He asked student leaders to hold themselves accountable for setting clear expectations on appropriate behaviour and for supporting survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

“I also want to stress the importance of supporting survivors by creating a safe, non-judgmental space for them to come forward and seek help.”

Leaders are responsible for implementing comprehensive training programmes for the teams, for raising awareness about consent, boundaries and for making clear what respectful behaviour is, says Carlisle.

Earlier, when I asked him, “When you watched the videos depicting sexual violence or heard the female athletes describe their or friends’ experiences, did you think, ‘This could have been my older sister’?”, he simply replied: “I find that even if I didn’t have a sister, I would feel the same way.”