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Consent on Campus: The evolution of sexual assault awareness and education at UBC

Here, we explore the stories of the many people who worked to build new systems for supporting survivors of sexual violence, shifting anti-violence rhetoric into pro-survivor spaces.

While a wide range of sexual violence educational programming now exists at UBC, from public campaigns to individual programming, campus sexual violence education has not always been this accessible. Through several decades, community activists and scholars forged UBC’s present-day educational landscape, facing many bureaucratic challenges along the way.

Here, we explore the stories of the many people who worked to build new systems for supporting survivors of sexual violence, shifting anti-violence rhetoric into pro-survivor spaces.

Early campaigns

Before the first campus organizations addressing sexual assault were formed, general womens’ support groups often did the work of advocating for education on sexual violence. The AMS and its resource group, the Women Students’ Office (WSO), advocated for sexual assault awareness through student media sources in the 1990s.

In 1992, the AMS produced a “A Perpetual State of Consent,” a 20-minute film intended to raise awareness about date rape featuring interviews from legal and psychological experts. The film, screened at UBC frat houses and the student union building, received $6,500 in funding from the AMS.

The film received mixed reviews: some praised the film’s role as an educational device and others criticizing the piece for following the narrative that women were responsible for preventing sexual assault. In an opinion column for The Ubyssey, Frances Foran called the film a “simplistic and male-supremacist world view that says its [sic] women’s responsibility for getting men to hear ‘no’ when women say it.”

Educational resources on sexual violence from the ‘90s identified by The Ubyssey continued to put the onus of preventing assault on women. A 1994 ad placed by the WSO and Student Health Outreach claimed that refraining from “excessive use of alcohol and other drugs” would “prevent acquaintance sexual assault.”

During this time, women at UBC often turned to regional organizations for help rather than on-campus ones.

A 1991 Ubyssey article on resources for women survivors primarily cited regional groups. The organizations listed — Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), Vancouver Rape Relief, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre and Battered Women’s Support Services — were all younger than 20 years old, indicating the relative novelty of assault support groups.

I need a dollar: Increased AMS involvement and development of the SASC

As support for sexual assault resources grew, WAVAW opened a satellite office at UBC. The office was initially staffed for 15 hours a week by a student office manager and remained small.

Provincial budget cuts prompted WAVAW to withdraw most of its remaining funding in 2002, when the AMS launched a pilot collaboration with WAVAW to start the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC). In 2003, the AMS reserved $37,000 for the SASC’s operating costs and held a referendum that added $1 to student fees, allowing the centre to extend its opening hours and increase outreach and programming. In its campaign, WAVAW cited that sexual assault rates are highest at the 15-24 year age range, necessitating a campus-located service.

While the SASC was gaining its footing as a resource and education group for UBC students, other AMS institutions faced upheaval.

In 2003, the WSO merged with other activist-oriented groups on campus like the Disability Resource Centre to form a larger Access & Diversity resource group, but students at the time said that members of each smaller resource group had not been “adequately consulted” prior to the merger.

"There hasn't really been a [sexual violence policy] presented and that's something that we have a problem with,” Womens’ Centre member Melanie Rasul told The Ubyssey in 2003.

‘The system is broken from start to finish’: Media backlash against cases of gendered violence at UBC

In 2013, a series of sexual assaults at UBC, alleged to have been committed by the same person, shook the campus. Concerns about safety and gendered violence at the university attracted national media coverage.

At the same time, UBC was also garnering widespread press attention for chants promoting rape at Sauder’s FROSH orientation that came into light when a first-year student posted the lyrics to Twitter. Upon investigation, The Ubyssey had learned that these chants had been ongoing for years under the knowledge of Sauder FROSH organizers and CUS executives, who urged FROSH leaders to keep chants out of the public eye.

Eva Marley, who graduated from UBC in 2019, recounts her experiences on campus at the time.

“Much of the media’s response focused on the trepidation that spread quickly among the Vancouver campus community as fliers stating ‘Don’t walk alone’ covered the walls of hallways, classrooms, and dormitories,” she wrote in her Masters’ thesis.

“Administrators … advised women to travel in groups, be aware of their surroundings, and utilize the university’s security devices.”

Then-coordinator of the SASC Anisa Mottahed expressed her frustration around this rhetoric to The Ubyssey.

“There’s the notion of ‘don’t get raped’ or ‘don’t get sexually assaulted,’” she said. “We need to switch that around and think about ‘don’t sexually assault’ and ‘don’t rape.’”

Similar sentiments became common as protests against sexual violence became more prevalent. Through community activist pushback, terms like “consent culture,” emphasizing enthusiastic verbal consent, became more prominent.

Student discontent only grew with the publication of a 2015 episode of The Fifth Estate, a Canadian newsmagazine television program, airing on CBC.

The episode covered UBC’s response to the serial sexual assaults allegedly committed by former history PhD student Dmitry Mordvinov, who admitted to knowing his actions were non-consensual. According to the investigation by CBC, UBC took over 18 months to take action against Mordvinov despite multiple survivors coming forward.

Caitlyn Cunningham, a former UBC student, reported that Mordvinov assaulted her. Following Mordvinov’s expulsion, Cunningham described the toll of the reporting process to CBC.

“The attack itself didn't make me a victim, this process has made me a victim of procedure and of bureaucracy. And I got lost in the mess of it all. I mean, the system is broken from start to finish.”

6 out of 273: The creation of Policy 131

Following the publicity drawn by The Fifth Estate, the university received criticism for lacking a standalone sexual misconduct policy, which complicated the process of reporting an assault. At this time, sexual violence at UBC was addressed under SC7, formerly known as Policy 3, the university’s discrimination policy.

To make an internal report, a survivor would have to make their case in front of a non-academic misconduct committee that would decide if and what disciplinary consequences were imposed on the perpetrator. Critics argued that this system resulted in the underreporting of sexual violence on campus. A 2015 Board of Governors document showed that only 6 of 273 reports under SC7 had been investigated.

Former UBC President Martha Piper ordered a policy to be developed to singularly address sexual misconduct in late 2015. By the following March, UBC announced that a working committee had been formed to develop the policy. In May 2016, BC Legislature’s Bill 23 came into effect and mandated that all public universities establish such a policy by May 2017.

Policy 131, UBC’s first official sexual misconduct policy, was in effect by March of that year. One key directive of Policy 131 was the creation of Sexual Violence Response and Prevention Office (SVPRO), which aimed to provide supportive programming and resources to survivors.

“Credit has to go to so many people who were involved in the creation of that policy, that it had intersectionality embedded as one of its grounding principles from day one,” said SVPRO director Alicia Oeser.

SVPRO has always had a really diverse staff with really diverse perspectives.”

#SavetheSASC

In March 2018, the AMS attempted to pass a broad fee restructuring proposal as a referendum question that would also increase the SASC fee to provide the office additional funding. When the proposal failed to meet quorum, the AMS said they were considering an exclusive SASC fee increase referendum in May before suddenly announcing that they planned to defund the SASC on June 22.

The AMS was moving to defer support services to SVPRO, who they stated was “well-equipped to start offering services that are intersectional, inclusive as well as accessible, to all.”

Support for the SASC from the UBC community flooded social media channels with #ChoicesforSurvivors and #SavetheSASC. An online petition, led by the Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice Undergraduate Society, garnered over 2,100 signatures in just three days. On June 25, the AMS reversed their decision.

Notably, reports submitted to the Board of Governors now show that annual disclosure rates to the SASC are consistently higher than those submitted to SVPRO. Data from the 2018-2020 AMS Academic Experience Surveys (AES) indicated higher student awareness of the SASC up until 2020.

A recommendation under the 2020 AMS AES calls for the AMS to “continue to affirm the SASC as an essential community resource, and continue to build relationships between SASC and SVPRO to ensure a collaborative relationship for sexual violence resources on campus.”

In 2019, a referendum was posed for the SASC to raise their student fee from $3.65 to $9.30. The referendum passed in March 2019, allowing the SASC to continue and expand its services on campus.

The Ubyssey reached out to the SASC for comment however due to scheduling problems and understaffing an interview with current executives was not arranged in time for the publication of this article.

Consensual Change: SC-17’s impact on the sexual assault conversation

While Policy 131 marked a significant milestone in the history of sexual violence response at UBC, its implementation garnered criticism from survivors, the AMS, members of the Board of Governors and other members of the community.

“Part of the problem with implementation is that they haven’t actually set up the infrastructure to implement it,” said former student Board of Governors and senate member Kevin Doering in a 2018 interview. “There is no one with the time or the resources to go around and find all the places where this policy will affect how we go about operating this university.”

UBC reviewed Policy 131 in September 2019 and after ten months of consultation, it was renamed SC-17 and went into effect this past summer. Key updates included the adoption of a trauma-informed approach, prohibition of faculty-student relationships and the ability of the SVPRO director to file an institutional report on behalf of multiple survivors, with their consent.

Notably, SC-17 does not have an appeal process for survivors in the event that they disagree with a disciplinary outcome, due in part to restrictions imposed by the University Act.

SC-17 was also criticized by the SASC for not mandating trauma-informed training for decision-makers in the process, including those who decide disciplinary outcomes.

Consent amid COVID-19: The advent of web-based awareness programming at UBC

Educational programming for sexual assault awareness has flourished during the digital school year. SVPRO was able to convert their work to a web-based classroom smoothly, allowing the office to expand their offerings.

SASC started a COVID-19 counselling fund that helps students in need receive assistance and continues to provide workshops and other information online.

“In some ways, we've sort of taken the remote work world and made it an opportunity, because we really wanted to be having online offerings,” said Sasha Wiley-Shaw, an educator at the SVPRO.

“It's been really amazing to have this support to develop those [resources] to the point where we've actually been able to launch some great online programming.”

This year, the SVPRO has conducted over 47 workshops on sexual awareness using Zoom and other web-based technologies, a significant jump from the number of requests put in for previous years. In response to classes shifting online, the SVPRO created an outreach form in August 2020, which has led to an unprecedented rise in educational requests.

The office is also in the process of developing accessible educational materials online, including a series of video-based modules on sexual violence awareness.

Oeser and Wiley-Shaw hope to see the general population develop a healthier relationship with gender, as well as other social issues that impact and intersect with sexual violence.

“The tone has changed. There's now policies in place about [providing] incoming students with [sexual assault] education, and every single person on campus, regardless of their role,” said Oeser.

“Support services are available for everyone on campus now by mandate of the federal government...a lot of that is just sort of occurring now.”

“[This conversation] really gets the opportunity to start from a more intersectional and reality based understanding of the issues and the needs of the communities,” she said.