Giving victims a voice: university’s handling of New Year’s Eve assault too little, too late

VIC M.

There is something disturbing about the University of Saskatchewan’s treatment of reported sexual assault on campus.

Only one case of sexual assault has been reported on campus since the new year. That’s hardly an accurate representation of what’s happening to university students.

On Feb. 17, students were notified of the most recent reported rape case on campus, an acquaintance rape with signs of violence.

The report is vague, solemn and couches a request for information in insistence that, somehow, this message is for our own good.

The timing of the release is its most damning detail. Not only were all details of this affair withheld for two months, they were released on the Friday that began Reading Week.

That timing effectively muted the possibility for conversation about this issue. Students were on a break, and the majority were pretty evidently not engaged in campus issues. The Sheaf and the Star Phoenix both immediately released stories, which provided little more information, and were necessarily subject to the same problem.

The suggested treatment of the release seemed to be: read it, forget it, move on. Why notify the community at all, if only to mute the message?

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University of Saskatchewan students, faculty and staff:

In early January 2012, the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Campus Safety received a report of a sexual assault against a female occurring in McEown Park student residence on the university’s Saskatoon campus. It was reported that alcohol and other drugs may have been involved in the assault. This incident was first reported to, and is being investigated by, the Saskatoon Police Service. The university is fully co-operating in this investigation.

I urge anyone who feels they may have information related to this incident to contact the Saskatoon Police Service at 975-8300.

I also encourage you to take personal safety precautions, as outlined by Campus Saftey and to always take precautionary measures with alcohol and other drugs.

Sincerely,

David Hannah, Associate Vice-President Student Affairs

For more information, contact:
Saskatoon Police Service at 975-8300[/box][/toggle]

“Our initial judgement was that, based on the information we did have, we didn’t think there was an imminent threat to other members of the university community, which is the criteria we have normally used to trigger such notices,” a university spokesperson told the Sheaf on Feb. 18.

A fair sentiment, but I’m not so convinced that notifying us of an isolated assault contributes in any way to our safety. Nor do I believe that threat to the community is a useful criterion for diffusion of this kind of information.

The message contains no information about the assailant or the assault, beyond the ominous suggestion that “alcohol and other drugs may have been involved in the assault,” and the occasion, New Year’s Eve in a campus residence.

Whatever the university is bound to keep private by law or duty, this particular set of facts provides no new information that could somehow protect the rest of the nebulous “university community.”

[box type=”info”]Related: New Year’s Eve assault triggers reform: almost a decade after notorious assaults, U of S lacks clear response protocols[/box]

Grave cases of sexual assault — the ones we think of as rape — occur with disturbing regularity, and this particular story is all too familiar. An acquaintance. A party. Drugs and alcohol. It isn’t — unfortunately — news.

What is news, or at least worth drawing attention to, is the number of sexual abuse cases that go unreported, or, worse, are treated as entirely normal.

And if there’s a serious question as to why victims don’t report, there are a variety of reasons.

This release is an exemplary sample of some of those reasons. It has sensationalized sexual violence, downplaying the real prevalence of sexual abuse.

All of this begs the question: to what end was this information released?

The shock-value approach to sexual assault encourages treating victims as helpless, rare, pitiable cases, which — again, unfortunately — only serves to encourage acquaintance-rape culture.

With so few cases reported, men and women forced into sexual acts against their will become almost as afraid of the reaction their friends and the community might have to the news as to the actual act.

It is often easier to keep mum, and make excuses (“But we were friends!” “It was probably my fault — I was way too drunk”) for the assaulter, than to be subjected to pity, misunderstanding and disgust. And, in large part, this is because we still don’t accept just how prevalent rape is in our culture.

To be raped, in short, is to be permanently victimized. We (largely) consider moving on from sexual abuse impossible, and victimization permanent. This doesn’t have to be the case.

If victims were free to acknowledge their experience, work through it and move on, then perhaps they would be more willing to disclose. Instead, we treat all sexual assault as tantamount to rape, and thereby sensationalize sexual violence to an impossibly daunting degree.

Sexual victims are people, many of whom have silently worked through their experiences in positive ways. Dramatic press releases only serve to undermine the experiences of those individuals.

The odd space the release fills between providing information and providing statistics is also disturbing. Were we provided with only statistics, we would at least be armed with empirical knowledge. Were we to have details, then the actual perpetrator, conditions and risks associated with this particular instance might be of some use.

Rather, we have a request for information that could only be provided by someone intimately aware of the rape’s details, vague and useless to the rest of the campus community.

As one small consolation, the release included advice on how to “increase your safety against sexual assault.”

The thing is, most of us already know the basics of personal safety. And while getting that information out to students who don’t is nice, it’s far from enough.

The university should be doing more to identify cases of sexual assault — from forced handjobs to forced penetrative sex — so that we can have a more accurate sketch of risk on campus. Knowledge is power, after all.

All of this begs the question: to what end was this information released?

If it was for our safety, then it has failed to provide us with any useful information. If it was for the victim’s peace of mind, then it was merely a nod at due process. If it was for information, then it was utterly futile.


Graphic: Matthew Stefanson/The Sheaf

  • http://twitter.com/Akiracee R. Mowat

    Really, really interesting article. But what is precisely imagined as a more accurate sketch of risk? And how would the university convey this in a productive and useful way?