Civil hands unclean: Exploring sexual and gender-based violence on campus

by | Nov 16, 2023 | Opinion

Half of all students have experienced some form of sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV) since they started post-secondary education. 

It happened to me twice. The first time I tried to tell someone, I was met with blame and anger. The second time I told someone, I was mocked. I found myself having to leave in the middle of classes to muffle my sobs, seemingly out of nowhere. With no one to turn to, I asked for help from my then-university. 

To say that 50 per cent of all students experience SGBV during their post-secondary education is not the same as saying these experiences occur on campus. However, having central campus resources to support victims allows them to succeed academically and professionally. 

The University of Alberta has a Sexual Assault Centre and MacEwan University has an Office of Sexual Violence Prevention. In contrast, NAIT has a webpage that takes people to several resources that might help them with their cases. 

An institutional need

Earlier this Fall 2023, the Government of Alberta released the results of their GBV survey from various Alberta post-secondaries. The survey describes sexual and gender-based violent acts as Sexual Harassment, Stalking, Sexual Assault, Intimate Partner Violence and Non-consensual production or distribution of sexual images. 

It is worth noting that although half of all post-secondary students experience SGBV since attending school, that number spikes to 77 per cent when including experiences before they attend school. Students who are most likely to experience SGBV include people under 35, women and LGBTQIA+ people. 

Sexual harassment overwhelmingly accounts for most SGBV experiences, with 45 per cent of students experiencing it after beginning their studies. Stalking is the second-most experienced act at 17 per cent and Sexual Assault comes in at 11 per cent. These numbers also doubled when accounting for experiences before starting post-secondary education. 

I was 16 the first time I was assaulted. Then 17. And again at 18, after my first year of undergraduate study. In a study that surveyed almost 13,000 students across Alberta, I am only one data point detailing an institutional need for support. The report adds that on top of managing difficult emotions and being unable to reach out to loved ones, students can also struggle with schoolwork or maintaining their class attendance after SGBV. 

One particular experience that stood out to me was when I left during a lecture to cry in a random women’s washroom at 2 p.m. When a classmate asked for my whereabouts, I lied and said that I just needed to get some fresh air. Without my classmates’ help that semester, I would not have been able to go through the material enough to pass. 

Less than half of all students believe support is available for those who experience SGBV. The number drops to 43 per cent for students in polytechnic institutions, where students have a unique chance at work-integrated learning (WIL). 

Expanding reach

Tired of pulling all-nighters for theoretical academia, I transferred to NAIT to get more tangible, hands-on applications of my work. Many programs, like mine, also offer co-op placements for students as a necessary part of their education, which I wasn’t going to get with a typical Bachelor of Arts degree. 

Placements ensure a smoother transition from classroom to employment for students and employers alike. However, if a school already provides minimal SGBV guidance on campus, even less support will be available for students out in the field. 

Shortly after the initial Alberta government survey, the social advocacy group Possibility Seeds released the first national report on sexual harassment in experiential learning, citing that half of all 438 survey respondents experienced sexual harassment in their workplace. Although that information doesn’t necessarily apply to the general population, it serves as a baseline for future studies. 

My WIL agreement and risk-management checklist asks that I “inform my workplace supervisor, or NAIT staff, if I’m involved in, or experience, any bullying, harassment, discrimination or abuse” and that the host organization should have policies to protect the student. 

This agreement is likely standard procedure, but Possibility Seeds adds that host organizations should do more to ensure students’ safety during their WIL placement. These recommendations include: 

  • Developing specific protocols for how the organization responds to sexual harassment and/or violence against students completing WIL opportunities.
  • Providing students with information about sexual harassment.
  • Providing workplace or professional considerations to students affected by sexual harassment and/or violence.

The report adds that although male-dominated fields and industries that work with the public have the highest prevalence of SGBV, sexual harassment is a “cross-industry problem”. As a broadcasting student, I have my own concerns about entering the field soon. 

Possibility Seeds’ own report was prompted by a 2014 inquiry on CBC’s show with Jian Ghomeshi, a former broadcaster who faced multiple accounts of sexual harassment and assault. The inquiry revealed gaps in institutional policies that made many organizations more cautious about accepting internships and WIL placements nationwide. 

The rational part of my brain believes that the chances of me experiencing SGBV at my placement are low, but I still have a loud, traumatized voice in there that feels unsafe with proceeding. Greater society teaches women many precautions about clothing, travelling or self-defence. But ultimately, the institutions that drive our daily lives have the most power to protect the people they serve. 

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