Why We Need to Have Classroom Discussions About Campus Assaults

by | November 2, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Poster from Equality Within Reach showing a skirt and the caption "Short Skirts Don't Rape. Rapists Rape"by Madison TrusolinoThis piece is dedicated to her students who strive to learn, and trust, and who keep her energized when exhausted. 

The recent sexual assaults at UBC have sparked a discussion about campus safety, particularly around female students. This discussion is not new and for all women, on university campuses and off, this is our daily reality. We’ve heard it again and again – whether it be Duke University, York University, or UBC at the center of the media frenzy it often plays out in the same fashion.

Increased security presence is implemented, rape whistles are handed out, and e-mail alerts sent. And then, eventually, the media quiet down, the university looks to more “pressing issues,” survivors are left with their scars, and students are left feeling just as unsafe as they did before.

In August 2007 I moved into Vanier residence at York University. One week later two young women were raped in the building, which housed new and continuing university students.

That evening I had left after our weekly pub night to watch movies at a friend’s house off campus. When I came back the next morning police were in the lobby of the residence. I walked in and packed my bag for a weekend away. The police officers didn’t say a word to me or anyone else coming and going, and many of us found out through the newspapers or concerned calls from our parents.

There was increased security on campus and in our building. Large men with black uniforms and black boots. I avoided leaving my room in the middle of the night to use our washrooms out of fear of running into one of these men, who were supposedly there to protect me. But I feared the police, and I feared the security, and I feared the campus itself. 

The police are no friend of the assaulted. We need look no further for evidence than the infamous remarks that inspired SlutWalk, given in 2011 by a police officer at York University, who said, “Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.”

The fear remained in the air, but it was internalized and no one wanted to name it, no one wanted to say: “I’m scared of getting raped at the library, in my residence, walking from the bus stop.” One night we thought we heard someone walking around the residence when most people were gone for reading week. We told ourselves it was a ghost; we made up stories about our fears rather than naming them.

When the media began to write about the UBC sexual assaults a lot of the same victim-blaming rhetoric was re-used. The focus on women modifying their behaviour was evident in the emphasis on the length of the skirts, the consumption of alcohol, or walking alone at night. The crimes of the perpetrator deflected onto the surveillance of the women’s bodies. Our inclusive campuses have more women than men, and yet the body of the female student is still a targeted object of violence.

While reforms of campus security to address this are important, we as teachers also need to be talking to our students. We need to be teaching our male students how to be allies, we need to talk to our female and queer students about the disease that is the internalization of victim-blaming.

As a teaching assistant I have brought these discussions into the classroom, if only in a minor way. The program I teach within is 75% women at the undergraduate level, and yet the campus still feels unsafe for women.

Verbalizing rather than internalizing is cathartic. Teachers gain hope from their students’ ability to discuss things in a respectful manner; students learn that their teachers feel the same vulnerability that they do, and begin to learn that there is empowerment in naming our enemy in solidarity. The enemy is patriarchy and misogyny; the enemy is rapists and abusers.

In short, we should be working to reintegrate feminism into the classroom as a way to not let the discussion get buried in the congratulatory ritual that inevitably happens after a university increases their security.

Feminism often remains quarantined in our women’s studies departments, where it has been safely institutionalized by the university. But ultimately feminism manifests itself outside of “disciplines” as a social project both in and out of the academy. We won’t make our campuses safe overnight, but we can begin by creating safe classrooms.

(image via equalitywithinreach.com)

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  • Alison

    Thanks for this. I agree there’s a big part to play for professors/teachers as well. Do you have any suggestions for specific ways to bring up the issue and that work to generate discussion?

  • Madison Trusolino

    Thank-you for your comment Alison! At the beginning of every semester I always tell my students that I base my tutorials within a feminist, and anti-colonial pedagogy. When the sexual assaults started happening at UBC I told them that I was allotting ten minutes for open discussion about the issue. I explained some key terms such as patriarchy, misogyny, and vitcim-blaming. I laid out the foundation of the conversation by explaining the incidents and asking how many of them have been reading the news on it. I find that students are more apt to talk about the situation when they have materials they can refer to and texts to analyze. In this respect many of the students talked about articles they had read, I then asked them to talk about what assumptions these articles made about women. I also asked them what alternative stories and discourses we could have around sexual assaults within the media. This really helped us all delve in collectively to the way in which women are constructed in these cases. I said that I wanted my classroom to be a safe space for them to discuss these issues and their reactions. Following that week I received a lot of positive feedback from many students, several of whom e-mailed me specific articles around the sexual assaults that they would like to talk about further.
    I’m also a huge supporter of bringing in popular culture to explain just about anything! More people have listened to blurred lines than have read Judith Butler. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be reading Butler, but as bell hooks says “popular culture is where the pedagogy is.” Here’s a link to a bell hooks interview explaining why she thinks popular culture is so important http://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/402/transcript_402.pdf. Hope I could help with some ideas and sorry about the longe comment.

    • Madison Trusolino

      I apologize *long