In a St. Thomas University class last year, my professor critiqued the Fredericton Youth Feminist’s claim of a rape culture. “I don’t think it is systemic,” he argued, “I think it is really just 1 in 10 bad men or something like that. I don’t think I am part of a rape culture.”
I wish I could believe that. Of course, 10% of men being violent does constituent a cultural problem, but what struck me was how easy it was for this prof to believe this, when that idea of safety was robbed from me by STU in my very first year, five years ago.
It was not just taken by the one man who sexually assaulted my friend. It was taken because after he made that choice, the choices of administration at STU showed a culture that was not just dismissive, not flippant like this prof, but violent in its own way. And while I am so glad that a policy has come out last week, knowing the history tells me we have to keep watching, keep holding universities accountable.
When my friend was sexually assaulted in January of my first year, I still loved my school.
Everything felt like such an insular and planned environment, that we truly believed that if we waited, if we did everything we were thought we should, something good would come: if not justice, then at least safety. Six weeks later, after I returned from March Break without my friend there, I realized I was wrong.
My roommate and I went to Residence Life and shared our concerns. We asked to see the sexual assault policy to find that they hadn’t looked at one when our friend was assaulted in their building.
We asked who was responsible, they said the Dean of Students. We asked for a meeting with the Dean and insisted on seeing the policy.
We got an email that the Dean wanted to talk to us about alcohol and safety in residence. We replied that was great, but we wanted to talk to him about rape. We asked again to see the policy.
They sent us a pamphlet explaining Dalhousie’s policy and said “it looks a lot like this.”
We realized what they were saying: we do not have one, so go away. We didn’t. We spent all of our spare time (and then some) dedicated to convincing the school to make one. We met with professors, students and went to the archives. We put in official complaints under the harassment policy and then were told it did not apply to students. We had motions passed at the faculty and student union (the incoming student president laughed).
Eventually, we did meet with the Dean of Students. And while we gave him our list of concerns, he told us he did not like our tone. I remember this man, who gave cookies out in the courtyard, looking us in the eye and asking, “What do you want? Do you want me to feel bad? I do. I feel horrible.” He offered no other action.
People make choices. Men who rape make choices, but they are not the only ones with power.
And for the years since 2003, when STU last had a sexual assault policy, until today, administrators at STU, fully aware of how vulnerable their students are, have made choices too, choices that contribute to a culture.
Enraged, we finally decided to go to media and did a story with Global News. The university announced to the media then, in 2010, that they would make a policy. It got us a meeting with the university president. At the time, that was an all-male administration with a female assistant registrar. Without telling us beforehand, they were all waiting in the board room when we arrived for the meeting. All the seats were taken, and so my roommate (and now fellow activist) could not sit beside each other. I was between the president, and the director of communications. The man who sat beside my roommate had a pile of our posters in a file, posters that he had taken off the walls around campus.
Universities make choices. The choice that day was to challenge us, to take every bit of anger we had, every hurt, every scar from the trauma we had seen, and make us amplify it until it was loud enough to hurt them too. And so contrary to what my professor said last year, STU creates a rape culture, which seems to only matter when the experiences of women are loud enough to touch the people directing the university.
I returned to STU in my second year wanting to move on. I remember the day I heard of another rape on campus, and felt like I had failed that woman. I felt like for all the long days, all the anger and all the tears, I had done nothing for her. I know now I was naïve to think I was really addressing STU’s rape culture, and that brings us to where things are now. We have a policy, but a policy that comes as a response to tragedy and publicity does not change the culture of STU. I have seen policies like this before, and I know they are not enough.
People make choices, and until the choices of our administration change the culture of the university, they create rape culture.
So thank you STU, for creating a policy. Thank you UNB for creating a policy. But the real people I thank are the people who somehow act in defiance of this culture, and who hold universities accountable.
Hannah Gray is a student at St. Thomas University and a member of Reproductive Justice NB.