“I’m not saying that underage rape is okay or it should be encouraged, but [the cheer] maybe gets people out of their personal boundaries and bubbles, you know?” – Jeffery Wang, second-year UBC commerce student, quoted in the campus newspaper The Ubyssey
There was a startling defensiveness from some of the students who participated in highly publicized frosh week “rape chants” at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the University of British Columbia.
They couldn’t make out the words, some explained, but even if they could, what harm is there in words? Others seemed irritated: Their frosh chant – which spelled out the word “YOUNG” with lyrics including “Y is for your sister,” “U is for underage” and “N is for no consent” – was meant to be a fun, high-energy exercise to draw students out of their shells.
The two scandals have seen student leaders resign, frosh events cancelled indefinitely and task forces sent in for “sensitivity training,” but flippant student reaction has stirred even more anger.
“A lot of the outrage here in Vancouver is not just about the chants happening – it’s that the students seemed indifferent,” says Lucia Lorenzi, a PhD student at UBC.
Why the complicity? Lemming-like groupthink and a drive for social standing in first year both play a role, some experts say. More problematically, they argue, these chants reveal that glorification of sexual violence remains alive and well – both at frosh week and in the culture that informs it.
“This is a culture that we see repeated on campuses all over,” says Amanda Dale, executive director at Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence.
Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor and bullying expert, will lead a task force at Saint Mary’s in response to the frosh-week antics. “It’s very dark,” MacKay says of the chants. “There’s a scary groupthink where people basically don’t think. They leave that to the group leader without exercising their own judgment. That’s a scary thing at any level, but perhaps particularly at university, where we’re trying to encourage people to … be reflective about what they say and do.”
That groupthink also involved women, with female frosh leaders at Saint Mary’s smiling and clapping along to the words “no consent” during the chant, which was filmed and posted to Instagram last week.
“There’s a failure of empathy here not just in the men, which is obviously problematic, but even in the women,” MacKay said. “When they’re talking about ‘your sister,’ many of them have a sister … Where are we as a society that we are dehumanizing to the extent that we don’t think about the real life impact of things we’re doing and saying?”
Dale agrees that the chants reveal a “willful ignorance of the many.” She believes the biggest challenge in abating sexist behaviour on campus is reaching people who “don’t see themselves as part of the story, but are actually a Greek chorus.” Many students interviewed by local media immediately after the incidents came to light were aghast at the idea that “a stupid little cheer” could lead to direct physical harm. On the contrary, Dale says such displays can reinforce attitudes: “We condone collectively a culture that allows the extremes to happen, that allows the girl to feel she can’t come forward and the [perpetrator] to feel impunity.”
Dale says a substantial part of the problem lies in a greater misunderstanding of what real consent looks like – women participating in sex that actually appeals to them. “The notion of notches on your bed post, acquiring and discarding women, this kind of approach to sexuality has more in common with control and violence than it does with desire,” says Dale.
A heady campus atmosphere doesn’t help, says Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, a Baltimore-based organization that includes dating violence and sexual assault prevention training for students and professionals at colleges and universities.
“You have young people in an environment away from home for the first time where they are experimenting, and a popular culture that is ratcheting up what that experimentation is supposed to be about. On top of that, many of these young people may be arriving at their universities having little to no conversations about what healthy sexuality and consent are about.”
So is age 19 late for the sensitivity training set to roll out across the blighted schools in Canada?
“We need to get to people younger. We need to have a better-than-just-shaming approach,” says Dale. Irvin concurs: “This is every day, consistent, individual development preparing boys to be allies to their female peers and confront this issue.” Irvin’s organization teaches boys about healthy relationships, communication and leadership starting in elementary school.
“By the time they get to high school and college, they’ve really been vetted to have a high social and emotional intelligence,” he says.
At UBC, Lorenzi is now doing her dissertation on public speech about sexual violence. Two years ago, she was sexually assaulted on campus by a fellow student.
“I went to university, as many people do, with an expectation that the people that you’re studying with, the colleagues you talk about these issues with in sociology or English lit, that they are going to live out those values,” she says.
“The person who assaulted me took a gender studies course. Sometimes the message isn’t exactly going through. We need to be able to connect the educational material to applying this in real life.”
More than 80 per cent of rapes on university and college campuses are committed by someone the victim knows; many happen in the first eight weeks of classes, according to the Canadian organization Act to End Violence Against Women.
In a 1996 survey of male college students, one in five said that forced sex was acceptable “if he spends money on her,” “if he is stoned or drunk” or “if they have been dating for a long time.”
Some 20 to 25 per cent of college-aged women will be victims of sexual assault at some point during their college careers.
Four out of five female undergraduates on Canadian campuses are victims of violence in dating relationships, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report.
Only 6 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to Statistics Canada.