If you have not been on a Canadian campus in the last few years, or don’t have children in university, the term “rape culture” might be new. Perhaps it is even alien and confusing. I’m a student journalist and editor for the McGill Daily, one of the campus newspapers at McGill University. On campus, the term is used often without being defined or broken down, because many assume we are talking about the same thing.
This is particularly true at our paper. For decades, the Daily has thought of itself as an activist, alternative media voice. One thing that makes The Daily unique on campus is its statement of principles, which mandates the paper to question the power structures that perpetuate oppression and inequality. Rape culture, to me, is the environment that puts the onus on the victim, not the perpetrator. It is the actions and attitudes that lead to the survivors of sexual assault being responsible for proving that they were in no way responsible for the crime. The onus is on the victim, not the perpetrator.
Watch your drink so you don’t get drugged – not "don’t drug another person’s drink." Don’t wear that, in case it sends the “wrong message.” It’s the idea that a survivor’s testimony somehow becomes invalid if they, at some point talked to, walked with, or went home with the person who assaulted them. Especially if it’s night time. It is the comments that come out of sexual assaults that somehow because the survivor drank, they deserved what happened. It is the defence that mentions that the accused are “good boys,” or are “too attractive” – as if that excuses someone's crimes. It is the fact that when an article about rape culture, sexual assault or even prevention is published online, it has to be patrolled. Otherwise, anonymous commenters perpetuate violence with comments such as “rape is a lie,” rape doesn’t exist because “women must want it,” that this is all part of some “feminist agenda” to hurt men.
On campus, rape culture can be seen not only during orientation week but also at many campus events. The offensive chants heard across Canadian universities in September during orientation week activities were rape culture. Students and leaders who thought the chants were just a joke, or those who laugh at rape jokes, are also participating in this culture. Universities can perpetuate this culture. After three football players who are McGill students were charged with the sexual assault and confinement of a former Concordia student, the university remained silent. It was only after considerable and sustained student pressure that the university released a statement apologizing for its lack of action and pledging next steps.
One of those steps occurred last week, with the Forum on Consent, which attempted to address issues of consent and demystify the term rape culture. Introduced at the Forum was a policy that specifically addresses sexual assault. McGill, unlike Dalhousie or St. Mary’s, currently only has policies for assault and sexual harassment. Putting a specific policy in place would signal to students that the university acknowledges sexual assault on campus exists and that we as a university community, and society as a whole, need to work to end it.
There will be those that think I am overreacting, that the term rape culture makes connections where none exist. But to those who use the term, rape culture allows assaults to occur when it tolerates rape jokes, chants and initiation rituals; when people – yes, in private – joke about sexually assaulting a student politician, as happened at the University of Ottawa earlier this month. We need to address rape and sexual assault head on, without shying away from the term “rape culture” because it makes people uncomfortable. We need to create a space of legitimacy for the voices and experiences of survivors, and the voices of those who work hard in order to make the campuses we are a part of a safer space.