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Students at post-secondary institutions across Ontario are taking part in a survey on sexual violence as part of the province’s efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment on campus.

The online survey is made up of over 50 questions that gauge respondents’ perceptions of consent and rape myths, their experiences with sexual violence, and how well they think their school responds to reports of sexual violence.

Ontario’s minister of advanced education and skills development said the province commissioned the survey to improve how the issue is dealt with.

“Research shows that sexual violence is consistently under-reported and really lacks consistent data,” Mitzie Hunter said in an interview.

“This survey is one component of a multifaceted strategy that we’ve developed here at the province to better understand and respond to sexual violence and harassment on campus, and frankly to change the culture and the climate around this issue.”

Legislation that came into effect Jan. 1, 2017, made it mandatory for all universities and colleges in the province to have policies that lay out rules and guidelines for reporting, investigating and disciplining sexual violence.

“We are doing the survey to get better data and equip institutions with the information they need to make changes,” Hunter explained. “We know there is more work to be done for sure and we are committed to doing that work.”

The Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey is open to undergraduate and graduate students at universities, colleges and private post-secondary vocational schools. Eligible respondents were emailed an invitation to the survey.

University students have access to the survey until Monday, while college students have until April 2 to send in their responses. Students at private vocational colleges completed the survey between Feb. 16 and March 16.

The results will be compiled, analysed and shared with post-secondary school administrations in the summer, Hunter said. Some of the data will be made public, though the government has not yet determined which parts that will include, the minister added.

At least one advocacy group is criticizing the survey, however, saying it does not address certain issues and may be difficult for some students to understand.

“There was a lot of confusion (among students) when filling out the survey,” said Jade Cooligan Pang, a Carleton University student and one of the organizers of Our Turn, a Canada-wide organization that works to prevent sexual violence on campus “There was a significant lack of definitions – for example the definition of consent is not part of the survey. The survey does not necessarily discuss institutional harms that might have taken place, or any retraumatization a survivor may have experienced when reporting to their post-secondary institution.”

Cooligan Pang said she and other Our Turn leaders met with Hunter on March 20 to discuss the roadblocks survivors often face when trying to tell university or college officials about a sexual assault.

“We know for a fact that some students are being told they are unable to file a formal complaint with their post-secondary institution,” Cooligan Pang said. “These numbers are not reported because an investigation never takes place.”

Our Turn has called on the province to create a set of “minimum standards” for supports and services related to dealing with sexual violence and assault, and an oversight mechanism for the way schools handle such reports.

It is also important to give survivors of sexual violence a means of reporting their experiences anonymously, Cooligan Pang said.

“Anonymous reporting provides survivors who are not ready to go through a formal compliant or police investigation with a way of reporting so that people are aware what is happening in the community without having to go through the taxing process of a formal report,” she said.

Sharing a story of sexual assault or harassment in an anonymous forum can be therapeutic for survivors, noted Karen Kelsky, a U.S. anthropologist who created and circulated a survey for post-secondary students, researchers and instructors to anonymously report recent and historical allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by faculty members.

“The #MeToo movement prompted women to begin to tell their stories anonymously,” she said. “As they told their stories anonymously, they said, ‘I’ve never told this story to anyone and it is such a relief and so healing to me to tell it even though I’m not naming names.’”