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Thirty years after Canada made far-reaching changes to sexual-assault laws, many in the field believe the situation is worse than ever.

Drinking games are a fixture of college life across the country – beer pong even has its own "world series." But one such event is known only to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

It has two degrees of difficulty, and accomplishing either is worth a badge for an engineering student's faculty jacket. For the first, he or (in theory) she must locate one of the more than five dozen "blue light" emergency phones on campus, then down a can of Labatt's suitably named Blue Light, press the alarm and run away.

The more advanced form, worth a "true blue" badge, requires removing the phone altogether and taping the empty beer can in its place – then running away.

Last year, university officials recorded no fewer than 320 such stunts, which could qualify as good, clean fun but for the fact that there is nothing very funny about the alarms: They were installed at great expense to keep Queen's women safe.

"Campus security ... never know whether it is a hoax or a real call," says Pamela Cross, who teaches at Queen's law school and is on the board of the city's sexual assault centre. "It's a serious problem."

It also illustrates how, 30 years after Canada made far-reaching legal changes in a bid to put sexual violation in a modern perspective, attitudes have not changed nearly as much as the lawmakers hoped.

A generation has come to maturity since the Criminal Code was rewritten to turn rape into sexual assault. In that time, sexuality has taken on ever-greater prominence in Canadians' daily lives – aided by the rise of secularism and popular culture, along with greater openness about human reproduction and, perhaps most of all, by the advent of the Internet, a veritable cornucopia of hard-core pornography riddled with misogyny.

Not only has sexual violence not faded away in the process, many in the field believe the situation is worse than ever – and something must be done to realize the hopes of 1983.

Alcohol and drugs on campus

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than on the training ground of the nation's best and brightest. Young people, often away from home and free of parental supervision for the first time, offer sexual predators a unique opportunity. Exposed to alcohol and drugs, many shed their inhibitions – and drop their guard.

Queen's is hardly alone. Sexual assault is an issue at schools across the country, with high-profile series of offences at York and Carleton universities in the past few years. Most recently, students at St. Mary's University in Halifax made international news when they went so far as to mock the law by co-opting its language, chanting their endorsement of "non-consensual sex" with underage partners in a video to welcome first-year students. A similar incident occurred this fall at the University of British Columbia.

One alumnus of St. Mary's was so appalled he flew to Halifax from Calgary to hand back his "valueless" degrees in person.

"I wanted to distance myself [from] the embarrassment and shame I felt from this sort of culture," businessman Darren Miller declared. "I am not that kind of guy."

But "that kind of guy" is remarkably abundant, even as skeptics of the law minimize the psychological severity of sexual violation and dismiss complainants as habitual liars or at least prone to exaggeration.

"Women in the 18-to-25 age group are at a much higher risk to be sexually assaulted," says Summer Rain Bentham, a worker at Vancouver's Rape Relief and Women's Shelter. "There needs to be special attention anywhere a large number of those people get together – campuses, parties, arenas, sporting events and bars or clubs."

And campuses are too often the scene of the crime, especially when a rape is the product of a date and some form of what police call "drug assistance."

Alcohol has always been the biggest date-rape drug, "whether it's men taking advantage of a woman who has had too much to drink or purposely setting out to ply her with liquor," says University of Ottawa criminologist Holly Johnson.

Recent years have seen the appearance of pharmacopia of even more effective products, such as rophenol, a powerful sleep medication sold in Europe but illegal in North America, along with ketamine, a powerful veterinary sedative, and gamma-hydroxybutyrate (GHB), a stimulant known as liquid ecstasy.

Rendered unconscious by some chemicals, victims "wake up and can't figure it out," says Elizabeth Sheehy, a University of Ottawa law professor. " 'Why am I here? Where are my clothes?' They have flashes of memory. It may take them the course of the day to figure out that something really bad happened, and maybe they go to the hospital at night."

That may be too late. Few date rape drugs stay in the body for long – some vanish in as little as four hours.

How widespread is the problem? Experts don't really know, as it is widely accepted that about 90 per cent of sexual assault victims do not report attacks. But in 2009, Montreal police seized an estimated $1.4-billion worth of GHB, and a year later a bust in Vancouver netted an estimated $50-million worth of ketamine. Last year, a raid at an Edmonton couple's home turned up no less than than 100 litres of liquid GHB.

The problem has yet to be researched widely, but Janice Du Mont, a scientist at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, studied 882 women who had reported being sexually assaulted. Using interviews and toxicology screening, she found evidence that 184 had been drugged first.

"The numbers may have actually be higher than what we found because of the short half-life of these drugs," she says.

When she included those who'd had alcohol, Dr. Du Mont calculated that 64.4 per cent of the victims had been intoxicated in some form.

Anther study, led by Margaret McGregor, a professor of medicine in Vancouver, yielded equally worrisome results. It found that from 1993 to 1999, the number of apparent date-rape druggings referred to hospitals had doubled from 12 per cent from 6 per cent of all sexual assault cases in the city.

'We need a huge change in social norms'

But date rape drugs and the battle on campus are part of a much larger problem. If, after three decades, Canada's approach has sexual assault thriving, what more can be done?

As the author of the Queen's newspaper article put it, "The blue lights and Walkhome [a free escort home from school] are both strategies that put the onus on people to not get sexually assaulted – they don't target those who might or intend to sexually assault someone.

"How can they be considered effective when, according to one survey, 35 per cent of men said they would commit sexual assault if they knew they could get away with it? ... Why does our university and our student government still have no strategies for targeting potential sexual assaulters?"

Ms. Bentham agrees: "It is not great when campaigns are aimed at warning women," she says. "Women cannot prevent attacks. Only men can choose not to attack."

Some campuses have started education programs to persuade men to speak up or take action if they notice someone taking advantage of an inebriated woman.

But U of O's Prof. Johnson says much more is called for. "What we really need is to challenge the kinds of myths and stereotypes we still live with," she says. "We need a huge change in social norms, similar to what we did around impaired driving."

For Lee Lakeman, a Vancouver feminist and sexual-assault activist, the greatest step forward would be a step back in time – to 1983.

At that time, a powerful network of well-funded women's organizations, lobby groups and a government ministry identified social and legal problems, and proposed remedies. "Out of it came transition houses, rape-crisis centres and research," she says.

In recent years, funding for women's groups and shelters has been slashed and the federal Minister of Justice has stopped funding and attending an annual meeting where a broad coalition of women's advocacy groups used to put their heads together.

Were such a network alive today, Ms. Lakeman says, the flawed consequences of the 1983 sexual-assault reforms would have been refined and reformed.

The persistent campus fiascos notwithstanding, she is optimistic that a series of high-profile rape cases abroad has rekindled a sense of outrage among young women – and a growing number of men.

Closer to home, she notes, parents who have had pornographic depictions of their children posted on the Internet have lobbied for better police investigations and legal changes; and many young women are rebelling against the way women are objectified in the mass media.

Resurgence of activism

In some cases, victims and their advocates are taking matters into their own hands.

"Most women who call us don't want to use the police," Ms. Bentham says. "So, we are coming up with other ways of getting accountability and action."

Activists are tracking bars where women consistently report being administered date-rape drugs. They will also "out" suspected rapists with an Internet campaign or a neighbourhood posters that identify them.

"If you want to raise awareness of who a man is and who he is targeting," such tactics "can be extremely effective and help mobilize a community," Ms. Bentham says.

Such campaigns also can exert pressure on authorities to take allegations more seriously. One recently went after an aboriginal man who had been targeting young aboriginal girls.

"We started getting calls every time he showed up at a SkyTrain or was seen with a young girl," Ms. Bentham says.

As a result, so many complainants have come forward that the man is facing 15 charges, including sexual assault, distributing child pornography and administering date-rape drugs.

Ms. Lakeman says the resurgence of activism reminds her of the push that led to the 1983 rape reforms, as well as the wave of protest after the massacre at Montreal's École Polytechnique six years later.

"We are at a very important moment in history," she contends. "I am actually hopeful that there is going to be a big shake-up."


Thirty years ago, the Criminal Code was changed to bring in new laws to replace the offences of rape and indecent assault. Here's what was changed:

1. The legal term "rape" was replaced by three categories of sexual assault – a change that was meant to illustrate these offences are not just about sex, but acts of physical and psychological violence.

2. For the first time, the law extended to men and women – and husbands and wives. Previously, spouses and women could not be charged with rape.

3. The old rape law had a maximum penalty of life imprisonment (and five years and 10 years in prison for indecent assault against females and males, respectively). The new law features up to 10 years in prison for a simple sexual assault; a maximum of 14 years for a sexual assault with a weapon or causing bodily harm; and up to life in prison for an "aggravated" sexual assault – wounding or endangering the victim's life.

4. Corroboration of an adult victim's account of an attack is no longer needed as a prerequisite for a conviction. Evidence about the victim's previous sexual conduct was also restricted, and a new policy was introduced that third-party records cannot be obtained unless a judge vets them and decides they are directly relevant.

Kirk Makin is an award-winning Toronto writer who recently retired after covering the justice system for The Globe and Mail for three decades. He may be reached at