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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. (ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Thirty years after Canada made far-reaching changes to sexual-assault laws, many in the field believe the situation is worse than ever. (ILLUSTRATION BY THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Why campuses are too often the scene of sex crimes Add to ...

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.

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