Sexualized violence is a prevalent issue on university campuses across Canada. Statistics Canada reported that 71% of students at post-secondary schools “witnessed or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours in a postsecondary setting in 2019.” Strong systems of support for survivors, as well as active sexualized violence prevention, are critical parts of ensuring a safe and healthy campus for all students.
It is the responsibility of the university to provide a safe and equitable learning environment, and supporting sexual violence survivors is an important part of that task. Acadia University’s Sexualized Violence Policy states that the school does not tolerate sexualized violence. The policy defines sexualized violence as such:
Any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, or other act (touching, verbal, and physical intimidation) directed against a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or gender expression, including use of coercion or under circumstances in which consent cannot be given (e.g. alcohol or drug intoxication), by any person regardless of their relationship to the individual in any setting. Sexualized violence may include sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual cyber-bullying, stalking, indecent exposure, threats, voyeurism, and sexual exploitation.
The university has vocalized a clear stance against sexualized violence on campus, but it is the systems that are put in place to enforce that position that are essential to its function.
Last fall, the Athenaeum’s Editor in Chief Axel Eschholz had the opportunity to discuss Acadia’s sexualized violence response with Allison Smith, Acadia’s Sexualized Violence Response and Education Coordinator. Smith’s role involves working one on one with survivors and other individuals impacted by sexualized violence. She also works to provide education and training regarding topics such as consent, bystander intervention, and best practices when responding to sexualized violence disclosures.
Given that Smith is working directly with individuals on campus who have been directly impacted by sexualized violence she has valuable insight into the current climate at Acadia. When asked about the prevalence of sexualized violence within the Acadia community, Smith stated that “it is prevalent… we know statistically speaking that sexualized violence happens everywhere, and this of course includes the university context.”
Smith also considered the growing awareness of sexualized violence, commenting that “universities collectively are beginning to recognize that this is a serious issue impacting our student community… over the last five years or so you see more and more universities developing positions such as mine and coming up with more robust and survivor-focused sexualized violence policies.”
The past few years have marked a shift in how universities are discussing and addressing sexualized violence on campuses. There has been new attention given to providing support to survivors, but that does not mean that the systemic issues regarding sexual violence have disappeared. It remains important to consider whether or not Acadia’s sexualized violence policies are meeting community needs. When asked to comment on if the policy is sufficient Smith stated that “yes [the policy is sufficient]… Acadia ranked number one in sexualized violence prevention in the Maclean’s ranking this year, and I would say that a lot of that comes down to the work that was put into that policy by the students who advocated for it and the committee that brought it into being as the survivor-focused and trauma-informed policy that it is today.”
Smith stated that the policy “does allow for a lot of options for survivors… it also allows for appropriate sanctions to be put in place for perpetrators. It gives a variety of options ranging from mandatory training and education for perpetrators to more serious penalties like suspension or expulsion if that is warranted.” While no contact orders are used in certain cases, Smith noted that they are sometimes used as an interim measure rather than being used in lieu of suspension or expulsion. Smith further noted that the survivor’s wishes are always prioritized in any formal or informal action that happens under the Sexualized Violence Policy.
Smith does acknowledge that “in the past there has been a lot of frustration from students at Acadia and other universities about inaction on the part of the administration to address these issues in a meaningful way.”
“That era is over. This stage of where we are collectively is that space of accountability. We know that sexualized violence impacts our student community, and we have the tools in place to address the behaviors,” said Smith.
There is certainly work that remains from both the administration and the campus community as a whole to combat sexualized violence at Acadia. Smith encourages community members to call out problematic behaviour when they see it and to believe survivors when they share their experiences with you.
When asked how the administration can improve its policies to mitigate sexual violence on campus and hold perpetrators accountable Smith commented that she feels very supported by the administration and the current push for accountability. Smith did note that “it would be wonderful to have more people working in this office, this is the kind of work that benefits from working as a collective. I find that a lot of the work I do is reactive rather than preventative… My dream scenario would be that there would be more people able to work under the mandate of this office so that more energy could be put into training and education across campus where I think it’s really needed”
In terms of what community members can do Smith emphasized the “need [for] others to support [her work on campus]. What that can look like is creating opportunities for discussion… What it really comes down to is that we all have an obligation to examine our own beliefs about sexualized violence and ensure that we support our community members who experience this kind of harm.”
Following are some of Smith’s answers to more questions about how to support survivors of sexualized violence on campus.
What should students do if their friend experiences sexual violence?
“They can support that friend in terms of assuring that person that they are believed. They can also help them access resources, such as my office. I’m always thrilled when students direct their friends to come talk to me. I think that there’s a lot that students can do to provide ongoing support to their friends, but I think that oftentimes that’s a heavy burden to bear when you’re a student yourself. It’s important to recognize that sexualized violence is very common, and a student who experiences a disclosure may be somebody who has a past where they themselves have experienced sexual violence. I don’t want to see that much responsibility put on survivors to support other survivors. I think that the best thing for students to do to help a friend is to ask their friend what they need and provide what support they can, while also recognizing their own capacity and not taking on too much. My office is there to help student survivors. Students can also do a lot to support survivors by helping to dismantle rape culture, making it very clear that they are allies to survivors and that they don’t tolerate toxic behaviour and violence.”
What are some resources on campus for victims of sexualized violence?
“There is my office, and the Counselling Center as well. Our counselors have training in trauma informed practice. Those would be the two primary resources that exist on our campus. There are other excellent on and off campus resources that you can find by googling ‘Acadia University – sexualized violence’ or visiting here.”
What steps can be taken on campus to make survivors feel able to speak up about their experience?
“I think that oftentimes people don’t know that the resources are there, so I think that it is helpful to broadcast that this is an office that exists on campus and that this is a policy that exists on campus and that believing survivors is its cornerstone principle. Getting the word out there is important because it validates how important this issue is… I find that in my work a lot of students who speak with me have feelings of self-doubt or shame that they carry with them. Sometimes there is a reluctance to name the perpetrator because they are afraid of harming that person’s life in some way. Sometimes there are feelings of internalized self-blame. Survivors go through very harmful experiences and often feel very vulnerable afterwards. It is at that time that those voices of self-doubt and self-blame are most likely to creep in. We all bear a responsibility to give loving and compassionate support to others so that they are less likely to carry those feelings [of guilt and shame]. I think that students and the community can do a lot to put forward that message of believing survivors and that survivors are worthy of support.”
Information and resources regarding Acadia’s sexualized violence response can be found through the university’s website. The sexualized violence page, found under the student life section of the website, provides information for students who have been directly and indirectly affected by sexualized violence.
*Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity