The ugly act of rape has probably plagued humanity forever. But these days there’s a lot of discussion about attitudes that arguably permit – or encourage – sexual violence. Some insist we live in a what’s been labeled a “culture of rape” and more should be done to combat that reality.
The debate about rape culture became very concrete last week for the University of Ottawa. (Side note: If you accept the concept of rape culture it’s a problem to a greater or lesser degree all around the world. But for a variety of reasons the issue in Canada and the U.S. seems exacerbated on college/university campuses and in the military.)
Recently the University of Ottawa got hit with a double whammy. First, it was revealed in February that Anne-Marie Roy, head of the university’s Student Federation, was the subject of a rowdy online chat by five males, four of whom were also involved in student leadership positions. As reported by the CBC:
The online conversation — a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press — included references to sexual activities some of the five individuals wrote they would like to engage in with Roy, including oral and anal sex, as well as suggestions that she suffered from sexually transmitted diseases.
“Someone punish her with their shaft,” wrote one of the individuals at one point. “I do believe that with my reputation I would destroy her,” wrote another.
After confronting a member of the conversation in person, Roy said she received an emailed apology from all five men which emphasized that their comments were never actual threats against her.
“While it doesn’t change the inadmissible nature of our comments, we wish to assure you we meant you no harm,” the apology, written in French, read.
Apparently this conversation was conducted privately on a social media site, but screenshots became available. (Four of the men involved initially threatened legal action if their conversation was made public.) The UO’s English-language newspaper, The Fulcrum, has more extensive coverage here.
The messy incident is illustrative of the “rape culture” debate. Was that private fun between friends, which amounts to nothing more than jokes in poor taste? Or does it prove objectification and violence – real or implied – have become insidiously normal?
Close on the heels of that revelation came an announcement on March 3rd from the UO that the entire men’s ice hockey team was suspended as a result of an investigation into an allegation of sexual assault involving an unknown number of hockey players during a team visit to Thunder Bay. As of this writing, not a lot has been made public about the investigation being conducted by police in Thunder Bay. Here’s how that’s been reported by The Fulcrum.
Shortly after the suspension, top University officials held a press conference on March 6th to announce a task force to deal with the issue. While the array of responses available to administrators is not infinite, some are unimpressed. As reported by the Ottawa Citizen on March 7th:
Isabelle Hetu, president of the union of student workers at the university, said she doubts the task force will elicit results.
“There’s a lot of other task forces that have been created by the University of Ottawa in the past years. They’ve all ended up on a shelf and no one’s heard about it,” she said. “I can pretty much assure you that we won’t see the results of that in the near future.”
Hetu, a graduate student, is involved with the independent initiative against rape culture on campus, which has a list of recommendations aimed at changing the culture on campus, including a mandatory course about harassment and discrimination.
Task forces, mandatory courses…how do any of those get big enough to change something this pervasive? And while it’s the University of Ottawa getting the negative headlines right now, this is not a problem confined to any single campus or country.
Personally, I think the Internet is part of the problem. Porn of all types is so freely available. There’s a sense that it can be consumed, shared and discussed freely in private circles. This general smutification (my own made-up word) flourishes, creating a new normal – a secret undercurrent, if you will. (And with or without sex, social media has exacerbated the issue of bullying too, which tends to be part of this problem.)
The Internet isn’t going away. Porn isn’t going away. And I don’t favor censorship. So what counter forces can be brought to bear on the scourge of sexual violence?