“Rape culture” issues hit home for University of Ottawa

College students have been at the forefront of trying to change the "culture of rape" with high-profile events such as this "Slut Walk" in Toronto. Photo: Eric Parker, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

College students have been at the forefront of trying to change the “culture of rape” with high-profile events such as this “Slut Walk” in Toronto. Photo: Eric Parker, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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?

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9 Comments on ““Rape culture” issues hit home for University of Ottawa”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Bottom line fact of rape is that if you resort to rape, you may be a male but you aren’t a man.
    What we need to teach young men and those older who have yet to grow up is that rape is a sign of immaturity.
    Using force to have sex, be it physical force, position of authority or using drugs or booze to obtain what otherwise wouldn’t be obtained is a sign of a male who is too weak to be a man.

  2. shovel says:

    Reporting on this issue is so tricky. Simply repeating the facts of the cases can perpetuate the problem, giving a voice to those who say and do these things as a bid for notoriety. On the other hand, we need to shift the norm away from letting such nasty stuff go without comment.

    I disagree with the idea that porn is a major influence in creating the type of online atmosphere that is hostile to women. It’s more likely to be a reflection of the backlash against the changing role of women in society. We can see this in the way many states are refighting the abortion debates of 50 years ago, in the predictable media fascination with the appearance and personal life of any prominent woman, in Limbaugh’s unhinged rants about contraceptives.

    A good read on this topic is “The End of Men” by Hanna Rosin. Changes are underway that affect all of us, but not all of these changes are positive. There is a lot of uncertainty ahead, and I tend to think that is why we are seeing this kind of resentment.

  3. jeff says:

    Is there something wrong with guys discussing their fantasies?

    This topic is too big for a little blog.

    I’d say the internet is the last to arrive on the smut scene as TV (Canadian standards are lower than those in the US) and movies came before. Young men need men with good morals to teach men to teach proper behavior. Moms need to talk too. Boys will be boys but are dad and mom objecting to bad behavior they see or control what the kids can readily see. Are they saying we don’t need this and shutting stuff out? Sure kids may attempt to get stuff anyway but they will know it is wrong.

    Public discourse sets a poor tone. That begins even with examples of what language gets used in public. When foul language gets into daily commercials- as I heard on commercials during the Superbowl- it is like sitting beside a bass drum. As a Canadian Lucy you were subjected to less restraint on TV than down here.

    Why does a kiss at the door have to progress into the bedroom on so many programs and movies and that event is between two people who are not interested in the heat of the moment. Leave things to the imagination. There is a line in MY Fair Lady..”the gentle sex was made for man to marry but with a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck you can have it all and not get hooked.” In its day it got a chuckle but marriage had a lot more respect.

    Who is holding the boys accountable? Is dad saying to his daughter-you don’t go out with someone unless he asks me. Oh but that isn’t cool today. And hooking up is? The culture pays for the consequences and here we are- rape culture.

    One book I read, written by a woman, and I am not blaming women for rape, told teens (the book audience) girls- if you ain’t selling it- don’t show it.

    “There’s not a darn thing wrong with putting him near, a girlish, womanly, female, feminine, dame!” (South Pacific) Well there is great potential for problems if there is no leash on the man The leash needs to be in his mind- what is this country teaching him by its example?

  4. mervel says:

    Rape culture is real. There is an idea among some men that it is okay to sexually push yourself on women, that rape is ok boys will be boys. Its not new, football and hockey players and frats, have been raping women for a long time, and universities have been covering it up for a long time. I am not sure on porn, much of porn is violent in nature, most porn itself is exploitative. So I am not sure? Its probably like extreme violence it makes people desensitized to what is happening, but then again rape IS violence.

  5. jeff says:

    I missed Lucy’s comment about not favoring censorship. That is the crux of the issue. Why even use the example of the men’s remarks if there is no desire for censorship? To say something is wrong is to initiate censorship. If a submission to this page gets out of line so to speak it will be censored.

  6. The Original Larry says:

    I suspect that rape has less to do with sex than it has to do with violence. I see it as an expression of rage or a demonstration of power, not as an attempt to obtain the un-obtainable. After all, consensual sex of all varieties is easily obtainable now, more than ever. Why then, would anyone need to forcibly take that which is freely given unless there are other, darker motives at work? We need to attack the root causes of unrestrained violence whether they are expressed sexually or with a gun or a bomb.

    A thought about porn: even if men are the majority of the audience (which is not certain) and even if it is a contributory factor in the development of a “rape culture” (also not certain), what is to be said about the fact that the vast majority of porn features women actors? Thoughts?

  7. Contributing Factor says:

    The common factors shared between the military and University settings are young people and alcohol. We do a terrible job teaching kids what alcohol actually does. Something like 90% of all rapes involve alcohol, and recent research by the University of Hawaii showed that in nearly 50% of all rapes BOTH people are drunk. Other recent research showed that sexually aggressive males seek out drunk women (obvious, I know). Being drunk in no way excuses rapists’ behavior, but young people need to be made more aware of the dangers in alcohol soaked college and military weekends. I’d bet most young people entering into these worlds don’t even know what blackout drunk is.

    The only new thing here is the introduction of electronic communication, meaning that things like the brutish conversations like the men at U of Ottawa had are made permanent.

  8. Paul says:

    This also raises the question of how much of this is related to the increased visibility of this type of behavior with things like social media and the internet in general.

    Is the “culture” changing or is it coming out of the shadows?

    If you look back historically there is no shortage of men treating woman (or children) badly. It may be harder to get away with it today.

    For example back in the 1800s I don’t think it was even possible to charge a husband with the crime of raping his wife. That isn’t because it didn’t happen.

  9. mervel says:

    I think that is a good question? I think there is a sub-culture among some men that see’s women as open game for rape, and today they have songs about it etc, so that may be different, the lack of shame about raping someone among these groups.

    It wasn’t the 1800’s up until the 1970’s or 80’s you could not be charged for raping your wife in many states in the US.

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