The Role of Policy in Changing Rape Culture

Gender and public policy event

Image: Gender and Public Policy Workshop panel on February 9

At last week’s Gender and Public Policy Workshop, Crafting Safe Space: Rape Culture in Canada’s Public Institutions, METRAC’s Executive Director Wendy Komiotis joined a panel with YWCA Canada’s Director of Advocacy and Public Policy Ann Decter and Judith Taylor, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. In her presentation, Wendy addressed how policy intersects with rape culture. Here’s a summary of some of her insights.

What is the role of policy in changing culture? Is it solely a reactive tool or can it be used to change harmful systemic issues that enable rape culture?

Policy informs how we view our world, what is acceptable and unacceptable and what’s a “problem” to be dealt with. Gaps in policy say a lot about what we believe we’re collectively responsible for and what we think institutions should do for us. When it comes to gender-based violence, policy can change the way violence is viewed, dealt with and problematized as something that needs to be stopped. Public policy won’t magically end the tendency to downplay, mimimize or normalize rape, but the right policies can help get us on the right track to changing our culture.

What are the limitations and difficulties in addressing the issue? Do we have to wait for windows of political opportunity to push advocacy?

It seems our effectiveness is indeed correlated to windows of opportunity such as media attention on a celebrity case and political agendas. Nowadays, there’s attention on sexual assault and harassment in institutions and workplaces, and that has meant more scrutiny on policy and what leaders are doing to address it. The difficulty is that sexual violence has been a problem for a long time, and reporting rates have been low for a long time. It’s not a new problem, but our hope is that this window of attention will lead to long-term action.

What are some root causes of rape culture in public institutions and on what areas of policy should we focus?

Root causes in institutions are tied to broader rape culture.

  • Rape is often seen as “private” and between individuals – “it’s their business”. With that social belief, the institution doesn’t seem to have a role to prevent or end it.
  • We have a history of blaming of the survivor/victim. With that belief, people attached to an institution are responsible for taking care of themselves and their risks of assault are “personal” and not an institutional concern.
  • We’ve built man-centred institutions where women and other genders have been positioned as “guests” and newcomers. In that scheme, reducing gender-based violence is not inherently incorporated into the way institutions are designed or managed.

Key areas of policy to focus on according to our Sexual Assault Policies on Campus: A Discussion Paper include:

  • mechanisms to guard survivors/victims in the reporting process so they feel they can report if they choose to, they know they’ll have access to protections and help if they do and they can report to police if they want but they aren’t forced to do so.
  • mechanisms to ensure people who investigate or lead tribunals or other processes to follow up on a complaint are well-trained on the unique power dynamics inherent to sexual violence cases.
  • mechanisms to ensure survivors/victims are informed about the final decision after a complaints investigative process.

Read about Judith Taylor’s presentation in our previous post.