OUTA Reflections: Prof Chris Linder’s Keynote Address, Part 2

Professor Chris Linder’s Reflections to Colleges & Universities Engaging in Sexual Violence Prevention Work, Part 2

Thoughts from the Ontario Universities Taking Action Against Sexual Violence (OUTA) Conference in Kingston, ON

This is Part 2 of a three-part blog series. Read Part 1 here.

PART 2: Implications of a power-conscious approach to sexual violence for post-secondary institutions

Last week, we explored how post-secondary institutions currently do work around sexual violence and the historical roots of that sexual violence. Today, we can start thinking about what the grounding of sexual violence in racism and colonialism means for colleges and universities in Canada. What are the implications for the work happening on the ground?

Professor Chris Linder offered three pieces of reflection for how institutions consider and respond to sexual violence on campus.

Over-emphasis on law and policy

Professor Linder believes that we should think critically of concentrating institutions’ resources on developing policies with the sole purpose of increasing the reports of sexual violence incidents. To be sure, there is a need for sexual assault policies to exist on campus. In recent years, a severe lack of sexual assault policies on Canadian campuses was first identified by METRAC and post-secondary education advocates, and, following an investigation by the Toronto Star, we learned that only nine out of more than 100 post-secondary institutions had adopted a special policy on sexual assault. The move to establish stand-alone policies on Canadian campuses is encouraging because clear and effective stand-alone policies help create “an environment where everyone on campus knows that sexual violence is unacceptable, victims receive the services they need, and perpetrators are held accountable”.

As important as unique sexual assault policies are, Professor Linder invited us to reflect on two key issues while developing them. First, who is involved in the development of these policies? Are the core constituents affected by sexual violence, in this case students, given an integral role on the bodies creating and reviewing the policies? How is intersectionality and diversity included in the policy? It is important to move away from a “one size fits all” way of approaching policies and consider the diverse student experiences that should shape policy development. Second, it is worth acknowledging that the legal system which helps frame sexual assault policies is also built on a foundation of racism and colonialism. Professor Linder encouraged us to think about who those systems benefit, and who they marginalize, as well as to think about alternative models of justice.

Misperceptions of victims and perpetrators

Too often, a “good” victim is an educated, white woman, while a “typical” perpetrator is a racialized, unpopular man. Professor Linder highlighted that these rape myths work unconsciously and affect institutions’ actions when thinking about sexual violence, especially when it comes to dealing with what is considered to be “potential victims” and “potential perpetrators”.

Most studies on sexual violence do not collect race-based data or sexual orientation data which renders invisible whole groups and populations. As we explored in our earlier blog post, sexual violence is rooted in racism and colonialism, which inform rape myths that uphold sexual violence as a “white women” issue. Professor Linder challenged the room to think about who we perceive as the people most deserving of being saved; what type of person do we imagine? How can we ensure that those perceptions are not harmful, but reflective of all survivors of sexual violence?

Failing to hold perpetrators accountable

Though Professor Linder firmly believes that all perpetrators should be held accountable for their actions, she did mention interesting statistics on the varying types of consequences depending on the identity of the perpetrator. Professor Linder informed us that black or racialized perpetrators are more likely to be held accountable and face consequences than white perpetrators. She believes that this stems from a fear of the “wrong” perpetrators. In fact, we know that in the United States, perpetrators of sexual violence are not only overwhelmingly an acquaintance of the survivor, they are also overwhelmingly white.

Ignoring these statistics leads to increased rates of sexual violence, because education and prevention campaigns are not targeting the right “potential perpetrators”. In fact, most initiatives tend to put too much responsibility on “potential victims”, like self-defense classes or learning how to set boundaries. Professor Linder stated that these initiatives have limits because numbers don’t lie: incidents of sexual violence are not decreasing. Something needs to change.

But what, exactly, is that something? What can institutions do to incorporate a power-conscious approach to sexual violence prevention on campuses? Join us next week as we explore Professor Chris Linder’s recommendations to universities and colleges preparing sexual violence prevention strategies in our third and final blog post of this OUTA 2016 Conference retrospective series!