Rape culture: why institutional change is difficult

Gender and public policy event

Image: Gender and Public Policy Workshop panel

When it comes to building safer spaces and tackling widespread rape culture, why is it so difficult for institutions and organizations to change? This question was addressed at yesterday’s University of Toronto Gender and Public Policy Workshop, Crafting Safe Space: Rape Culture in Canada’s Public Institutions.

Wendy Komiotis, METRAC’s Executive Director, joined a panel with YWCA Canada’s Director of Advocacy and Public Policy Ann Decter and Judith Taylor, Associate Professor of Sociology, cross-appointed to the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. Judith Taylor’s presentation provided a high-level analysis of how institutions are often structured in a way that is resilient to change. While the analysis was applied to post-secondary institutions, the key principles she discussed can apply to many institutions and organizations.

  • The “silent treatment”. Institutions are prone to not respond to instances where rape culture reveals itself or they wait too long to do so. Initial energies to deal with a problem quickly dissipate and status quo easily returns, leaving underlying problems intact.
  • Redirection: people who make sexual assault complaints often find themselves in an institutional maze because no single department or mandated individual is necessarily “in charge” of dealing with the issue. Again, the root causes of the problem stays intact.
  • Absorption: structures such as sexual harassment departments may be in place, but policies and practices under which they operate might erase the central power imbalance inherent to sexual violence and recast incidents as “misunderstandings” between individuals. In that instance, outcomes tend to be ineffective and draining for survivors and make little dent in changing institutional culture for the better.

This resilience to change presents a real challenge for institutions and will necessarily lead to great “growing pains”. But to truly tackle rape culture, they must consciously build sexual violence policies and practices that open possibilities for real change and support the needs of survivors.

Read our discussion paper on sexual assault on campus for promising approaches in improving policy and practice in the post-secondary environment.