Writing is fighting: How journalists can tackle university sexual violence

 Photo: Sandra Diaz of the Canadian Women’s Foundation speaks on a panel at Ryerson, Mar. 4. (Photo courtesy Emily Joveski)

[S]tephanie Guthrie is well aware that the pen is oft mightier than the sword.

“I’m going to tell you something you may not know,” the bespectacled feminist advocate said to a room of mostly Ryerson journalism students. “Words are political. Your job as journalists is a political one.”

Guthrie was one of five speakers at a panel called Media Coverage of Sexual Violence on Campus, held at Ryerson last week. The panel discussed ways journalists can responsibly report on sexual violence. Much of the discussion was centred on driving home the fact that rape culture exists everywhere, including Canadian university campuses.

Last year, both Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia and the University of British Columbia (UBC) made headlines for having freshmen sing pro-rape chants during orientation activities. Meanwhile, UBC’s Sauder School of Business performed a sexualized and racist “Pocahontas” chant at their frosh week. The chant went something like this: “Pocah, Pocah, Pocah, Pocahontas – white man took our land, Pocahontas, ass, ass, ass.”

This isn’t just happening during frosh week. You may have heard about the University of Ottawa student union leader, Anne-Marie Roy, who was recently the subject of a sexually violent Facebook conversation between male members of the student leadership. They said, “Someone needs to punish her with their shaft.” You may not have heard that the same week Anne-Marie Roy went public about the graphic Facebook conversation, the U of O’s men’s hockey team was suspended amid a sexual assault investigation involving several of the players. An assistant coach said the incident has been blown out of proportion.

In 2012, there was a string of sexual assaults across several Toronto neighborhoods, including an incident around Ryerson. In the span of two weeks, six incidents of sexual assault were reported on Ryerson campus. Toronto Police and Ryerson’s emergency and security services encouraged women to be vigilant about their surroundings. This attitude, that places the responsibility on women to avoid sexual assault, is what prompted Stephanie Guthrie to organize block parties where women and men could come together to reclaim our neighbourhoods as safe spaces. Guthrie says, however, that the same night she hosted a party in Ryerson’s Pitman Quad, a woman was assaulted at another party on campus.

Cindy Baskin, a professor at Ryerson’s School of Social Work points to the over-sexualized Pocahontas—or “Pocahottie”—Halloween costume as further evidence of persistent sexist and racist stereotypes on campus. Last year, “Eskimo cutie” and “sexy Indian” costumes were for sale at the campus bookstore of McMaster University. Aboriginal women in particular are vastly overrepresented in terms of racialized and sexualized violence, and shamefully underrepresented in the media. “Aboriginal women are seen as disposable, often stereotyped in the media as prostitutes, welfare recipients, and sluts,” says Baskin, who is of Mi’kmaq and Irish descent. She calls for Ryerson’s Journalism School to take the lead in developing a course that focuses on reporting Aboriginal issues.

The media is a crucial player in how sexual violence is perceived. News stories may over-report what the victim was wearing or how they were behaving, or how the perpetrator was such an upstanding member of the community. This perpetuates victim blaming. Sandra Diaz of the Canadian Women’s Foundation cites a recent poll that says 19 per cent of Canadians—both men and women—believe that a woman encourages sexual assault when she is drunk. Eleven per cent of Canadians believe that a woman who wears a short skirt is provoking assault. “Rape predates miniskirts,” says Diaz.  “Everyday, women are raped at home, sober, wearing a baggy tracksuit.”

Yet even when reporters take pains to accurately and respectfully report on sexual assault cases, on the next page we have journalists like Barbara Kay and Margaret Wente insisting that rape culture doesn’t exist, that feminists are delusional and that college girls just need to stop drinking so much.  Excuse me, Ms. Wente, but this is rape culture. And that type of word vomit needs to end.

When sexual assault happens on campus, it’s not because of student drinking or girls wearing short skirts. It’s because we live in a culture that encourages male sexual aggression and the use of physical and emotional violence against women. Rape culture says that sexual violence is a fact of life and that the best women can do is try not to encourage men to rape them. The fact is that men are almost always the perpetrators of sexual violence, and men need to be part of the solution. “At the core of rape culture on campus is how we raise men and boys,” says Ron Couchman, a spokesman for the White Ribbon Campaign, which is aimed at engaging men and boys in conversations about stopping violence against women. “It’s important to include and engage men,” says Couchman, “but also for men not to dominate the conversation, and to provide space for women’s voices.”

It’s important for everyone to be engaging their friends, family, classmates and coworkers in conversations about rape culture. But it’s up to journalists to provide space for the stories of women—especially stories that often go unheard, like those of trans people and First Nations women.

When journalists report responsibly on sexual violence, we’ll talk less about preventing rape, and more about stopping it.

For more information, visit the Toronto-based Femifesto for a toolkit for journalists writing about sexual assault. And if you’re still unsure about what rape culture is, check out this great post by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan titled “Rape Culture 101.”