There has recently been a surge in the number of stories in the media documenting instances of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and other forms of violence on university and college campuses.
I could find these reports utterly disheartening, but I don’t. In fact, I am relieved.
These kinds of behaviours were a serious issue on campuses long before they were ever a “hot topic” for the news cycle. I experienced them first-hand during my undergraduate studies, and heard about incidents from my friends and peers that never made it into a press release, much less into the evening news. So rather than being dismayed by the onslaught of news coverage of campus sexual assaults, I am pleased to see this important issue finally getting the attention it deserves. It’s about time.
Most recently, a CBC report tallying sexual assault statistics from 87 institutions across Canada has been front and centre in the media. There have been many attempts made to draw conclusions from the data in this report and to attach meaning to the number of assaults reported at each institution. But before making any hasty decisions in reaction to what these numbers might mean, I suggest taking a critical look at the data.
First, we must acknowledge that there are inconsistencies in what universities are tracking. This essentially comes down to differences in how each institution defines sexual assault and how each determines which incidents fall under the jurisdiction of campus authorities and get included in its statistics. These differences mean that it is inappropriate to compare numbers across institutions (even when adjusting for population). After CBC released the numbers, institutional representatives from Ryerson and Acadia universities spoke to this very point to explain why their numbers seem high compared to other institutions.
Second, it is critical to point out that instances of sexual assault are notoriously underreported. The National Union of Students in the UK conducted a nationwide investigation entitled Hidden Marks (2010) that looked into female students’ experiences of sexual violence. This study revealed extremely low levels of reporting sexual assault to the institution (4%). Victims frequently cited shame and embarrassment as their reasons for not filing a report. Similarly, a US Justice Department report—now over a decade old—indicated that fewer than 5% of sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement. Again, victims cited a variety of barriers to reporting, including not wanting family or friends to know about what happened, fear of reprisal by the perpetrator, or the expectation that they would not be believed. Whatever their reasons, we can’t rely on the CBC data to offer us a very good picture of what is actually happening on Canadian campuses.
Third, it is impossible at this stage to know what a high or low number of reported sexual assaults even means without understanding what each institution has done to address this behaviour. For example, institutions that have taken steps to educate students may have created an environment where students feel safe enough to come forward about an assault, leading to increased reports.
That’s a good thing: it means that more individuals who have been victimized are recognizing how they have been wronged and are getting in contact with the appropriate institutional authorities. But, when taken out of context, a high number of reported sexual assaults can be spun to make institutions look bad in the eyes of prospective students and their parents, impacting universities’ bottom lines and—more troubling—discouraging them from making this kind of data public.
The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada stated that “news reports that take aim at universities that have higher numbers of reported assaults are misleading and dangerous.” I have to agree. I can’t help but cringe any time I hear it suggested that parents or prospective students might draw conclusions about an institution based on such statistics. It is simply pointless to do so until we have truly meaningful data. Until we do, any conclusions we can draw or actions we can propose about student safety or about institutional reputations will be mere guesswork.
So what do we actually know?
We know from the report that over 700 campus sexual assaults were reported across Canada in the past five years. We know from academic research that sexual assaults are notoriously underreported. Based on these facts, we know that we’re facing a national issue that demands immediate attention.
Now, we need to gather meaningful data that can provide us with a better understanding of the extent of the problem, as well as an idea of what colleges and universities can do to support students and provide safer learning environments. As a starting point, I propose that we need to focus on initiatives in these five areas:
- Studies that look at the number of instances of sexual assault and the degree to which they are being reported to institutional authorities.
- Investigations into the barriers to reporting sexual assault.
- Surveys that address student awareness of what constitutes sexual assault; related institutional policies; who to contact on campus regarding sexual assault; and what related support services are available.
- Examinations of students’ feelings of safety and satisfaction with current institutional practices for addressing reports of sexual assault.
- Collaborative efforts among colleges and universities to develop and improve sexual assault tracking methods; approaches for addressing barriers to reporting; and policies and practices for dealing with cases brought to the institution’s attention.
CBC’s report may be a good starting point for collecting information on campus sexual assaults in Canada. However, data that are the easiest to compile are not necessarily the most telling. I recognize the desire to understand what is happening on Canadian campuses, but we are going to need to devote far more resources toward more sophisticated research and analysis before we can gain a clear understanding of the extent of the issue or the most effective ways forward.