Confronting sexual violence: A student activist’s perspective

A student activist shares her story of working to end sexual violence on campus.

As the National Graduate Caucus Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, I work on campaigns to end sexual violence within our educational institutions and more broadly. I became involved in student activism early on in my university experience, and over the last six years I have engaged with activism and raising awareness about sexual violence in a variety of ways. What follows is an account of how my approach to challenging sexual violence on university campuses has changed over that time. I’m hopeful that faculty and students can continue to build the solidarity necessary to end sexual violence on our campuses.

Confronting sexual violence as a student union staff person

While pursuing my undergraduate degree at Brandon University, I worked as a staff person in the students’ union office before I ran for president. As staff, part of my job included helping with the outreach work done by the union. Although we used the Canadian Federation of Students’ “No Means No” campaign materials on campus, outreach around sexual violence was never front and centre in our own work. We would put coasters out in the campus bar and drag materials out of storage for our yearly “Take Back the Night” marches, but specific outreach around sexual violence was never our focus.

It wasn’t just the students’ union, distracted by the myriad campaigns and services we ran, that failed to take meaningful action to combat sexual violence. I was also an executive member of the campus women’s collective. As part of that group, we talked about putting straws in people’s drinks at socials to show them how easily they could be drugged, focusing our efforts on those we believed were vulnerable rather than confronting people who choose to commit those acts. As an organization, we were often so focused on staying relevant with students that we could only look at was happening in the short term, as we worked to produce tangible results quickly. Our attention was on rebuilding the capacity of a collective that was constantly under threat, not on addressing the larger issues happening around us.

At both the students’ union and the women’s collective, we heard horror stories about athletics team members using their status to get away with assaulting women. We were told about rumoured assaults, including a series of coordinated assaults that were committed by a group of non-students at a local nightclub. We wanted to act, but at the time we struggled to grasp the severity of what we were dealing with, or to recognize the ways in which this culture was pervasive throughout our school.

When I was elected students’ union president in 2012, I didn’t deal with disclosures of sexual violence that students had experienced on campus in my capacity as president. I would talk to friends about inappropriate things some men had said or done to me, yet I came to accept these experiences as normal. I laughed off comments made by older men, as I tried to fit in with others who were in positions of leadership. I continued to fight for change the same way I always had: I put out “No Means No” coasters in the campus bar, and pulled out stickers, buttons, and posters for our “Take Back the Night” march. It wasn’t enough.

Looking back, I can clearly point to key experiences and moments that I would now react to quite differently. The creepy Christmas gifts left outside a students’ union staff room—a room that had been set on fire weeks before—and the way mine was addressed: “To the girl with the big tits.” The student who came into the office to buy a water bottle and instead of paying with cash, put a knife on the counter and asked if he could trade me for a knife. And of course the many less overt forms of violence that peppered my life—the comments, questions, being sexualized, and having my leadership constantly questioned—became my new normal.

In all of these situations, I had the language to describe what I was going through. I had read books, taken classes, described myself as a feminist. When sharing these stories with my peers and those in positions of leadership within the institution, I looked to them to validate the legitimacy of my feelings. But far too often, especially when it comes to sexual violence, we doubt ourselves and our interpretations of what is happening to us. And if the response you get from others mirrors your own doubt, it makes it very easy to push things aside.

Running for re-election in 2013 exposed me to some of the most overt gender-based violence I’ve ever experienced. When a friend told me that my competitor was at a polling station telling people that the only reason I got so much accomplished during my term as president was because I was sleeping with faculty members, I knew I had to finally speak up. I had heard during the lead-up to the election that one faculty member was telling his classes not to vote for me, and putting up posters from the slate running against me on his office door. This was someone who had previously propositioned me, and whom I had rejected. I went to the university president to talk about what was happening. As the first woman in that role at Brandon University, I had hoped that we shared some common experiences, and that she would be sympathetic. I talked to her about the possibility of filing a formal complaint, but she told me that I was a woman in a position of leadership, and that the harassment was something I just needed to get used to. It was a preview of similar responses to come.

Coming to terms with my own experiences

The ability of people in positions of power to brush off my experiences as normal, and in many ways view my complaints as an annoyance, played an important role in shaping the ways in which I responded to sexual violence moving forward. When I was a graduate student at Brock University, the case of a student who had experienced sexual violence perpetrated by a professor became public, and my initial response was similar to that of the Brandon University president. At that moment, I realized that I had come to view this type of experience as a rite of passage for female students, one that was almost unavoidable. Rather than feeling frustrated about the violence itself, my anger was directed toward the failure of the university to deal with the complaint effectively, letting the investigation sit ignored on an administrator’s desk for months.

It wasn’t until my peers at the Canadian Federation of Students began reaching out to me that I really began to understand that the violence itself, and not just the institutional response, was something worth protesting. Finally, I had permission to see my own experiences as valid and to allow myself to feel angry toward an institution that had also failed me.

In conjunction with other students, I helped to organize a protest to raise awareness about sexual violence on campus and the ways in which the university had failed the survivor. The protest was well attended and received attention from the media. There had been another case at the University of Victoria shortly before our protest, in which a student blew the whistle on the institution’s attempts to keep her case quiet. The case at Brock was similar, although it involved a student and a professor. Later, the media shared a story about another case involving the same Brock professor. Yet silence was encouraged by the university and by other institutions to protect their reputations—allowing these situations to keep occurring.

Alongside the protest, we released a series of demands to the university. We called on the university to hire a staff person to deal exclusively with issues related to sexual violence and its prevention, response, and awareness. We called on Brock to ensure that counsellors on campus had specific training to deal with sexual violence. We called on the administration to increase diversity in institutional leadership. We called on them to hold people accountable for their actions. And we demanded the resignation of both the administrator who let the report sit on his desk for three months, and of the professor who committed the acts of sexual violence.

Our meeting with the university administration after the protest ended was tense. Although the university president committed to meeting most of our demands, many of those commitments never came to fruition. A particular sticking point was our call for the resignation of the administrator who had allowed the complaint to languish. The university insisted that the administrator had followed the policy that was in place, and that even if the policy was flawed, the administration could not penalize him for following the rules.

Following this meeting, we organized a town hall to debrief about what happened, to talk about the tactics we used, to figure out how to hold the administration accountable for the promises they had made and failed to keep, and to figure out next steps. Students, faculty, and staff all attended the town hall—a broad range of people who, together, had the power to make institutional change—and we brainstormed strategies for addressing the problem of sexual violence on campus. About halfway through the meeting, a male professor entered the space and attempted to derail the conversation by yelling sexist and victim-blaming comments. It was yet another reminder of the role that well-educated authority figures can play in reinforcing rape culture.

At Brock, things quieted down for a while before another story broke from my alma mater, Brandon University. A student had been made to sign a contract stating that she agreed not to talk about her own assault. An organizer in Brandon was in touch with me about what was happening, and we talked through the organizing work that had happened at Brock. In part because of the guilt I felt about being an activist at Brock but never actually confronting my own experiences with sexual violence in Brandon, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper in Brandon. I wrote that these incidences were not isolated, but are indicative of an epidemic on campuses across the country. I wrote that, while good policies are important, we need support for those policies from decision-makers to be effective. Even with good policies in place, if survivors are encouraged not to report their experiences then the policy is meaningless.

An organizer in Brandon had prematurely shown my letter to another news outlet, which then reached out asking me to share more details about my own experiences. I decided to talk about the experience I thought was the least risky, as none of the individuals involved were at the institution any longer. Even when confronted with the bravery of students who were holding institutions accountable for their actions—some while still students at those institutions — I still chose what was, in many ways, the easiest option, and the option with the least risk. Part of my reason for doing this, at the time, was that I was still afraid of being blamed for what had happened. As much as I believe that power can come with sharing your story, a belief I share outwardly in my activism, I’m still afraid of being seen as a victim. I still feel tremendous guilt because of my own inaction around my experiences, so I find it much easier to advocate on behalf of others than I do for myself. Throughout my experiences confronting the harsh realities of sexual violence on university campuses, it’s been hard not to feel like a fraud: Who am I to speak with others about their options, when I have stories that I will still not share? I am in a privileged position within the institution. I know who to talk to and what to say in order to make things happen. How can I possibly ask others to do the things that I myself am still am too frightened to do? As much experience as I have in organizing, organizing around the issue of sexual violence has been incredibly difficult. Sexual violence activism is primarily undertaken by those who have experienced sexual violence. Some may be like me, while others have very public stories. I am so proud of those who share their stories—they put themselves out there, knowing the backlash that they might face. It is truly inspiring. I too am proud of those who have not shared their stories, even if I have trouble being proud of myself.

Working with others to create real change

Students have been working to end sexual violence on university campuses for a long time. We have been leaders in trying to create campuses that are safer for all. Months before the story broke at Brock, the Canadian Federation of Students hosted a national Consent Culture forum. Building on existing campaigns that seek to end gender-based violence, the Consent Culture campaign seeks to instill a culture of consent for both sexual and non-sexual activities.

At a Consent Culture forum in Nova Scotia, we talked about the disproportionate violence faced by trans and non-binary women and Indigenous women. We talked about cyber violence. In workshops, we talked about how to create good sexual violence policies on campus, and how to work toward building diversity and inclusivity in university and student union governance. We talked about how postsecondary institutions prioritize their reputations over their students, underfunding the staff and services needed to prevent sexual violence, yet hiring public relations firms to manage communications after a story about sexual violence on campus makes the news.

These are the conversations we need to continue to have if we want to create safer spaces on our campuses. But they must also happen at an institutional level, with support from and participation of faculty and staff. We need to understand the ways in which all of us allow rape culture to be perpetuated, and the ways we can all work to deconstruct this culture. Only once we move beyond guilt can we actually begin to make the changes necessary to confront and respond to the sexual violence that is happening within our places of education and work. AM

Carissa Taylor is the National Graduate Caucus Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.