Violence, fears about sexual assault mark start to university school year: OCRCC responds

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) is concerned to learn of violent incidents coinciding with the beginning of the school term at Western University. The university “is investigating reports of sexual violence reported over social media”; more, local officials note that in addition to this, “four unrelated reports of sexual violence were received in the last week” [1].

Sexual violence can happen anywhere. Yet colleges and universities in Canada are home to those who are at the highest statistical risk of experiencing sexual violence: young women between the ages of 15 and 25 years[2]. We know that young women from marginalized racial, sexual and socioeconomic groups are most vulnerable to being targeted for sexual harassment and sexual assault[3]. Unfortunately, many existing societal attitudes justify, tolerate, normalize, and minimize sexual violence against women, girls[4], as well as sexual violence targeting trans and non-binary persons[5].

The start of university or college is an important time for young people to gain independence, take on new learning and new experiences, and develop a sense of self. Sexual violence – or the threat of it – can seriously disrupt these important opportunities.

Real progress has been made concerning sexual violence prevention and response on Ontario post-secondary campuses in recent years. Just a few years ago, a Toronto Star investigation revealed that only nine of 78 public universities across Canada and no colleges in Ontario had special policies to deal with sexual assault[6]. Today, all institutions have a sexual violence prevention response policy.

But incidences of sexual violence, such as those we learned about this week, make clear that policy is just one part of change. At OCRCC, we are well aware that sexual violence continues to happen. In fact, few incidents are even captured in formal or informal reports. Reported sexual assaults most often account for just a small amount of the total—while most others go unspoken to anyone[7].

We are concerned for students who may not know who to turn to for support

In 2019, the Student Voices on Sexual Violence Survey in Ontario showed that nearly 60% of university respondents and 48% of college student respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were aware of sexual violence supports, services and reporting procedures available to them[8]. Campus supports exist. In addition, we know that while some students will seek out and access sexual violence supports on campus, others will not wish to do so.

OCRCC’s member sexual assault centres can also provide support and options. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can learn about free and confidential support options available in communities across Ontario here.

We believe that universities and colleges can prevent sexual violence through education

Post-secondary institutions can invest in prevention education provided by sexual violence experts in the community that engage the campus community in ending sexual violence. Bystander campaigns such as the Draw the Line campaign help to foster an understanding of sexual violence and supports bystanders with information on how to intervene in situations of sexual violence. In addition, the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Assault Resistance Education (EAAA) program is a small-group, empirically based intervention designed specifically for 1st year university students[9]. Both of these support prevention of violence through education and shifting attitudes about sexualized violence. In addition, campuses must also place a continued emphasis on addressing any aspect of campus culture that may appear to condone or minimize sexual violence. At an administrative level, communications departments, public relations offices or marketing teams must make the brave choice to be transparent about sexual violence and the work being done on campus to address it[10].

Partnerships between community and campuses can help address sexual violence 

Community-based sexual assault centres have been believing and supporting survivors in Ontario for more than 40 years. In many communities, sexual assault centres work closely with their local colleges and universities to prevent sexual violence, provide education and share information about supports available – both on-campus and off-campus – to those who have experienced sexual violence.

We are well aware that sexual violence has a significant impact on students and others in our communities. We work alongside our campus allies to respond to sexual violence in Ontario.

Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres (OCRCC) is a network of community-based sexual assault centres in Ontario. Member centres have been supporting survivors of sexual violence and offering prevention education since 1977: services include counselling to survivors of recent and historical sexual violence, accompaniment to hospital, police and court, advocacy and crisis support. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, go to https://sexualassaultsupport.ca/support/.  


[1] Dubinski, K. for CBC News. September 14, 2021. Violence, fears about sexual assault mark grim start to Western University school year: Officials at London, Ont., school say 4 students reported sexual violence during orientation week. Online: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/western-sex-assault-fears-1.6174894

[2] Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2012, as cited in An Exploratory Study Of Women’s Safety At The University Of Toronto Mississauga: A Gender-Based Analysis by  Paula DeCoito Ph.D.  Social Planning Council of Peel. July 2013, 19.

[3] Wolfe and Chiodo, CAMH, 2008, p. 3.

[4] World Health Organization. Understanding and addressing violence against women. Online: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/77433/1/WHO_RHR_12.35_eng.pdf)

[5] TransPulse Ontario

[6] The Star. January 14, 2015. Ontario student group pushes Kathleen Wynne for sexual assault policies. Online: http://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2015/01/14/ontario-student-group-pushes-kathleen-wynne-for-sexual-assault-policies.html

[7] According to Canadian research, just 33 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police[7], and just 29 are actually recorded as a crime See: Patel, A. October 30, 2014. for Huffington Post Canada. 460,000 Sexual Assaults In Canada Every Year: YWCA Canada. Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/10/30/sexual-assault-canada_n_6074994.html

[8] CCI Research Inc. March 2019. Student Voices on Sexual Violence. Online: https://www.ontario.ca/page/student-voices-sexual-violence. More than 160,000 students across Ontario participated in this voluntary survey.

[9] Learn more here: www.sarecentre.org/infographic.html or www.sarecentre.org

[10] For more on this, see: University of Ottawa Task Force on Respect and Equality. From Reacting to Preventing: Addressing Sexual Violence on Campus by Engaging Community Partners. A report prepared by Julie S. Lalonde for the University of Ottawa Task Force on Respect and Equality. December 2014: 17. Online: https://www.uottawa.ca/president/sites/www.uottawa.ca.president/files/task-force-report-appendix-1-from-reacting-to-preventing.pdf  

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