Last week, the Huffington Post published an article titled “Amherst, Vanderbilt Accused of Botching Sexual Assault Complaints”, which discusses the federal complaints issued against two prominent Massachusetts universities, Amherst and Vanderbilt, accusing the schools of mishandling sexual assault reports on campus.
One victim, Sarah O’Brien, was sexually assaulted by another student in her first year but was too intimidated to report it at first. When she did, university counsellors failed to refer her to any resources and she was diagnosed with PTSD by an off-campus clinic in her senior year.
The release of this alarming story coincides with the one-year anniversary of Students Ending Rape and Sexual Assault, a UTM group trying to battle the phenomenon of sexual assault on campus.
SERSA, created by UTM students Amy Pryhoda and Maria Garber, targets victim-blaming ideologies. They have held information sessions worked in the framework of the Green Dot campaign, a campus initiative spearheaded by the UTM Health and Counselling Centre that encourages bystanders to prevent violence.
Garber told the Medium that SERSA’s creation was a result of some of Pryhoda’s friends’ negative experiences, which inspired them to do something to end “rape culture” on campus, especially in cases where sexual assault complaints falls on deaf ears due to the race or gender of the victim. The issues at Amherst and Vanderbilt are exactly the kind that Garber and Pryhoda want to prevent at UTM.
So far, SERSA has benefited from the services of about 100 volunteers to date, but Garber believes there could be more if anti-rape movements weren’t viewed as “radical feminism”.
“Unfortunately, feminism is often confused with a radical group, which it shouldn’t be, but I wanted people to know we were about equality,” she says. “A male friend of mine [was] raped and he was disowned by his family. For men, or anyone, to be subjected to that sort of experience is life altering. I didn’t want them to experience victim blaming.”
“To say that someone is responsible for someone else attacking them, [because of] the way they dressed or the way they acted, it’s implying you can control someone else’s actions,” she continues. “My friend was able to seek help and move on from it, but not everyone can. I wanted to speak for his cause and his story.”
When she heard about the Huffington Post article, Garber was surprised that so many female employees at the university were ignoring the reports. “They may have had pressure from above, I don’t know, but I don’t think that’s an excuse to dismiss serious claims. […] At a younger age, we don’t always think what an adult is doing can be wrong,” she observed.
“When adults don’t report something, it’s even more shocking, because they’re supposed to be the mature, reasonable mind.”
Cases similar to Garber’s high school experience are not unheard of among students. Students have similar stories to Garber about instances of inappropriateness in their school.
The fear some students may have of reporting sexual abuse is something SERSA wants to change, and every school may have such incident.
Just two years ago, University of Toronto professor James Andrew Payne was arrested for his second count of sexual assault after breaking into a young woman’s apartment.
SERSA aims to take away the taboo surrounding sexual assault in and beyond the university environment.
At UTM, Garber feels such cases are being dealt with properly, but that there’s room for improvement. “I think that there are several officials at UTM [who] are active in trying to eradicate rape culture from the UTM community: for example, Corporal Bobbi-Jo Duff of the UTM campus police,” she says.
“Fixing the emergency phones around campus should be a priority,” Garber continues. “Maybe even a campaign emphasizing self-control and self-accountability, as well as a continuation of Green Dot’s mission; the bystander’s responsibilities could be woven into frosh week or another public event.”
The future of SERSA is unknown, since many of the executives are in their final year at UTM, leaving many positions open for next year.
The group has held several events this year to increase their notability and to inform students about their cause. SERSA will be starting a St. George chapter within the next few weeks, and they hope to host a membership event at UTM in January.