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Responding to SMU’s Frosh Week Chant

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

We are profoundly troubled by the recent Frosh Week chant at Saint Mary’s University. As educators we wonder how we failed to impart to our students the critical thinking skills and understanding of social justice to which we are committed.

As members of this institution with a vested interest in promoting critical thinking about the relationship between individuals and broader society, we feel that we are now faced with an opportunity to provide leadership on how to respond to cultures of sexualized violence and improve safety for students on our campus.

Recently, we have tried to learn what our students need to heal and feel safe again; to understand the events’ in the context of broader cultures of gender inequality and to urge our institution to resist harsh and individualized punishments that do not address the real roots of ‘rape chants’ becoming commonplace.  As sociologists and criminologists, we are here to help students think critically about self, society and the nature of crime and social problems. We encourage creative, innovative thinking that, if we are successful, may help to transform the society we live in. We believe our students should be engaged every step of the way in repairing the harm caused from years of rape culture persisting on our campus.

If we believe in our students, and in the power of the university to foster brilliant, critical thinking, then how can we not now engage them fully in leading change?

We know from various sources, including SMU students, that sexualized violence is rampant on University campuses across North America. Shortly after Frosh week, SMU, in a distinct but clearly related case, suspended a 24-year old student who plead guilty to sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl a year ago. Right after events at SMU, the media reported that students at Frosh week in UBC’s Sauder School of Business used the same chant. 

Off-campus, Nova Scotians are still reeling from the tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons, who reported being sexually assaulted by four young men, felt unprotected by the law and her community, and whose subsequent abuse ended with the 17-year old taking her own life. It took 460,000 signatures on Rehtaeh’s parents’ petition to have an independent inquiry into her case launched.

The issue at hand is not just technology and “cyber-bullying,” as it is often made to appear, but a culture of sexualized violence, amplified by technology. We have seen modest gains with the creation of a 5-year Nova Scotia strategy to address sexual violence in our province. However, the depoliticized language of 'bullying" and "non-consensual sex" presents a troubling obstacle to addressing the roots of violence and trauma for young people. Violence experienced by young people should be taken seriously - it is not a rite of passage. Bullying is violence. Rape is violence. Universities must demonstrate leadership in creating safer spaces for young people (and the not so young!) by avoiding the language of 'bullying' and adopting a proactive approach to creating safe spaces that engages with current community-based initiatives that have proven successful in this area.

Our students were raised in a society that endorses visual images, advertisements and broad social structures that depict rape as normal, and, in many cases, ‘sexy’. Our students did not build the society they live in- they are surviving within it and drawing their values and ethics from what is around them.

Critical voices from the student body have been ringing loud and clear. The Women’s Centre at our university has requested institutional commitment and change for equity in multi-faceted ways to educate, respond to and support the needs of young people to feel safe, heal and become the type of citizens we need to improve the society we live in.

Many of us are researchers in this area, and we know that if some of their suggestions are taken seriously, it will bring change. If critical, passionate students are listened to and given a voice in our social institutions, we will make headway on becoming the kind of society we pride ourselves in being.

Rape culture is both local and global. We live in a province and a country that do not take action on these issues. How can we expect young people to demonstrate commitment to addressing rape culture when our own political leadership fails to do so?  We are told by the young men and women who participated in the campus chant that they did so to fit in with their peers and ongoing traditions, without thinking about the chants’ meaning or consequences. 

Our Federal Government has failed to take action on an epidemic of violence against aboriginal women. At the 23rd session of the UNHRC, our government also attempted (unsuccessfully) to block proposals “accelerating efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women: preventing and responding to rape and other forms of sexual violence.” Initially Canada took a leadership role on the resolution, but subsequently expressed reservations about providing survivors with access to essential sexual and reproductive health services, including emergency contraception, safe abortion, prophylaxis for HIV infection, and diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

We urge caution on the adoption of ‘zero tolerance’ approaches to sexual violence. We ask, instead, that our university (all universities) embrace the complexities of violence and marginalization that leave some more at risk for harm. Feminists are also exploring how this patriarchal culture of violence against women involves broader dynamics. How do relations between and among men and women inform it? How does the culture of violence against women link with violence against transgender and queer individuals? How does it connect with men’s violence against each other and “random” targets? How do we respond to violence in ways that do not produce more social harm? For example, research conducted at the University of Manitoba, Trent University, and the Woman Abuse Council of Toronto shows us that Canadian zero-tolerance policies on domestic violence link with a disproportionate criminalization of indigenous and African Caribbean women.

As educators, we raise these issues because even though institutional and legal measures can be—and in some cases have been—put in place, we will achieve little unless there are informed citizens to carry them out, reimagine them, and move an agenda of transformation forward.

Let us be first citizens of our communities and let us build university campuses that promote the type of critically-engaged, socially aware young people we need to tackle sexual violence at every possible level; listen to our students and encourage us all to connect our classrooms to our community experiences; draw from best evidence and internal expertise; and prepare for a long-term process of transformational change, rather than adopt ineffective, short-term, punitive approaches that will do little more than improve public relations.

If our goal is to produce graduates with the critical thinking that is representative of a university-level education, then let us believe in young people as we drive the process forward.

Members of the Department of Sociology & Criminology, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia


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