On Sept. 17, more than 9,000 students walked out of classes at the University of Western Ontario in protest against the sexual violence that runs rampant at Western and at universities in general. The walkout came after a shocking orientation weekend that saw up to 30 students drugged and assaulted on the night of Sept. 10. One orientation leader reported being called from residence to residence as students collapsed and parties continued around them, in an experience unlike anything she had seen after three years in the role.
The reports of assaults that came in over social media following that weekend clearly struck a chord with the student body. While most accounts of the protest put the number of attendees at 9,000, some figures are as high as 12,000—a third of the university’s population. They gathered with signs denouncing sexual violence and supporting survivors. Speeches from survivors painted a picture of an institution that cares more about its reputation than about protecting students. While a survey of Western students indicated that one in three of them were sexually assaulted in the past 12 months, it’s estimated that only one in 10 women come forward to officially report being assaulted. It’s not hard to see why. “He was three years older than me and about to graduate. People told me to get over it and reporting him would ruin his future,” said one speaker. While none of the assaults that occurred during that orientation weekend have led to official complaints, Western University is currently investigating four additional incidents of sexual violence that occured in the first week of students returning to campus.
The astounding turnout at the protest, organized by a group of 20 students, showed the strength of student mass organizing to fight back against the oppression of women. The demands put forward were for preventative training, improved support and a survivor-based approach to the sexual assault counselling offered by the university. Responsibility for the assaults was rightly placed on the shoulders of the university administration. “We’ve allowed for the worst-case scenario to unfold, and no amount of sugar coated PR is going to fix that,” another survivor said. They demanded accountability not just from the perpetrators but also from the system that allowed the assaults to happen.
Violence in the system
The stories of survivors, both at the protest, and from others who have come forward over the years, make it obvious to see that the school has done nothing beyond the bare minimum either to help the students, or to combat the school’s permissiveness towards sexual assault. “Literally all the guys in my res (residence) were like ‘let’s see how many bitches we can fuck within the first week,’ like within [orientation] week, which is disturbing,” said one student. Another said, “[T]here were guys in cars coming to first year events, stopping next to them, revving their engine and asking, ‘Who wants to go for a ride?’” In conditions like this, the campus is an unsafe place for students to live.
Since Sept. 10 and the outrage that followed, the university has released an action plan to reform the way the school deals with sexual violence, which includes some of the demands put forward by the walkout, such as mandatory prevention training. The question is, can the institution that ignored the safety of students for so long be trusted to change now.
It is worth noting that the school’s first reaction to the allegations was to hire more special constables to patrol the campus. This is no solution. One comment on a post made by the student council stated, “The people that you hire as ‘security’ were denying any sort of assault or rape happening in residence. How do you expect students to feel supported while the Western staff is calling them liars?” This is exactly the question that should be being asked. The police are notorious for ignoring rape cases women put forward and dismissing them offhand. Statistics Canada has said that one in seven sexual assault claims brought to police are deemed unfounded, while only one in five (21 per cent) of sexual assaults reported led to a completed court case within the six‑year reference period. None of the demands of the walkout called for increased police or security.
In addition to boosting security measures making consent training mandatory for all students, the rest of the action plan relies heavily on peer-to-peer support in the form of orientation leaders, foot patrols, and “safety ambassadors”. As yet, nothing has been said about providing serious professional help for survivors, or about changing how perpetrators are dealt with.
It remains to be seen whether anything will change about Western’s approach on these points. In an interview, a recent PhD graduate from Western recounted stories of raising sexual assault allegations from multiple students with university staff and seeing nothing done; and of going to a university counsellor for help with her own experience with sexual assault, only to be asked if she “wanted the attention”. In one incident, two female students reported being sexually assaulted by a male student who lived on the same floor of their residence building. The only action the university took was to move him to a different floor. This is not just a problem of inadequate measures, but of those in charge of implementing measures against sexual assault treating the issue callously.
What to do now
The events at Western were unprecedented but the sexual abuse of women on university campuses is all too common. About 1 in 10 (11 per cent) students who identify as women at Canadian post-secondary schools were sexually assaulted in a post-secondary setting in 2019, compared with four per cent of students who identify as men.
Western University shrugged off complaints of rampant sexual assault on campus for years, until extraordinary events—and the organizing efforts of students—put the school in the spotlight, threatening both its reputation and its bottom line. Students are not treated as people, but as units of income. This isn’t limited to Western University, but is the result of a system where education is a for-profit enterprise, rather than a common good. Such a system can hardly be expected to truly protect the safety of students.
If the reforms implemented by Western are effective—and we sincerely hope they are—they cannot remove the school from a society in which one in four North American women experience sexual assault in their lifetime.
Capitalism is a system based on exploitation of the working class. One of the most useful tools to maintain that exploitation is to divide workers along the lines of gender, sexuality, race, and whatever other identity the capitalists can make use of. Gender oppression means that women’s work is undervalued, which acts as a downward pressure on wages in general. Fostering chauvinism and misogyny in the working class makes it harder for workers to unite across gender lines. Moreover, the specific oppression of women is inextricably tied to the systemic need to keep women in the role of raising the next generation of workers, with as little cost to the bosses as possible. Gender oppression and sexual violence will not end as long as capitalism exists, because it is beneficial to the capitalists to maintain them. For us to escape this oppression permanently, the rotten capitalist system needs to be uprooted.
As the walkout at Western demonstrated, the need for systemic change is becoming more and more obvious to larger numbers of people. A strong movement is needed to demand justice on a mass scale. A school that’s run by an undemocratic board of governors filled with capitalists has proven itself incapable of protecting students. Instead, the students, staff, and community must have democratic control over the university. It is the student body who are actually at risk, and have the most interest in making the campus safe. Therefore, they need to have the final word on what measures are necessary to protect students, to support survivors, and to deal with perpetrators.
Through a transparent democratic process handled by the students and workers on campus together, the real work of transforming campus life can begin. The workers and students need to organize and fight against sexual violence and for democratic control over the safety of their campus. But more than that, the struggle must extend to the working class as a whole, to fight for an end to sexual violence and an end to the capitalist system that creates it.