Students, GSWS

GSWS Students Call for Sexual Assault Prevention & Support Centre at SFU

March 29, 2016

On the heels of a series of unsolved sexual assaults in North Burnaby earlier this year and another attack on UBC campus in late March, calls for prevention of sexual assault and support for survivors here at SFU is critical. A number of people in the SFU community are calling for such support including Kaayla Ashlie and Laura Scheck, two undergraduates majoring in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. Since August 2015, Ashlie and Scheck have been part of a student-run working group that is trying to establish a Sexual Assault Prevention & Support Centre (SAPSC) at SFU. The group has been meeting with university administration, the Simon Fraser University Student Society, and other groups on campus to address issues of accessibility and inclusivity in the resources and services currently offered on campus to survivors of sexual assault.

While there are resources and support available through such groups as the SFU Women’s Centre, Out on Campus, and SFU Safety and Risk Services (SRS), Scheck and Ashlie say there is a serious “lack of cohesion in the services offered,” and that there is little communication between units on how to best address the problem of sexual assault on campus. “Out on Campus and the Women’s Centre provide excellent outreach, resources and ‘safe spaces’ on campus,” says Scheck, “and while they do their best to educate and inform the community on issues of gendered violence and sexual assault, they’re also overtaxed with trying to offer support services to survivors. We’ve learned in our conversations with them—especially with the Women’s Centre—that they are taking on these responsibilities in addition to their main mandate.” Additionally, Ashlie and Scheck note, while students might know about the Safe Walk Program offered by SRS, information on how to access that resource is not widely available and if someone has experienced sexual assault or thinks they might have been assaulted, they may feel uncomfortable or unsure about reporting incidents to the police or authority figures like SFU Security. 

Infographic courtesy of The Peak, student newspaper.

A recent article in The Peak pointed out that numbers of reported sexual assaults on SFU campuses appears to be quite low despite reports that about one in five women experience sexual assault on university campuses as students. Scheck says her experiences discussing  sexual violence, assault and issues of consent in Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies (GSWS) classes confirm this discrepancy and its significance: “sexual violence isn’t the only thing that gets talked about in GSWS classrooms but gendered and sexual violence does come up, and it can be a prominent topic. You start to hear people’s stories and realize that this is a prevalent issue for all people, not just women.” In interpreting the number of sexual assaults reported, Ashlie notes, it is also important to not view an increase in reports as an inherently bad thing. “One of our working group members noted that while reports of sexual assault might go up after a sexual assault centre is established,  the campus community becomes concerned that this increase means the centre is not working, but the increase in reported sexual assaults can also suggest that people are feeling supported enough to come forward and report.” 

Many university campuses across Canada already have sexual assault prevention and support networks in place, and the SFU working group is looking towards examples like the Anti-Violence Project at University of Victoria or the Sexual Assault Center of the McGill Students’ Society to help structure their proposal for SFU’s SASPC. Looking at these models, Scheck and Ashlie say the group agrees that it is important that the SASPC be an independent entity but that navigating the bureaucratic process to get there has been slow-going. As noted in The Peak article, the group initially intended to appeal for support from the student body through a referendum in the most recent SFSS general election, but their legal status as a non-profit society under the BC Society Act is still pending so they will instead prepare the proposal for Fall 2016. 

Ashlie and Scheck say that pursuing degrees in GSWS has been a big part of how they’ve learned to think more critically and take action in addressing sexual assault on campus. “I never would have really thought, for example, about how the Women’s Centre or Campus Security are not always accessible to all people because of gender or class relations,” says Scheck, “or how these services aren’t accessible because many people have complex relationships with authoritative bodies. So it’s made me question how we view what is and is not available to people and to look at these structures beyond their exteriors.” Ashlie says that her experiences in GSWS helped her believe that she could not only better understand the context of sexual assault in the university environment but also move her to take action and try to change things, “this degree has given me the ability to look at things through a critical lens and not just be passive about what is happening around me. It’s taught me to believe that we have the ability and knowledge to impact our environment, make it better for ourselves and for others.”