Universities face stumbling blocks when dealing with sexual assault

29 mai 2016

A study at an Alberta university identifies four problem areas

CALGARY, MAY 29, 2016 — Canadian universities have almost no hard data on sexual assaults on campus, yet many are scrambling to put together policies to deal with sexual assault.

A new study of the situation at one Alberta university has identified four stumbling blocks as the institution attempts to deal with sexual assault. The study is limited to the experience of one university, but the lead researcher on the project says her findings are a starting point if Canada is to deal with the issue of sexual assault on campuses across the country.

Irene Shankar, an associate professor of sociology at Mount Royal University, became concerned about sexual assault when, after talking about it in a class, she had students confide in her about how they were assaulted. When she tried to help them, she found it was unclear where to turn. “It was hard for me to track down services on campus for them, and it was hard me–a person who has a PhD!–to figure out what rights the students had,” she says.

So she decided to study the matter and, along with two other researchers–Scharie Tavcer, an associate professor in Justice Studies, and Evelyn Field, an associate professor in Psychology–began an  exploratory research that used their own university as a case study. The results will be presented at the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary.

Shankar says it is estimated that one woman in four on college and university campuses in Canada has been sexual assaulted, but no one knows the exact figure and no one collects data on the issue. Universities often try to put together policies dealing with sexual assault, but the lack of data can leave certain issues unaddressed.

Shankar says her study has identified four stumbling blocks at Mount Royal to an effective sexual assault policy.

The first is that the university was built and structured for able-bodied, privileged white males. Both the way the campus was physically built and the way its services and policies are set up and structured do not take account of people with different needs.

The second stumbling block is money: Even if universities want to change, it’s hard to find the money to do so. “In Alberta, universities are barely running,” she says. “It’s not that universities are evil entities that don’t want to accommodate; they have constraints, among them is lack of financing.”

Thirdly, the people tasked with dealing with sexual assault are university administrators caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand they want to protect their employer’s reputation; on the other, they need to deal with students’ best interests. Sometimes those two interests clash.

Finally, she says the people who make the policies need training about the issue of sexual assault–for example, they need to be educated about the definition of sexual assault. “It’s hard to generalize across other universities,” says Shankar. “But I think this research is an important start to the conversation about what is possible.”

Irene Shankar will be presenting this research on May 30 at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. This presentation is called “Development and Implementation of Sexual Assault Protocols and Policies on University Campuses” and will take place at 9:00-10:30 am in Science A-121on the University of Calgary campus.


About the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Organized by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress is the largest interdisciplinary conference in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Now in its 85th year, Congress brings together approximately 70 academic associations that represent a rich spectrum of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including literature, history, theatre, film studies, education, music, sociology, geography, social work and many others. Congress 2016 is hosted by the University of Calgary. For more information, visit www.congress2016.ca.

About the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences promotes research and teaching for the advancement of an inclusive, democratic and prosperous society. With a membership now comprising over 160 universities, colleges and scholarly associations, the Federation represents a diverse community of 91,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. The Federation organizes Canada’s largest academic gathering, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, bringing together more than 8,000 participants each year. For more information about the Federation, visit ideas-idees.ca.

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