Preventing gendered sexual violence requires systemic solutions

Content warning: Discussion of gendered and sexual violence. 

McGill students are constantly forced to grapple with gendered and sexual violence perpetrated within the community, and this year was no exception. In April 2020, accusations emerged regarding then-incoming Students’ Society of McGill University VP Internal Declan McCool, and in December, survivors spoke out about rampant sexual violence within residences––an environment meant to be safe. Over the course of the pandemic, rates of gendered violence have skyrocketed, with public health measures posing significant barriers to escaping unsafe living situations. All the while, support from the university has been sorely lacking, with student groups attempting to bridge the gaps wherever possible by engaging in advocacy and providing important services. McGill’s failure to prioritize women’s safety places an enormous burden on students––one that they should not have to alleviate on their own.

The university has been slow to enact sufficient measures against sexual violence on campus. Despite recent revisions to the university’s sexual violence policies, its efforts have proven to be inadequate.  McGill’s reporting procedures for sexual assault are burdensome and convoluted, and navigating the endless layers of bureaucracy is acutely stressful for individuals experiencing traumatic aftermath from assault. But issues with McGill’s approach start long before the reporting process. For instance, its Policy Against Sexual Violence does not guarantee protection from legal consequences to those who have consumed illegal drugs before being assaulted, an approach to handling disclosure that can discourage survivors from coming forward. Also troubling is the way the university fails to hold predatory professors accountable, despite numerous scandals regarding inappropriate conduct.  

There are many important student initiatives in place to help make up for McGill’s ongoing failure to support female-presenting students and survivors of sexual violence, including WALKSAFE and DriveSafe, for instance, Both operations help students go home safely after late nights studying at the library or after a night out––situations that can be particularly terrifying for female-presenting students. While meaningful, these services may not work for everyone. For example, students who have experienced sexual violence in the past may be hesitant to trust just anyone with their safety, especially at night. There is no question that these organizations provide important services, but they alone cannot solve systemic issues of gendered and sexual violence. 

McGill students have been clear that the university’s current approach to student safety is insufficient. Beyond providing support and proper education to student groups who are trying to support survivors, the university’s policies need to be further updated within a survivor-centric and intersectional framework, no matter the context in which they experience assault, rather than placing barriers to access based on factors like consuming illegal substances. Moreover, administrators must implement more robust mental health services to students who are put in harm’s way due to the lack of preventative measures. And as many areas of McGill’s campus are poorly lit, spatial changes are far past overdue as well. In light of its current fundraising campaigns, the university should have no problem funnelling resources to these essential student-run services, which are currently filling gaps the university has left.

Despite earnest attempts by student groups to make campus safer for their peers, systemic issues require systemic solutions. As a wealthy and influential institution, it is disgraceful that McGill ignores ongoing calls for better protection for its students rather than doing its part to address the ongoing crisis of gendered and sexual violence that festers within its walls and plagues its community.  

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