Over the past two weeks, McGill’s first year residents have been participating in mandatory Rez Project workshops tackling topics such as gender, sexuality, and sexual violence. I attended one of these workshops, and what I found was an audience that completely disregarded the importance of the session. A number of students did not wish to participate, and shockingly, many who attended the workshop joked throughout it, encouraging others to do the same. These types of responses are unacceptable, and ultimately reinforce the passive and misinformed attitudes that allow sexual assault to occur.
McGill’s effort to implement a preventative sexual assault program is a good start, but it still fails potential survivors. If McGill wants to take a truly preventative approach, it should organize sexual assault workshops before Frosh week. In recent years, the annual weekend of partying has led to a number of sexual assault scandals across Canadian universities, which ultimately ended in the government requiring schools to update sexual their assault policies. Such measures are necessary, but they are primarily reactive. McGill must recognize that the negative attitude surrounding Rez Project workshops highlights a greater underlying issue: Consent is still a joke to some students, and there are still people in this community who are unwilling to educate themselves on sexual violence prevention. Although the university has little control over the incoming attitudes of students, enhancing preventative measures will result in small and slow changes in these attitudes. McGill’s Rez Project would benefit from a number of changes, such as including an online prevention module or encouraging more audience participation in order to better protect potential victims.
According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, the most effective way to reduce sexual violence is by conducting all-female workshops that include a self-defence component. Yet, while these skills may be useful, placing the emphasis on such methods of sexual assault prevention still perpetuates “rape culture” by upholding the expectation that victims should prevent themselves from being raped, rather than putting the onus on assailants to not rape or assault others. Moreover, these types of workshops fail to acknowledge that women are not the only ones who are sexually assaulted.
One simple but effective way to increase the impact of Rez Project would be to make the workshops more interactive.The InterACT Sexual Assault Prevention Program had leaders act out potentially dangerous situations and encourage participants to physically intervene or call out suggestions. The 509 university students who participated were surveyed pre-test, post-test, and three months after the session. While the self-reports allow for some personal bias, the results showed significant changes in beliefs and behaviours regarding sexual assault. Most students who participated in the study reported that they were able to better identify actions falling under the umbrella of sexual assault. As a result, they felt a stronger sense of responsibility to intervene. By taking a page from this study and implementing a more participatory portion to their own programming, Rez Project coordinators could have greater success in educating McGill students and protecting them from future harm.
An example to follow is that of Penn State, which has one of the most celebrated sexual assault prevention programs in the US and has introduced mandatory online modules for students to better protect them and their peers. The university has instituted two modules, one focusing on safe alcohol consumption and the other on educating students on sexual violence and domestic abuse. Both must be completed before students can register for classes. The 15-minute, ungraded, pre-frosh registration consent video quiz that McGill currently uses pales in comparison. Requiring students to devote significant time and concentration to sexual violence education before participating in Frosh may not spark a revolutionary change in attitudes among past assailants, but it is one step toward it.
That said, waiting until university to start providing sexual assault and consent education is insufficient. Eliminating the rape culture that perpetuates this violence is undoubtedly a long-term process, and it is one that post-secondary institutions cannot tackle on their own. Rez Project attempts to educate and encourage bystander intervention, but it currently lacks in execution. McGill cannot force every student to care about consent and sexual assault prevention—that is an issue that is deeply rooted in societal upbringing. Despite that, if a more effective Rez Project causes even a portion of the student body to take sexual assault more seriously, it would make for a positive change in campus culture. Until society shifts, it would serve McGill well to take notes from other universities to better protect its potential survivors.