In wake of rape chant, UBC wants to change campus culture

September 18, 2013
Globe and Mail
By Mark Hume

A frosh chant that endorsed rape and had become part of an “oral tradition” for first-year students has convinced administrators at the University of British Columbia to pursue cultural change, not only on their campus but across Canada.

At a news conference on Wednesday, University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope said the rape chant – and new allegations that some frosh also engaged in a chant insulting aboriginal people – has stirred soul searching at the university. And he promised significant changes will follow.

“I know that I speak for all of my colleagues here at the university and the vast majority of the university community when I say that I am extremely sorry that our first-year students at the Sauder School [of Business] were subjected to this completely inappropriate frosh activity,” he said of the chant sung by students. “I am not sorry, however, that this has come to light. I think that we are given an opportunity now to seize this moment to strike at the casual indifference to sexual violence and intolerance which still marks pockets in our society.”

The reports of the anti-aboriginal chant are under investigation, said Dr. Toope, who this week is speaking before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission now holding events in Vancouver.

“We don’t know a lot about it yet. We’re trying to investigate it as quickly as we can. We don’t know whether this was endemic, as it appears the rape chant was, [or ] whether it was a one-off,” he said.

The rape chant occurred on the Labour Day weekend as first-year UBC students celebrated frosh week. The incident surfaced just a few days after controversy erupted at St. Mary’s University in Halifax where students had been using an almost identical chant.

At St. Mary’s, the president of the students’ association resigned and the administration struck a special council to study the issue of sexual harassment and violence.

UBC has gone farther than that. Some 80 students who participated in frosh events have been ordered to do community work, and the university has promised curriculum changes to put a greater focus on respect and inclusiveness training.

The Commerce Undergraduate Society, which sponsored the frosh activities, will make a $250,000 donation to fund counselling services; CUS leaders, four of whom have resigned, will undergo sensitivity training about sexual violence, and the association will make a public apology.

Dr. Toope, who was joined at the news conference by Louise Cowin, vice- president students, and Robert Helsley, dean of the Sauder School of Business, said UBC has also established a task force to determine what’s needed in the long term “to support the kind of transformative, robust change that we do believe is necessary on university campuses, including our own.”

He said the UBC investigation revealed the rape chant had become an “oral tradition” at the Sauder School of Business, and that some students had heard it or similar chants at other institutions.

Dr. Toope, who serves as chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said he’ll raise the issue there because it needs a national response.

“Given that we’ve now had incidents at St. Mary’s and here, and from what we’ve heard there’s a chance it may actually have been used at other universities and high schools in Canada, I do think there’s an opportunity [for a national action program],” he said.

“I want to be very clear about one thing,” Dr. Toope added. “The measures that we’re taking today will not of course reverse the strong cultural forces and trends at work in our wider society. But we do believe that we can … start making a difference for UBC and our society, from right here.”

Dr. Toope said that, although he was dismayed by the incident, he hasn’t lost faith in students.

“I really don’t believe that what happened represents the ethos of our student body,” he said. “We’re in a society where casual acceptance of sexualization and acceptance of violence is very much a part of the popular culture. Students are part of that and we have to address it. But in their hearts I actually don’t believe this is what most of our students think or believe.”


Why frosh-week antics matter

September 12, 2013
Globe and Mail
By Zosia Bielski

“I’m not saying that underage rape is okay or it should be encouraged, but [the cheer] maybe gets people out of their personal boundaries and bubbles, you know?” – Jeffery Wang, second-year UBC commerce student, quoted in the campus newspaper The Ubyssey.

There was a startling defensiveness from some of the students who participated in highly publicized frosh week “rape chants” at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and the University of British Columbia.

They couldn’t make out the words, some explained, but even if they could, what harm is there in words? Others seemed irritated: Their frosh chant – which spelled out the word “YOUNG” with lyrics including “Y is for your sister,” “U is for underage” and “N is for no consent” – was meant to be a fun, high-energy exercise to draw students out of their shells.

The two scandals have seen student leaders resign, frosh events cancelled indefinitely and task forces sent in for “sensitivity training,” but flippant student reaction has stirred even more anger.

“A lot of the outrage here in Vancouver is not just about the chants happening – it’s that the students seemed indifferent,” says Lucia Lorenzi, a PhD student at UBC.

Why the complicity? Lemming-like groupthink and a drive for social standing in first year both play a role, some experts say. More problematically, they argue, these chants reveal that glorification of sexual violence remains alive and well – both at frosh week and in the culture that informs it.

“This is a culture that we see repeated on campuses all over,” says Amanda Dale, executive director at Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence.

Wayne MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor and bullying expert, will lead a task force at Saint Mary’s in response to the frosh-week antics. “It’s very dark,” MacKay says of the chants. “There’s a scary groupthink where people basically don’t think. They leave that to the group leader without exercising their own judgment. That’s a scary thing at any level, but perhaps particularly at university, where we’re trying to encourage people to … be reflective about what they say and do.”

That groupthink also involved women, with female frosh leaders at Saint Mary’s smiling and clapping along to the words “no consent” during the chant, which was filmed and posted to Instagram last week.

“There’s a failure of empathy here not just in the men, which is obviously problematic, but even in the women,” MacKay said. “When they’re talking about ‘your sister,’ many of them have a sister … Where are we as a society that we are dehumanizing to the extent that we don’t think about the real life impact of things we’re doing and saying?”

Dale agrees that the chants reveal a “willful ignorance of the many.” She believes the biggest challenge in abating sexist behaviour on campus is reaching people who “don’t see themselves as part of the story, but are actually a Greek chorus.” Many students interviewed by local media immediately after the incidents came to light were aghast at the idea that “a stupid little cheer” could lead to direct physical harm. On the contrary, Dale says such displays can reinforce attitudes: “We condone collectively a culture that allows the extremes to happen, that allows the girl to feel she can’t come forward and the [perpetrator] to feel impunity.”

Dale says a substantial part of the problem lies in a greater misunderstanding of what real consent looks like – women participating in sex that actually appeals to them. “The notion of notches on your bed post, acquiring and discarding women, this kind of approach to sexuality has more in common with control and violence than it does with desire,” says Dale.

A heady campus atmosphere doesn’t help, says Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, a Baltimore-based organization that includes dating violence and sexual assault prevention training for students and professionals at colleges and universities.

“You have young people in an environment away from home for the first time where they are experimenting, and a popular culture that is ratcheting up what that experimentation is supposed to be about. On top of that, many of these young people may be arriving at their universities having little to no conversations about what healthy sexuality and consent are about.”

So is age 19 late for the sensitivity training set to roll out across the blighted schools in Canada?

“We need to get to people younger. We need to have a better-than-just-shaming approach,” says Dale. Irvin concurs: “This is every day, consistent, individual development preparing boys to be allies to their female peers and confront this issue.” Irvin’s organization teaches boys about healthy relationships, communication and leadership starting in elementary school.

“By the time they get to high school and college, they’ve really been vetted to have a high social and emotional intelligence,” he says.

At UBC, Lorenzi is now doing her dissertation on public speech about sexual violence. Two years ago, she was sexually assaulted on campus by a fellow student.

“I went to university, as many people do, with an expectation that the people that you’re studying with, the colleagues you talk about these issues with in sociology or English lit, that they are going to live out those values,” she says.

“The person who assaulted me took a gender studies course. Sometimes the message isn’t exactly going through. We need to be able to connect the educational material to applying this in real life.”

Facts

More than 80 per cent of rapes on university and college campuses are committed by someone the victim knows; many happen in the first eight weeks of classes, according to the Canadian organization Act to End Violence Against Women.

In a 1996 survey of male college students, one in five said that forced sex was acceptable “if he spends money on her,” “if he is stoned or drunk” or “if they have been dating for a long time.”

Some 20 to 25 per cent of college-aged women will be victims of sexual assault at some point during their college careers.

Four out of five female undergraduates on Canadian campuses are victims of violence in dating relationships, according to a 2006 Statistics Canada report.

Only 6 per cent of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to Statistics Canada.


Blurred Lines, blurred morals

September 13, 2013
Globe and Mail
By Gary Mason

Perhaps it was fitting that the rape-chant controversies that recently erupted at two Canadian universities so closely followed the outrage over a controversial rendition of the smash hit Blurred Lines at the MTV Video Music Awards.

The duet between original performer Robin Thicke and 20-year-old former Disney star Miley Cyrus prompted a backlash focusing on her part in the overtly sexual onstage antics, which were variously described as crude, vulgar and obscene. Still, it helped draw attention to a debate that has been raging over the lyrics of the song itself, not to mention the music video that’s helped cement its popularity.

Blurred Lines has been widely interpreted as condoning sexual coercion and has been dubbed by some as “rape hop.” Blurred Lines equals No means Yes. The song’s central line – “I know you want it” – is repeated ad nauseam. There’s still more to concern you if you’re the parent of a teenager (male or female) caught up in its catchy beat, including references to women as “bitches” – although this phenomenon is common enough in music these days to prompt mostly shrugs.

Then there’s the unrated version of the video, in which Mr. Thicke and two male collaborators, fully clothed, sing in the company of three female models who are topless and prance around like witless, voiceless sex dolls. The implicit message is that they’re there for the amusement of the men, to serve whatever fantasies they may be harbouring. The women have no say. The men know what they want.

Blurred Lines has been the longest-running No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts this year. The uncensored video has been viewed many millions of times online. And you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the messages the song and video are imparting, subliminal or otherwise, are sinking in with those who are listening and watching.

I’m not a music prude. But I have been concerned for some time at the misogyny in today’s music. Hip-hop artists, in particular, have been guilty of glorifying violence against women. Many have objectified the act of sex and assigned women a specific, non-negotiable role in it.

As hip-hop and related genres have gone mainstream, the most egregious examples of violence and hostility toward women have waned. (There are still plenty of hard-core lyrics to be found, though.) At the same time, somewhat milder forms have been reaching a wider audience.

The kids at Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia who recently participated in chants about underage and non-consensual sex are of a generation that has grown up listening to this music. Most parents haven’t a clue what’s blasting through their kids’ headphones; many would be shocked.

Music has a huge influence on popular culture. It can be argued that increasingly, this culture has created a groupthink where sex is more about possession than any form of closeness or affection.

“We’ve objectified sex,” says Becky Lockwood, associate director of the Center for Women and Community in Amherst, Mass. “It’s almost a commodity now and it’s really unattached from any form of intimacy or emotional experience … people feel okay with doing whatever they can get.”

Who knows what, if anything, can be done about it. In the early 1990s, Tipper Gore famously called out music artists for lyrics she considered misogynistic. She linked them to rapes occurring in America. While she didn’t say sexual assaults were happening solely because of rap or rock music, she believed children were influenced by the glorification of violence against women inherent in many songs.

I doubt I have much in common with Ms. Gore, but I think she was ahead of the curve on this subject. At the time, she was very much a lone voice, mocked and ridiculed for her efforts. She’s since been joined by thousands of men and women concerned about the portrayal of women in popular culture, including music and videos. But more voices need to join this protest, need to lean in to do something about it.

The chants on our campuses have their roots in this problem. Blurred Lines is really a song about our blurred morals.