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Staying SAFE on Campus

Monday, March 22, 2010

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Written by Martina Schaefer

During the week of March 8-12th, the Wellness Centre hosted Sexual Assault Free Environments Week (SAFE Week), an annual series of events which promote healthy relationships and educate students about consent.

“This year the focus for SAFE week was to promote consensual sex and to debunk some of the myths surrounding sexual assault,” said organizer Carly Vandergreindt. “Society places a lot of blame on survivors of sexual assault; it is the only crime where excuses are made to allow the perpetrator to get off the hook.” Around 1 in 4 women experience sexual assault at least once in their lifetime.

SAFE hosted a lunch at the Bullring early in the week, where an information board examined some common myths about sexual assault, such as the idea that strangers are most often perpetrators, or that survivors of assault are to blame based on things like appearance. The event also offered students the chance to pledge to take a stand against sexual assault by signing a paper t-shirt to hang on the display.

Many of the myths concerned situations that are common on University campuses, such as whether one can give consent if they have been drinking.

“I think it's fairly eye-opening for some people to hear that you cannot legally consent to sexual activity when you are intoxicated, or that doing a certain sexual act never implies consent to another sexual act,” said Vandergreindt.

In addition to providing resources and information about consent, SAFE offered t-shirts to students marked with the phrase “Consent is Sexy.”  The goal was for students to use the t-shirts to gather signatures from friends and classmates pledging to seek consent from sexual partners, in hopes to raise awareness about this ongoing issue.

“We used the t-shirts to engage people in thinking about what consent is and how to go about getting it in a positive way,” said Vandergreindt.

Later in the week, SAFE hosted screening of “Sin by Silence,” a documentary about survivors of abuse at the hands of their partners, followed by a discussion.  At the end of the week, pinwheels were set up around the cannon to demonstrate the many lives affected by sexual assault.

SAFE Week also aimed to open a dialogue about sexual assault on school campuses - an issue that some feel is not dealt with appropriately by schools when it comes to taking action against perpetrators and keeping students safe. Vandergreindt suggested that one possible problem for students is that they may feel they lack support.

“Sexual assault is in fact, the most under-reported crime, with only 10% of assaults being reported to police,” she commented. “It can be extremely hard for a survivor to tell anyone at all, and if they do their confidante's response is crucial…Often that can be the determining factor in whether or not that person will seek out support from a community organization in their healing process.” 

Regarding safety on campus, Vandergreindt suggested that a different approach to preventing sexual assault is necessary.

“Most often we hear that in order to make our school, or home, or community [safer]…we should not walk alone at night, or watch our drinks while we're at a bar - that kind of thing. But this type of advice is not going to prevent sexual assault from happening, because it's not targeted at perpetrators of sexual assault.”  According to a report published by Statistics Canada, most assaults are made by friends, partners or acquaintances rather than strangers, and often in one of the individuals’ home.

Although it is a difficult subject to discuss, SAFE Week organizers felt they put a positive spin on the events by empowering students to learn more about what consent is and how they can raise awareness about sexual assault.

“It is often hard to find things to do on campus that engage people and encourage them to think about this issue,” said Vandergreindt. “In order to actually make our schools safer we need to focus on awareness and education, not just through programs like SAFE but [also] by talking to each other about what consent means. I think we also need to enable and empower survivors of sexual assault by directing the blame to perpetrators to show that it is not okay for any reason.”

SAFE is a volunteer-run group which operates out of the Wellness Centre in the J.T. Powell Building, promoting healthy relationships and providing education and resources concerning abuse. More information is available on the Wellness Centre website, www.wellnesscentre.uoguelph.ca.

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