he 2013 academic year got off to a troublesome start. It was
early September and frosh week had just begun at campuses across the country. At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax,
student leaders led several hundred first-year students in an
acrostic chant that went like this: “Y is for your sister, O is for
oh so tight; U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab
that ass.” Days later came reports of a similar cheer, this time
at the University of British Columbia, a school that was in the
midst of coping with a series of frightening sexual assaults.
Then, in early 2014, allegations surfaced that several members
of the University of Ottawa’s men’s hockey team had sexually assaulted a
woman while away at a tournament at Lakehead University in Thunder
Bay. The incident came to light only when a third party contacted the
University of Ottawa, something the coach and the players had neglected
to do. Meanwhile in the United States, the federal Department of Education
continued its investigation into a growing list of institutions for failing to
respond to students’ allegations of sexual assault.
Stung by embarrassing headlines and unwanted media attention,
many universities took pains to tone down frosh week activities this year.
Still, questionable chants at Université Laval and facilitators at Carleton
University wearing shirts proclaiming “F*** Safe Space” caused an outcry
again in the media, from the public and from the universities themselves.
For universities, the issue of campus sexual assault poses difficult challenges. As the report of the White House Task Force to Protect Students
from Sexual Assault notes, if a school draws attention to the problem and
encourages victims to report, it can look like a dangerous place; if it ignores
the issue, it can look safer. “Add to this the competition for top students or a
coveted spot on a college rankings list and a school might think it can outshine its neighbor by keeping its problems in the shadows.” But mounting
pressure from students and closer public scrutiny has forced universities in
both Canada and the United States to rethink how they handle sexual assault.
In a landmark report for the U.S. Department of Justice in 2000,
researchers Bonnie Fisher, Francis Cullen and Michael Turner estimat-
ed that over the course of a college career, between one-fifth and one-
quarter of women will be victims of rape or attempted rape. These rates
are higher than those for women in the general population. The report
surveyed more than 4,000 college women and found that most rapes and
attempted rapes occur when the victim is alone with the offender, usually
a boyfriend, former partner, classmate or acquaintance. Most take place
in the victim’s residence or off-campus living quarters; fewer than five
percent are reported to police.
Kari Sampsel, medical director of the Sexual Assault and Partner
Abuse Care Program at the Ottawa Hospital and assistant professor at
the University of Ottawa, analyzed 204 cases of sexual assault reported to
the hospital in 2013. (Under Canada’s Criminal Code, the term “sexual assault” encompasses a range of crimes, from unwanted sexual touching to
rape involving force.) About one-quarter of the victims had been at mass
gatherings when the assault occurred, most commonly New Year’s Eve
celebrations, Canada Day, Halloween and frosh week events. Of those,
90 percent said they had voluntarily consumed drugs or alcohol and 60
percent thought they had been drugged. A third of the victims knew their
assailant. “Stuff happens in dorm rooms for sure,” says Dr. Sampsel, but
the hospital sees a significant number of patients who wake up in a field
or stairwell without clothes or any recollection of how they got there.
“That is a very common refrain,” she says.
The most at risk are first-year students. “They are younger, they’re less
experienced. They probably have less experience with alcohol, they want
to be accepted,” said David Lisak, a prominent sexual assault researcher,
in a 2010 interview with National Public Radio. He said perpetrators have
little need for knives or guns: “The basic weapon is alcohol.”
In a study published in 2002, Dr. Lisak (who’s also a retired professor
of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston) and Paul Miller,
a psychologist, surveyed more than 1,800 males over seven years at a mid-
sized American university. Of those, 120 admitted to committing rape or
attempted rape, crimes which hadn’t been reported. More than 80 percent
of the confessed rapists said they’d assaulted women who were incapac-
itated because of alcohol or drugs. Almost two-thirds reported commit-
ting more than one rape, either against several victims or more than once
against the same victim. The findings led Dr. Lisak and Dr. Miller to con-
clude that a relatively small proportion of men are responsible for a large
number of rapes. And the reason they get away with it is because they
target victims within their social spheres.