Sexual Assault and Mental Health (Part 2/3)

Grant Bachand | Contributor

Our twenties and thirties are a time in our lives when we discover ourselves intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and sexually. Many people in their early twenties actively pursue understanding their sexuality. We leave the confinement of high school with heavy-handed rules and enter into college, university, or the “real world.” University, for many of us, is the place in which much of our sexual learning will happen; at parties, in dorms, and all manner of other places. It is in our first couple years that we might find a partner who will will help us explore our sexual desires and comforts.

University, unfortunately, can also be a place where people experience terrible traumas that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. When the doors open for the first semester of university, that is when many students are at its highest risk of sexual violence. This is according to Sarah Boyd and Shelly LeBreton from the Women’s Centre here at UNBC, who sat down with me to discuss sexual assault, feminism and the role society plays to end violence toward women. The two work with different groups at UNBC, such as security, faculty, administration and NUGSS to support, advocate, and educate people about the issues that affect women. The centre is a 24 hour safe space for women, who are looking for support or to simply just talk. Boyd is heavily involved in the community working with various groups and people from Shirley Bond to the court system, and she has become keenly aware of the problems facing women in northern BC.

When dealing with sexual assault, the Women’s Centre has been actively working to identify areas and people, and trends that are problematic. Boyd told me that certain “hot spots” around campus where violence is a problem such as the library’s study rooms, and the residence is where much of attention is focused in terms of preventing violence. According to Boyd, security has done a good job in dealing with these areas, and situations that happen in these “hot spots”. Looking back to the beginning of the semester, Boyd tells me that is when students are at the highest risk for violence and that is due to many reasons, chiefly alcohol consumptions. Our society’s favourite social lubricant is one of the most prolific date rape drugs.

The question I keep asking myself, why is it that the first couple years of university are such a problematic time for violence? When I think about the world we enter into when we start university it begins to make sense. When we start university we are young, and in many respects truly free for the first time. In high school heavy-handed authority figures tell us what we can do, when we can do it, and what is appropriate. Girls in high school have it even worse than boys, we have all heard “no boobs, backs, bellies or butts,” when teachers talk to girls about what they can and cannot wear to school.

At a young age we are already putting the ownership on girls to dress a certain way to “ensure boys can concentrate,” putting the importance of sexual restraint on girls and not boys. High school gives us a brief sexual education, but the whole time we are there we are not talking about our desires, motivations, drives, and needs. Nope, we talk about understanding our sexual organs and how to put on condoms on bananas. That is super important, but not the whole picture. High school is where many of us will try sex for the first time, however university is where we explore sex.

Not only are we being overloaded by puberty and desires we have never felt before, but our social stewards are doing everything to tell us that sex is weird, dangerous and girls need to not provoke men by wearing inappropriate clothing. How does this even remotely help us deal with sex, consent, and love? For those playing the home game… it doesn’t. Fast forward to university where we have just left this very uptight institution where they baby us, and entered into another which treats us as full fledge adults who know what we are doing. This level of autonomy is liberating, and can also be very problematic. Going to that first university party can be exhilarating. We drink, meet new people while trying to make a good impression and possibly meeting sexual partners. Though it is in that environment where we are at a high risk for problems to occur, the excessive drinking can lead to people taking advantage of the situation, drinks can be spiked or we simply many not feel that we are able to stop someone sexual advancements; one of hundreds of situations could play out. The problems that can occur at the beginning of the semester is but the tip of the iceberg though.

The real problem is how we as a society looks at sex and how we deal with the concept of consent. Now when we hear the word consent many of us think we understand it, yes means yes and no means no. I think we all have heard of the No Means No campaign. However consent extends far beyond simply saying yes once, it is something that when we are being intimate we should be mindful of. Simply saying yes at the outset of any intimate interaction does not extend that consent to every possible intimate act.

Saying yes at every progression is critical. Understanding our comfort levels and the comfort levels of our partner comfort is how we determine how our relationship is built. When one spells it out so plainly I think, for many of us, we will say well of course that’s obvious, but even though it is obvious, hearing it and understanding it is different. Why is it that for something so obvious like consent, we still have a problem with sexual violence in our society? It is too easy to simply point to mass media as the outright instigator though when you couple our terrible education of sex in high school with the state of mass media it begins to make sense. We are a very sexualized society, but we don’t really deal with it in a healthy way or openly talk about it.

Watching Big Bang Theory while writing this article really drives home this idea for me, the amount of references to sex in a single episode is staggering. People do talk with their friends about sex but if you think about it is always behind closed doors, with close friends, which is good but if those supports aren’t there what then do you do.

Open conversations about consent, sex, desires, and drives don’t happen nearly happen enough or in constructive ways. We don’t nearly enough allow for healthy ideas about women to foster, because we are constantly, not only overly sexualizing women in media, but demonizing people who talk about healthier societal ways to act in accordance to women, aka feminist. However that is not a new idea in fact it is a well know problem, then why is it what we are moving forward at such a sloth like rate?

Let’s go back and look at UNBC and where the Women’s Centre comes in. Boyd and LeBreton work hard to help women and men here at UNBC deal with these complex issues. One of their most recent campaigns has been their healthy and unhealthy relationships campaign, where they give people a quiz, which helps them; determine which type of relationship they are in. I asked Boyd what are some of the characteristics of an unhealthy relationship; “probably one of the bigger issues is control, as soon as you start hearing about someone who is texting them asking where they are, what they’re wearing, who they see, [and] who their friends are.” When you look to the roots of that behavior according to Boyd we are looking at insecurity possibly even trauma that the perpetrators have had. These sorts of relationships are not only happening to women, men can find themselves in these sorts of relationships too. It is important to identify if you are in an unhealthy relationship and if so find ways to work on the relationship or simply get out of that relationship.

UNBC has been good at responding to acts of sexual violence in terms of how the Wellness Centre and security respond to them, but preventative measures is where the school seems to fall a bit short. A sexual violence task force is in place at UNBC, however the Women’s Centre is waiting on the recommendations from them to come out. It is also worth noting that no university really wants to deal with this issue to publicly because no university wants to be known as a school with a problem with sexual assault.

That tends to drop enrollment numbers. I asked Boyd about the greatest challenges facing the centre funding and groups working together seemed to be a common issue. Funding is always problematic in public institutions cause of the limited resources and opportunities, so this is where governments can take on being stewards of this issues and put the necessary resources in place to help this organization’s work to combat sexual violence in universities.

Another group dealing with this issue is the Moose Hide Campaign. I spoke with an individual from the group who talks a lot about men taking on this issue, some of them perpetrators of sexual assault, or simply had very misogynistic views in the past. Now they advocate for men to take accountability for changing the culture and helping end violence against women. They do this through the sharing of stories and being open about past transgressions in order to help heal and change.

If you want more information about the Moose Hide Campaign, the First Nations Centre at UNBC can help. If you want get involved with helping changing the climate of sexual violence, reaching out to the Women’s Centre is a good place to start. NUGSS also has a role to play and asking them to take real meaningful steps to support initiatives around UNBC to prevent sexual violence will go a long way. In the end what is the idea of this article, what is the take away.

Well saying don’t rape people seems a bit obvious, and oversimplifies this issue. Sexual assault is a complex issue, society does propagate a culture of over sexualization in media, high schools don’t do an adequate job with teaching kids about sex, and organizations that have a mandate to handle sexual assault problems don’t always have the resource to deal with the problem. So what is the answer, we can start with consent its simple and easy to understand. As a society we need to dispel all myths about consent replace them with the simple notion that a person has to say yes to every stage of the sexual experience, if they say no them don’t get mad, accept the no and move on. If a girl is passed out at a part it is not an invitation to have sex, and getting someone so drunk they don’t know what they are doing is also not consent.

Consent comes from a mind that knows what is happening and can be revoked at anytime. Beyond consent we should feel open to talk about sex, it doesn’t have to be weird, we all do it, and therefore we should learn to embrace it in a healthy way.

Finally, we need to learn to be ok with being feminism; men need to learn to accept feminism and calling themselves feminists. Feminism is not about man hating, anyone who tells you that is wrong. It’s simple, I don’t think a woman should be treated as less than a man in any facet of society.

Once we start changing how we as a society deals with these things, we will begin to take away the shame associated with sexual assaults cause in the end it is not that person’s fault, they never asked for it, and their clothes did not open them up to it. Stop blaming the victim and start fixing the problem