This article contains mention of sexual assault and gender-based violence.
When I started studying at UBC in September 2019, I was disgusted by the systemic rape culture present on campus. During Jump Start, instead of learning about consent, safe sex or harm reduction, fraternity parties that reinforce rape culture and misogyny were pushed (or, more fittingly, plugged) by AMS and UBC party organizations onto barely-legal teens.
“You should go, it’ll be fun,” I recall an older student suggesting to me. “Just know you might get groped.”
This message projects an idea that the bodies of women and non-binary students are inevitably going to be objectified, commodified and subjected to violence.
My experiences of rape culture at UBC are not uncommon.
This violence has been normalized by UBC for decades. It seems that nearly every year, recurring instances of sexual assault and harassment emerge from our university — especially in the athletic and fraternity communities (which often overlap) — shown by the 2021 sexual assault charges against Tremont Levy, Trivel Pinto and Ben Cummings, three former UBC football players. These charges were stayed as of January 25.
Moreover, I was disgusted to learn about the ignorance and idleness of my own department, the history department, in their mishandling of PhD student Dmitry Mordvinov’s alleged string of assaults in the early 2010s.
However, instances of rape culture and campus gender-based violence aren’t always private: such as the disturbing Sauder ‘rape chants’ of 2013, to the placement of a male sign atop the Engineering Cairn the day before the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre Memorial in 2016. These public displays of misogyny normalize and validate violence against women and non-binary people, viscerally reminding all of campus who is welcome and who is not.
Everyone deserves to feel safe and sovereign in their bodies, regardless of how they dress or where they go. Normalizing sexualized violence and seeing nonconsensual sexual advances as inevitable and ordinary exacerbates rape culture at UBC.
The anger I experienced as a first year witnessing this immense disregard for bodily autonomy and self-determination was reinforced when we were isolated by the COVID-19 pandemic in my second semester.
As domestic and sexual violence rates climbed across the country and the world, I resolved to find a community on campus where I could put this anger into action on campus. That is how I found the peer program at UBC's Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Office (SVPRO), a campus resource centre dedicated to combating sexual violence and supporting survivors.
Here, I was able to educate myself on the intersections of sexual violence, rape culture and other systems of oppression in our society like racism, sexism and capitalism. By reading the incredible works of feminist, critical race and Queer theorists, such as bell hooks, Angela Davis and Audre Lorde, I have come to understand the personal as political. While narratives at neoliberal institutions like UBC encourage us to see sexual violence as an individual issue — one that can be solved through lifestyle changes like carrying pepper spray, drink-checking nail polish and whistles — feminism teaches us to contextualize social issues by understanding them as part of larger social system.
The history of recorded North American anti-violence work started with the fights of the feminist activists in the 1970s and 1980s against systemic misogyny and normalized rape culture. Against a backdrop of increasing cutbacks to social services as well as a rising anti-feminist rhetoric, activists and workers collaborated to start shelters, transition houses and rape crisis centres across Canada.
It is only through this grassroots work that we even have the vocabulary to define and fight back sexual violence. Unlike the solutions of the state, which focus on institutionalization and criminalization, feminists inspired a grassroots plea to find inclusive and holistic strategies. This included building a movement that was not only explicitly feminist, but also anti-racist, anti-colonial and Trans-inclusive.
Our culture must change, and since language and everyday interactions perpetuate rape culture, we must all change as well. I believe we have a collective responsibility to destabilize rape culture and dismantle the oppressive notions that sexual violence is expected or inevitable.
The only way to stop sexual violence and make people feel safe on campus is to make it unacceptable in our community.
Call out harmful jokes and oppressive comments. Support and listen to women and non-binary people in your communities. Educate yourself on consent and encourage your peers to do the same. Don’t support institutions that are notorious for perpetuating rape culture and sexual violence. Better yet, if you are a member of one of these communities (such as so-called ‘Greek Life’), work to combat the toxic notions of patriarchy, heteronormativity and elitism within your institution that perpetuate sexual violence. Reach out to the abundance of services on campus, like SVPRO or the student-funded AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), for workshops, canvas modules and literature.
Finally, and most importantly, overtly and explicitly believe survivors and condemn victim-blaming.
By destabilizing rape culture at UBC, we start to work toward a better society. We must address the violence of the state within our conversations about sexual and gender-based violence. This includes dismantling institutionalized violence of local forms of authority which push people — especially people of colour, Trans people and disabled people— into the violence of homelessness, addiction and prison.
UBC already has an abundance of resources for sexual violence education, prevention and response. SVPRO and the SASC are already doing crucial work to address harm and build a culture of consent on our campus. But they cannot do it alone — it is a responsibility of everyone in our community to step up and say no to rape culture. We can build a better world where everyone holds the birth right of bodily autonomy.
It is not an easy task, but building an accountable, respectful and inclusive community at UBC is a place to start.
Thea Baines is a fourth year honours History with International Relations Student and SVPRO volunteer.
This is an opinion letter. It does not reflect the opinions of The Ubyssey as a whole. You can submit an opinion at ubyssey.ca/pages/submit-an-opinion.