Last post, I promised more talk on sexual assault on campus and media. Here it is.
The October 2013 edition of Toronto Life Magazine includes, amongst the stories about new artisanal foods, how the tiny clutch is ruling the runways, rock star businessmen and exotic pets, a story by Katherine Laidlaw entitled: “Fortress York: York University spends millions on safety measures but female students are still afraid of who lurks in the bushes. How a campus becomes a hunting ground for sexual predators“. The cover of the magazine includes the line “Why so many rapes at York University?”
This sounds bad right? But what kind of bad? It isn’t exactly clear from the headline is it? Let me tell you. This is bad journalism, rather than a report about a bad university. As of this date, the article appears not to be available online which in a way is a shame because nothing can illustrate how outrageously this article relies on fearmongering and racism to make fact free points like reading the article itself. I will pin it to my office door for those local and curious, and maybe it will show up online soon.
I have spent a few days now in a rage over the way that this article disciplines women into fear, misrepresents the reality of sexual assault, and casually treats a low income racialised neighbourhood near my school as a breeding ground for rapists. Colleagues have pointed out to me that this is hardly the first time and it won’t be the last – these tropes about sexual assault, race and space in our city are pretty deeply embedded and the article in many ways reflects rather than creates the associations. I have written about the narrative around sexual assault on campus on the blog before, for instance here and here. But that makes it no less enraging. University President Shoukri has already distributed a response to the article, which in its attempt to describe York as safe compared to other Toronto schools seems to me to miss the point. Some colleagues and I prepared a response trying to reflect an anti racist feminist analysis. We’ve sent it to Toronto Life. And walking the narrow line left between dismissal of sexual assault as a problem on campus (see the last post) and sensational, racist, and disciplining accounts like the Toronto Life article, is not easy. I hope we managed in our response below. You can support and comment in the comments here (they are moderated, so there will be a delay) or by email to LTEtoronto@gmail.com. Write to Toronto Life at email@example.com. A clean PDF of the text/signatories only is available here.
It was an unpleasant surprise to open the October 2013 Toronto Life issue to find an article sensationalizing and misrepresenting sexual violence, sexual assault and rape on the York University campus. To us – feminist scholars, struggling to work with questions of gendered and racialized violence both empirically and critically – the article was little more than a caricature of reality. That it could represent the dominant view in this city is even more upsetting. Let’s get real.
First, yes. There is assault and sexual assault on the York campus. In fact, across Canada, women experience sexual assault, at levels which ought to shock, but which are treated as either secret or banal. The article’s attempt to put this problem on York alone is wrong. York has a number of initiatives to counter sexual assault, because improving safety on campus is an ongoing goal. But the idea that York is a haven for rapists is one that requires more work to unpack, because it relies on and perpetuates some harmful myths that contribute to the problem of violence against women, rather than helping anyone.
Second, and in short, the article uses racialized and racist geographies to paint York as uniquely struck by an epidemic of sexual assault. York is in the same neighbourhood as Jane and Finch. The blanket association of this entire community with crime, and the media’s complicity in demonizing our neighbourhood and its inhabitants have long been protested by residents and others. The article contains almost no evidence at all to suggest not just that York students are frightened by the proximity of Jane and Finch, but that they should be. The strength of this racist narrative about the source of the “problem at York” creates problems of its own. It is tempting to believe that increasing the number of security personnel will increase safety, but that may not be entirely true. It might also mean more concerns about racist targeting of students of colour, in the name of enhancing safety. And, it turns attention away from the fact that safety measures must concern everyone, and that it is a harmful false assumption that only “outsiders” and “strangers” commit sexual assault.
Third the article illustrates the variety of ways women are encouraged to govern their lives according to the fear of sexual assault. Some of these reflect reality. The campus is just another place among many in which women are required to be vigilant. Another reason that women accept some fear and take measures to protect themselves is because if they don’t, they are blamed by our toxic culture, if in fact they are attacked. Questions such as, “Where was she? What was she wearing? Was she drunk?” continue to be too common in the discourse about sexual assault and its causes. Toronto Life plays on age old tropes about young respectable women from good families menaced by dark and criminal strangers when they venture out of safe zones. It is unfortunate that this evidence-free narrative still sells magazines. At York and on other campuses, many reports involve students, faculty or staff as both victim and accused. In many cases, victim and perpetrator are not strangers to each other. Assertions that strangers and outsiders are responsible for these assaults are part of the problem we all face in truly addressing them. We – not “they” – have significant responsibility for a culture in which sexual assault is celebrated online and in frosh week chants, and where women are blamed for sexual assaults in ways which minimize the role of the perpetrator. And in Canada at large, it is our families and intimate partners – not strangers – who are most likely to cause us serious harm.
The article, in recounting a dramatic, lurid story, where predators lurk in bushes and the campus is a hunting ground, provides no useful service to anyone. Instead, it advances a dangerous falsehood that women will be safe if we stay close to home (as long as that home is in a particular zone of the city), or avoid various denigrated “others”. It manages to both exaggerate and minimize the significance of sexual assault on university campuses and elsewhere. It relies on racist tropes about the dangers of Jane and Finch, sexist ignorance of the true nature of women’s vulnerability to sexual assault and elitist disregard for everything outside the zones of the 1%.
York University is taking concrete steps to deal with violence against women on campus. Our community is trying to create a space, activities, discussions and material changes to stop this violence and discrimination. We do not want to shy away from owning the ways in which we are responsible for this problem and for solutions. Suggesting, falsely, that this problem is only York’s problem, a problem women and girls can leave behind by leaving York, helps no one. Universities are about research and critical thinking. Toronto Life’s article would fail on both.
Barbara Crow, Professor, York University
Sonia Lawrence, Assoc Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Director, Institute for Feminist Legal Studies
Professor Lisa Philipps, Osgoode Hall Law School
[list of signatories/supporters updated September 22, 1150PM]
Amanda Glasbeek, Graduate Program Director, Socio-Legal Studies, York University
Anne Bunting, Interim Director of The Harriet Tubman Institute , Associate Professor of Law & Society, Graduate Program in Socio-Legal Studies, York University
Tania Das Gupta, Professor, Department of Equity Studies, York University
Enakshi Dua, Associate Professor Department of Equity Studies/School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, York University
Shelley A.M. Gavigan, Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Haideh Moghissi,Professor, Equity Studies, York University
Janet Mosher, Associate Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Mary Jane Mossman, University Professor, York University
Carmela Murdocca, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology/Socio-Legal Studies, York University
Roxanne Mykitiuk, Associate Professor of Law, Co-Director of the Disability Law Intensive Program, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Nalini Persram, Associate Professor, Department of Social Science, Centre for International & Security Studies, York University
Dr. Narda Razack, Associate Professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, York University
Dayna Scott, Associate Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School/Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
Kate Sutherland, Associate Professor, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University
Susan Vail, Associate Professor, Faculty of Health, York University
Sandra Whitworth, Professor, Political Science, York University
Susan Boyd, F.R.S.C, Professor, Faculty of Law, UBC
Maneesha Deckha, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Victoria
Isabel Grant, Professor, Faculty of Law, UBC
Rebecca Johnson, Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Victoria
Audrey Macklin Professor & Chair in Human Rights Law, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto
Vrinda Narain, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law; Institute for Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, McGill University
Sanda Rodgers, Professor Emeritas, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
Elizabeth Sheehy, Professor of Law, University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law
Marie-Eve Sylvestre, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
To support or comment on this letter, please email us at lteToronto@gmail.com
or write to Toronto Life at firstname.lastname@example.org