Skip navigation
In my opinion

Do Canadian universities foster a ‘rape culture?’

It’s difficult to say with any certainty what’s happening on campuses in terms of sexual assault.


This article was originally published in iPolitics.

Is there a festering ‘rape culture’ on our university campuses?

Plenty of people think so.

Anne-Marie Roy, the head of the University of Ottawa students’ union, used the term when she reacted to a Facebook exchange including several male student leaders, in which they fantasized about raping her and infecting her with venereal disease.

Michaëlle Jean, the former Governor General who is now chancellor of the U of O, went further. She said that rape culture is not only present but growing on campuses and in the community at large. (The university also suspended its entire men’s hockey team and coaching staff last week in connection with an allegation of sexual assault.)

Many of my female students at Carleton University believe there is a rape culture on campus and it worries them, maybe even terrifies a few.

Of course, all this is set against the backdrop of reports of so-called ‘rape chants’ at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and at the University of British Columbia last fall.

Predictably, talk of rape culture has provoked a backlash among columnists such as Margaret Wente and Barbara Kay with their peculiar pre-occupation with protecting the honour of us menfolk against the ravages of feminism.

So what is rape culture?

The term was coined by American feminists in the 1970s. It has been used in many various ways, but at its core is a belief that rape and other forms of sexual assault are not simply the acts of isolated deviants. Rather, they’re seen as part of cultural continuum in which women are objectified and demeaned, and in which rape is encouraged, excused, condoned and covered up. Women may even internalize norms that say they “asked for it” or that “boys will be boys.”

It isn’t hard to identify examples of rape culture in history. The respected British scholar Anthony Beevor has suggested the number of women raped by the Soviet Red Army in the conquest of Poland and Germany in 1945 was likely in the millions; sickeningly, the victims included women just freed from concentration camps. It occurred with the knowledge, even the encouragement, of the chain of command.

But the evidence for a rape culture on modern Canadian campuses is much more ambiguous, and the debate is occurring in a virtual fact-free zone.

What do we actually know?

  • The rate of reported sexual assaults has been falling in Canada, as has violent crime in general.
  • But we know that only a small fraction of sexual assaults are ever reported.
  • Still, it is well established that college-age women are by far the most likely to suffer a sexual assault.

In sum, it’s extremely difficult to say with any precision what is happening on campuses in terms of the sexual assault rate, much less anything about any culture nurturing it.

For one thing, the definition of what constitutes sexual assault has quite rightly been expanding, both legally and culturally. Prior to a reform of Canada’s laws in 1983, trials for rape frequently turned on whether there had been ejaculation as evidence of penetration. Today the notions of marital rape and date rape are commonplace, and it is generally understood that sexual assault is a crime even where it does not meet the old definition of rape.

Nonetheless, one difficulty in the reporting of sexual assaults is that some women may not recognize unwanted groping, to pick an example, as a crime — or even if they do, they may choose not to pursue it as a criminal matter.

It could be that the “real” incidence of sexual assault is rising while the reported incidence is falling. But for all we know, women may be more willing to report sexual assaults even as they become less frequent.

Are campuses safer or more dangerous than the community at large? We just don’t have the information that would tell us.

One of the most confusing elements of the current situation is the role of the Internet. There is no doubt that it has created all sorts of “communities” of otherwise isolated individuals, from pedophiles to lepidopterists to alt-punk fans, that may help sustain what might otherwise be marginalized activities. It could be true as well of rape culture.

But the Internet also has helped us uncover troubling behaviour and forced institutions to react. In an earlier age the vile, threatening language of those idiots at the U of O would have vanished like the whiff of beer rather than being preserved in the amber of a screenshot.

Would UBC and SMU have reacted to the rape chants on their campuses had they not been captured on video and put up on YouTube? Surely not.

It may be that rape culture has intensified. But it may be simply that a malign subculture is now being exposed more than ever. An official UBC report (PDF) said that the offending chant had been a “tradition.” How long back it went, we cannot say.

Ms. Jean is a former journalist, and there is a half-serious old saw in journalism that three of anything makes a trend. Perhaps that was the standard she was applying when she claimed rape culture is on the increase.

But as the chancellor of a university, she should know better than to make such an audacious claim without much more substantial evidence. She may be unnecessarily frightening the very women she purports to defend.

In some ways, universities have changed for the better. When I was a lecturer at a large provincial university in my 20s, a number of my colleagues were in the habit of “dating” and bedding their own students. While some of us may have disapproved, there did not seem to be any regulation of this behaviour beyond what was in the Criminal Code. Today, at most universities in Canada, this would be recognized as a gross abuse of authority, comparable to a doctor molesting a patient.

The truth is, whether things are getting better or worse on campus, there is plenty of work to do.

A couple of young men I teach told me the other day that in sports locker rooms it is much easier to call out other guys for racist comments than for those demeaning women.

Some people may be inclined to dismiss this as “boy talk” — something which even some female U of O students did last week in reacting to the Facebook incident. And it is not at all certain what the relationship of such reprehensible banter is to actual physical assault. But it’s hard to imagine that dark talk of violence directed at Jews or blacks would be dismissed just because no one had painted a swastika on a synagogue or organized a lynching.

Unfortunately, universities only act when bad publicity makes them start to worry about their own reputations. At my own university this week, striking security workers said the university increased their numbers after a particularly shocking sexual assault a few years ago. But since the controversy died away, they claim, there has been no further increase in their ranks even though the student population has grown greatly.

What is so infuriating about all this is that, whether or not rape culture is flourishing, the perception that it is may be what’s needed to get universities to do what they should have been doing anyway: make our campuses the safest places they can possibly be for women and for all our students.

Paul Adams is an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University. He is also a veteran of the CBC, the Globe and Mail and EKOS Research.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Mark Mercer / March 13, 2014 at 13:45

    The perception that ours is a rape culture is doing nothing to get universities to do what they should do to make our campuses safe for women and for all our students. Universities are reacting by infringing on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. They are reacting by invading privacy and by curtailing due process. Take a look at the report from the President’s Council at Saint Mary’s. It proposes codes of behaviour, oversight by administrators, and confidential tribunals.

  2. Nicholas Tracy / March 19, 2014 at 12:57

    I wonder whether the discovery of “rape culture” at universities has a similar trajectory to the discovery that criticism of Israeli activity in Palestine should be viewed as a new form of antisemitism? Adams may well be right that the hype could be useful in changing policies for the better, but it could also lead to mounting activity by the volunteer thought police who frequent university common rooms. A healthier approach would be to address endemic misogyny (if any remains to be found) and its sister, misandry, which is the invasive species stamped from the same die. Each feeds on the other. Their origins are similar, but their manifestations are often distinct – reflecting the different modes in which each gender considers it has advantage. Changing student demography suggests that female students find universities more welcoming than do their brothers – which suggests a direction policy development might take. A truly level playing field is a gender neutral one, without caustic gender profiling, and without gender preferences, or affirmative action.

  3. Albert J. Mills / March 19, 2014 at 13:32

    Mark Mercer paints a one-sided reaction to `rape culture’ concerns at Saint Mary’s and in the process seems to suggest administrative measures should form no part of the solution. However, he offers little in the way of alternatives.

    We can certainly agree that Saint Mary’s (and other Canadian universities) have been a long time in waking up to the factors that constitute `rape culture.’ We can also agree that strictly bureaucratic measures (i.e., the institution of rigid rules and procedures devoid of community engagement and debate)are not the answer. But there are no easy answers and a process devoid of administrative oversight and procedures sends the wrong signals and fails to provide adequate protection and a sense of security to our students and faculty. Nonetheless, administrative procedures alone are not the answer. Currently the Sobey School of Business “President’s Council Report Advisory Group is looking specifically at ways of effecting change through discussion, interaction, engagement, and the putting in place of a set of positive inter-relationships.The Advisory Group see the current climate as an opportunity for universities to effect far-reaching change not only in curtailing `rape culture’ but in addressing the multitude of factors that constitute inequitable and disrespectful relationships on campus.

  4. george gekas / March 19, 2014 at 13:48

    If indeed rape culture exists where “rape is encouraged, excused, condoned and covered up” there is no evidence of rape culture in Canadian University campuses. Today’s University students’ culture is shaped by the post 1983 definition of what constitutes sexual assault. The rape culture if indeed existed is a culture of past generations. There are not only some male (students) who may fantasize about rape, many women fantasize of rape too. However, it is one thing to fantasize about rape, another thing to engage in it, and another thing to use fantasy to claim there is a rape culture.

  5. Gary G / March 19, 2014 at 19:12

    While I would generally agree with George Gekas’ comment, Paul Adams in the original article does a good job of concisely laying out the concept of “rape culture” – and it follows from this that no actual rape, nor sexual assault, is required for a “rape culture” to exist.

    Of course, this goes quite some way to explaining why many find the term “rape culture” problematic, alarmist, and an obstacle to reasonable discussion.

    One _could_ have a discussion of how behaviour and speech codes intended to give a sense of security must be balanced against the threat to free speech and open debate they represent, as Mark Mercer suggests, but it often gets framed as perpetuating rape culture. “Rape” turns up the emotional dial much faster than “freedom” does.

    Of course I’m not suggesting Albert Mills’ reply to M.M. is doing this, but neither does it acknowledge that these administrative and community engagement efforts are all in their turn one-sided – the side of controlling free expression in the name of feeling safe, exactly the issue M.M. is concerned about.