The Halifax Central Library hosted an emotional screening of The Hunting Ground on Tuesday night, a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on U.S. college campuses. Almost every one of the seats in the spacious Paul O’Regan Hall was full.
The film is an exposé on how American universities often cover up sexualized crimes in order to keep their reported crime rate at a minimum, so as to not deter student applicants.
It looks at the issue of rape culture, which is loosely defined as the normalization of rape and harassment, or when the blame of a sexual assault is placed upon the victim instead of the perpetrator. The title refers to the predatory behavior some people can adopt while living in such close quarters with lots of other young people.
But, as was discussed in a panel discussion afterwards, rape culture on college campuses isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon.
Alexandra Dobowolsky, who is a professor at Saint Mary’s University, organized the event. She says it’s important to know how sexism intersects with other types of prejudice.
“These are systemic issues that are dealing with sexualized violence, and sexism has to do with racism, it has to do with classism, it has to do with Indigeneity and those types of issues,” she says.
“I wanted to have a venue where we could look at those intersections and look at some of the incidents and put them in a broader context, and the kind of structural conditions that lead to misogyny and racism.”
Halifax universities have had a bad couple of years. In 2013, Saint Mary’s University was under fire after a video of a “rape chant” during orientation went viral. The video showed students, mostly frosh leaders, chanting inappropriate phrases, such as: “No means yes” and “N is for No Consent.”
In December 2014, Dalhousie’s School of Dentistry attracted media attention when a misogynist Facebook page came to light. The page had been created by a group of fourth-year male dentistry students. Some posts joked openly about drugging women for sex and making inappropriate posts about their female classmates.
“That’s exactly why I wanted to show the film, to say it’s not just Saint Mary’s. It’s not just Dal Dentistry. It’s not just Ottawa U. It’s not just UBC. It’s everywhere,” says Dobowolsky.
“So I really didn’t want to have the focus on the dentistry scandal or the rape chant at Saint Mary’s, but to say it’s every university. When you scratch the surface, you’ll see it everywhere.”
The screening was followed by a panel discussion that included professors from Halifax universities, the executive director of Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, an honours student in Criminology, and Caroline Andrew, a special guest, who is a professor and Director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa.
Lyndsay Anderson, who works at Dalhousie in student dispute resolution, was one of the panelists. She runs workshops on university issues such as hazing, alcohol and consent.
During the discussion, lack of proper education about consent was identified as a problem.
“The feedback I’ve gotten from the students directly is that they’re unclear on why (consent) is important, why they do it, how to do it effectively, and so I think there’s still a lot of misconceptions about it,” says Anderson.
She says it should be up to school staff to educate their students about consent, but that it’s a shared responsibility with the students.
“There are some really, really talented and bright students on campus who are doing really good work around this, so it’s kind of about being open to work with the staff and faculty.”
“I think students really need to take the lead, and we need to support that lead.”
The Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia released a plan in April to help combat sexual assault on campuses, and social media trends such as #ItsOnUs, where people can pledge to be part of the solution, aim to raise awareness of the issue.