Shaheen Shariff on rape culture on university campuses

Professor Shaheen Shariff of the Department of Integrated Studies in Education has embarked upon an ambitious seven-year project to address sexual violence on university campuses across Canada and internationally.
Shaheen Shariff
Shaheen Shariff

Professor Shaheen Shariff of the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, Faculty of Education has embarked upon an ambitious seven-year project to address sexual violence on university campuses across Canada and internationally. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) in the amount of $2.5 million (see Reporter story), further supported by an additional $3.7 million of in kind and cash contributions from five McGill Faculties, the VP Research; 10 universities and 14 community partners.

Shariff brought these partners together to address an issue that has remained in the media spotlight and high on public policy agenda, namely, “rape culture” and sexual violence in universities.

The partners came together in August 2015 to develop a strategic long-term plan whereby legal, arts and media sectors will work with participating universities to research policy and educational responses.

One of their primary objectives is to engage students and sector-partners in critical examination and dialogues. Together they will consider whether rape culture exists, how it is tacitly perpetuated and how universities can work with arts and media sectors on informed and sustainable responses that place student voice, agency and education at the heart of policy and curricular initiatives. Speaking with the Reporter, Shariff explains her rationale.

What brought you to look at these aspects of rape culture?

These aspects were already emerging in my work as an Associate Professor the Department of Integrated Studies in Education, researching sexting and cyberbullying among three generations (millennials, 9 – 30 years). I was repeatedly seeing aspects of what some feminist scholars define as “rape culture.” As part of cyberbullying, it reflected a continuum of sexist and misogynist expressions and actions, embedded in language, social attitudes, entertainment and jokes, media and prevalent social norms, non-consensual distribution of intimate images; on and offline sexual harassment; physical assault and rape.

Rape culture is rooted in intersecting forms of discrimination that impact some members of society more negatively. We wanted to know the extent to which arts, popular culture, news and social media might: a) tacitly condone rape culture in universities given that students are their largest consumers; or b) have the power to mobilize change; c) what legal and policy barriers exist and what legal frameworks are most applicable.

We are beginning to learn why the term “rape culture” is so controversial. In the U.S., the Clery Act legally mandates policy, practice and curriculum development in universities to prevent and reduce sexual violence by changing the culture. Some scholars argue that this top down federal approach results in a “sex bureaucracy” (Gerson & Suk, 2016) where attempts to regulate rape culture result in murky and bureaucratic social constructions of what separates “ordinary sex” from sexual violence depending on how “consent” or “unwanted” sexual behaviors are defined. This places all students at risk of becoming alleged perpetrators or uncertain survivors.

This fresh perspective is very important to the research we embark upon as a partnership. Even though we use the term rape culture, the difference between American “sex bureaucracy” and our largely Canadian partnered approach is significant. Our research is student and partner centered and informed. So far there is no legislation in Canada similar to the Clery Act. Various legal statutory and common law frameworks apply.

Nonetheless, as most Canadian universities reacted to news media coverage of on campus incidents by developing policies to address it, our project, consistent with McGill’s draft survivor-centred policy on sexual violence, will take into account student perspectives and voices, promoting critical engagement, dialogue and mentorship with partners from law, media and the arts. This has the potential to re-center the pendulum to ensure survivors receive compassion, support and due process. Our project will however, also examine the barriers confronted by alleged perpetrators to ensure they too are afforded rights and opportunities to consider the impact of their words and actions.

Let’s fast forward seven years, describe the best-case scenario

We are very excited about the potential impact of this project, as led through the Define the Line projects within the McGill Faculty of Education and supported by five McGill faculties (Education, Dentistry, Law, Management, Arts).

The Expert Panel Reviewers of our proposal noted that its major strength was the “ambition of bringing together such a broad range of partners to tackle an endemic social issue. The clear project plan, with delegated lines of responsibility across all partners should ensure the project delivers on its objectives … [noting that] this is a large scale multidisciplinary project that is bold and innovative . . . In choosing to fund this, Canada could become a leader on the international stage in promoting research and developing initiatives to challenge rape cultures in universities.”

By the end of seven-year research term, we anticipate developing unique but practical evidence-based, student/partner informed, strategic policy and practice models to support universities across Canada and internationally as they navigate the complexities of addressing sexual violence. As noted, central to our model, is integrated engagement of students with sector partners through a Student Mentorship Committee (SMC). This grant will support approximately 45 research assistants a year and provide 25 graduate research stipends.

If someone wanted to follow your project, how would they go about it and what can they expect?

We will expand our Define the Line website in the Faculty of Education at McGill to provide updates on our research findings, including reports, publications and announcements of annual conferences. We will also post announcements on our McGill Department of Integrated Studies in Education and McGill Faculty of Education websites on a regular basis, including links to any media interviews, important reports, awards and job opportunities for students.

We are developing compulsory social justice modules for McGill Dentistry; and compiling a data repository of policies, scholarly literature, case law, curriculum modules, documentaries and qualitative data from the 10 participating universities, including publications and presentations from our research team.

Consider the potential impact our team could make with approximately 12 PhD dissertations and 14 Master’s theses, academic and conference papers; government policy briefs; two White Papers; art exhibits through 200 galleries of the Ontario Art Galleries Association, social media platforms through Facebook, advocacy through Canadian Women’s Foundation, West Coast LEAF, YWCA, METRAC; dentistry regulators such as the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario; critical theatre through Teesri Dunya; and media programming through HEC Pole Media. All this will be overseen by 24 academics and 10 universities including the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University, Social Work at University of Toronto, Law Faculties at University of Ottawa and Dalhousie, Education at Lakehead; Human rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill Law and human rights and technology at University of Ontario Institute of Technology; diversity at University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN); fine arts at Concordia.

Were you ever scared about security on campuses when you sent your own children off to university?

I was not as concerned between 2003-10 when my children were at McGill as I would be now that there is so much exposure to the issues. Having studied cyberbullying I was more worried about them being targeted online than physically on campus. I’m sure sexual violence occurred on campus then, but it was rarely reported or discussed to the extent it is now.

In terms of external predators, Montreal is generally considered to be a safe city, with many students around at all hours of the night in the campus vicinity and student ghetto, so I didn’t worry too much. However, in recent, widely publicized cases of sexual offences on campuses, perpetrators have been classmates or known to survivors – so that’s a concern.

Also, when students discuss the potential rape of a classmate(s), the challenge for institutions rests in assessing whether the prospective assault will actually be carried out. My research with three generations of students (9-12; 13-17 and 18-30) found that those who engaged in online conversations about sexually assaulting classmates, 60 per cent had no intention to carry it out, and engaged in this activity to entertain classmates.

Regardless, it’s good to know that McGill has the Walk Safe program in place. I tested the system last week when I was parked in the lowest and darkest spot in McIntyre garage and was a little afraid to go there after an evening class. The evening security persons were very helpful on the phone, even though I ended up cancelling the request as half my class had parked there! Nonetheless, it was good to know we have this support, and look forward to identifying similar supports at universities across Canada and abroad.

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