How can we combat sexual violence on campus?

RaveFrontBy the #BetterUnion team

One of the topics most widely discussed during this year’s election campaign is sexual violence on campus. Sexual violence is endemic at universities and colleges across Canada, and York is no exception. Thanks largely to the work of survivors, this issue is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. As more members of the York community become aware of its pervasive nature, we have the opportunity to build a strong, united movement against sexual violence. This is a moment we must not squander.


Over the last couple of weeks, the #BetterUnion team has had the chance to talk about this issue as we have campaigned in departments across campus. There is an emerging consensus among members of our union that we need to develop survivor-centric responses to any reports of sexual violence, at the same time as leading prevention and awareness campaigns that seek to challenge and transform the environments that allow sexual violence to happen in the first place. These initiatives must go hand-in-hand: while our union must support campaigns that deter perpetrators of sexual violence, we must also find ways to improve the support we provide for survivors, and to centre all our responses around their needs, experiences and perspectives.

How we do this really matters. Our union should follow the lead of survivors’ organizations that have already made valuable recommendations for improving existing support systems and for creating new ones that can meaningfully respond to survivors when they report incidents of sexual violence. We must also incorporate feminist and intersectional approaches that account for the numerous and intersecting forms of oppression that increase the risk of sexual violence for women-identified members, LGBTQ members, members of colour, members with disabilities, and members of other equity-seeking groups. Such approaches further help us to develop responses and supports for survivors that put their particular needs first.


These suggestions require concrete proposals that could be implemented as soon as possible, with a view to making immediate improvements in the short term and to setting goals and timelines for longer-term struggles. In particular, they must also address two critical questions that the Silence is Violence campaign has posed to us and other candidates:

  • How should the Executive Committee of CUPE 3903 respond to the issue of sexual violence on campus?
  • How should the Executive Committee of CUPE 3903 respond to other forms of oppression on campus?

On the first question, there are many lessons to be learned from the experience of the outgoing Executive Committee, which issued this statement in response to a member who reported an incident of sexual violence earlier this year. One obvious lesson is the need to develop clear and well-publicized protocols within the union for responding to reports like these. The union must be much more prepared when members disclose experiences of sexual violence, and ready to respond immediately with the kind of support that survivors need.


That means that the union’s leadership must be fully aware of the pervasive nature of sexual violence on campus; the multiple barriers that survivors face in reporting incidents; how to avoid responses that exacerbate the trauma that survivors experience; and how to centre the needs of survivors in providing immediate and meaningful support.

Furthermore, these responses must be part of an overall strategy to combat sexual violence on campus that is informed by the experiences and perspectives of survivors and that seeks to mobilize the widest possible segment of the membership.

“These responses must be part of an overall strategy to combat sexual violence on campus that is informed by the experiences and perspectives of survivors and that seeks to mobilize the widest possible segment of the membership.”

While the Executive Committee has the responsibility to play a leadership role in combating sexual violence, it also has the responsibility to seek direction and support from the wider membership, in developing responses that meet the needs of our local, and in taking direction from those members, survivors and organizations that are already doing important work on this issue. The most successful initiatives are those that aim to unite the membership around a common cause that we all identify as a priority for our local. Without a doubt, combating sexual violence on campus must be everyone’s priority.


On the second question, a similar approach is in order. The Executive Committee must be prepared to respond to any reports of violence or oppression that members experience in the local or on campus, at the same time as developing and leading effective campaigns around prevention and education. Likewise, these approaches must be intersectional, in order to identify where risks are greater for some members than others and to prepare responses that meet members’ particular needs and concerns. In every instance, we need to involve as many members as possible – as all of us benefit from working together, learning from each other, building trust, developing community, and transforming ourselves in the process.

Concretely, we believe that the following proposals could be implemented by the incoming Executive Committee, no matter who wins the election, as a means to make immediate, short-term improvements to how the local responds to sexual violence, at the same time as initiating the processes that would allow us to develop longer-term collective responses that seek to challenge the conditions in which sexual violence takes place:

  • Develop clear protocols for the union to respond to incidents of sexual violence or other forms of violence and oppression in the local, and publicize them widely; these protocols must include the concrete steps that the Executive Committee and staff members must follow in order to meet the immediate needs of survivors as soon as an incident is reported;
  • Develop mandatory training for Executive Committee members and staff members that address in particular all practical questions related to combating sexual violence; conduct this training within one month of their election;
  • Make the same training available to all members of the local, and mandatory for members of Stewards’ Council, the Bargaining Team (in bargaining years), and members of committees;
  • Provide resources for combating sexual violence to the membership by clearly publicizing them on all union media; create a permanent page on the website that includes educational information and links to further resources;
  • Develop a long-term strategy for combating sexual violence on campus by organizing a series of town hall meetings on the topic that generates input and direction from survivors and the wider membership;
  • Support and, where necessary, lead initiatives that combat sexual violence on a campus-wide basis; co-ordinate with other trade unions and the student movement through the Cross-Campus Alliance to expand anti-sexual violence work that is already underway;
  • Support organizations such as Silence is Violence in implementing their recommendations for developing survivor-centric responses in the university system to incidents of sexual violence;
  • Promote in the short-term resources such as the METRAC discussion paper, “Sexual Assault Policies on Campus” (October 30, 2014), which helps members understand the pervasive nature of sexual violence on campus, the inadequate systems that exist to respond to it, and widely supported recommendations that centre survivors;
  • Provide meaningful resources and supports from the union to those members, survivors and organizations, such as Stop Sexual Assault at York University, that are in the forefront of combating sexual violence on campus; recognize the potential for moments like these to build strong, united political movements that can improve policy and begin to challenge and transform the environments in which sexual violence happens.

These proposals, like everything else we have proposed during this campaign, are meant to contribute to the discussion about this topic and expand it to the widest possible segment of the membership. We need mass participation in this struggle, not just to win our demands, but to educate ourselves, learn from and follow the lead of survivors, and play an active role in challenging the culture of rape and misogyny that exists all over campus.

We offer our unconditional support to survivors of sexual violence and commit to supporting their struggles both during and after this campaign. The courageous work of survivors in our local and from other communities who have led these struggles has given the issue of sexual violence on campus the attention it so urgently needs and deserves. All of us owe them a debt of gratitude. This moment represents a real opportunity to build on that work and extend its reach into a much bigger audience. Despite whatever political differences might exist among the candidates during this campaign, we can unite in solidarity around these struggles and make a serious contribution to the fight against sexual violence and for justice for all survivors.

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