When a Canadian university student leader is receiving anonymous emails detailing a conversation in which four of her male colleagues describe punishing her through a sexual act, things are not alright.
And when it comes as just the most recent instance of a “rape culture” perceived to be prevalent on Canadian campuses, things have clearly run off the rails.
The most recent Canadian university to find itself embroiled in a debate over sexism on campus is the University of Ottawa, where student federation president Anne-Marie Roy was targeted in a recent Facebook exchange involving four male members of the student union.
The University of Ottawa says it is "appalled" by the conversation and the four union members have since resigned and apologized, although they have protested that the private comments would after the contents of the conversation were publicized.
Screenshots of the conversation were posted to a blog – including claims Roy had a sexually transmitted disease and a particularly aggressive comment claiming she should be "punished" in notably graphic terms.
The Canadian Press reports that Roy has gone public with the comments, which were sent to her anonymously, in an attempt to hold the students accountable and put the spotlight on the issue of sexism.
They should be held accountable for those actions. Actions have consequences and I think that this is certainly something that can’t go unnoticed.
Rape culture is very present on our campuses…I think that it’s very shameful to see that there are student leaders who are perpetuating that within their own circles.
"It is scary because it was very violent. It wasn't just sexual comments made in passing," Roy further told CBC News.
A statement released by the University of Ottawa President Allan Rock say the school was "appalled" by the comments and was committed to finding an appropriate response.
“The comments demonstrate attitudes about women and sexual aggression that have no place on campus, or anywhere else in Canadian society” Rock said. “The University will work with our student President to ensure the situation is addressed properly.”
The issue of sexism on Canadian university campuses has been prevalent recently. Saint Mary's University in Halifax cracked down on sexism in the wake of a frosh chant promoting non-consensual sex.
In December the university announced a series of changes focused on addressing sexualized culture on campus, including stronger punishments and establishing a clear code of conduct.
A similar “rape chant” was noted at the University of British Columbia last year causing similar concern for the safety and security of female students.
Regardless of whether the comments come as part of a cheeky song, perceived to be harmless, or in a private conversation, they demean women. They force women to decide whether to turn the other cheek or stand up and speak out. Too often when they do speak out, they face accusations of overreacting.
In the University of Ottawa case, Roy faced legal threats over her decision to publicly address the issue. According to reports, the four men in question resigned from their positions with the student federation and apologized to Roy, pointedly noting their comments were made in private.
They further warned Roy the comments were made in private and sharing them would violate their rights. That debate may be a red herring; there have been several cases which suggest there is no such thing as a “reasonable expectation of privacy” on Facebook, although most of those have played out in America.
But the point is this. Those men, those student politicians, do not want their names publicly associated with their own comments. They would never say such things in person. Few would, unless they were perhaps veiled in a rambunctious frosh chant. They know better. It is locker room talk, unnecessary and inappropriate bravado.
Still, the undercurrent remains. It’s an undercurrent that runs through most Canadian campuses, through most of society. And it must be exhausting to have to fight that current every day.
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