Universities downplaying issue of sexual assault on campus, says Jane Doe



Universities, including Ryerson, deliberately downplay the issue of sexual assault on campus because it is bad for business, the 2012 Atkinson lecturer said during a speech at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism.

“Universities and colleges would have us all believe that there is no sexual assault on their campuses or sites,” Jane Doe, the fifth woman raped by the so-called Balcony Rapist in Toronto in 1986, told about 200 students, faculty and members of the public who filled the Eaton Theatre.

Doe, whose real name is protected by a publication ban on her identity, said universities worry that discussing sexual assault on campus will deter parents from sending their children to those institutions. “They’re largely functioning on business models, which most of our institutions do. They fear a loss of revenue, a loss of students, and the shaming.”

Doe, who successfully sued the Toronto police in 1987 for their handling of her sexual assault case, said universities are only part of the problem. The police knew about a serial rapist in her residential area who entered apartments through locked balcony doors but did not issue a warning because they feared women would become “hysterical,” and because they feared the public warning would scare the perpetrator away before he could be caught.

In her 2004 book, The Story of Jane Doe, she dissects the varied media coverage of sexual assault as well as police policies in an attempt to answer the question: who benefits from rape?

“If rape didn’t exist, we would have to invent it,” Doe said. “It is that efficient and insidious a tool of fear and social control. It works well to…maintain status quos, particularly regarding women’s inequalities.”

Doe said that media coverage of rape relies on official sources – mainly the police – rather than on accounts of what happened from those who have experienced the crime themselves.

“The police and their warnings…are kind of hysterical and extremely fear-based, and focus on women who experience the crime versus the perpetrators of the crime,” Doe said. “They use language and messages which cast women who are sexually assaulted either as helpless, traumatized victims or, more frequently, women who did something…that precipitated their rapes or even caused them.”

The result is that police issue safety guidelines to women, suggesting ways they should behave, dress or limit their own mobility.

Doe suggested a different warning could be issued by police: “Men – there’s a rapist in this neighbourhood. We don’t know which one of you it is but until we figure it out, all men stay home.”

The audience laughed, but Doe said journalists typically relay the standard warning to women, telling them to be on alert or to keep their doors and windows locked.

“In our jobs as journalists, we send that message out on a regular basis, in fact, when it’s the second one, or the funny one, that makes more sense.” She said calling on men to restrict their movements at least addresses the group responsible for rape rather than the group experiencing it.

Although a rape is committed every 17 minutes in Canada, most often by a man to whom the woman is emotionally or economically tied, Doe said the media tend to treat every sexual assault “as if it is an isolated incident between one man and one woman. Never a word in that reportage, let alone headline, about the systemic issues those crimes represent.”

To understand those issues and cover rape more effectively, Doe said student journalists must be taught to think more critically about the issue while they are in school so that they go to sources other than the police for comment and background. Some of these other sources could include women who work with victims of sexual assault, she said.

“It is the academy, the university or college, that produces…all of the players who graduate and then go on to define sexual assault to us and for us from within the institution that then employs them,” she said, citing doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists and social workers as examples of officials who will be dealing with the issue in the future.

“The reality is that not one of those disciplines in colleges and universities across the country contains mandatory curriculum content that will assist graduates in doing a better job in dealing with the crimes of gendered violence,” Doe said.

Although various student groups organize to try to raise awareness and resources for victims of sexual assault, Doe said student unions must find a better way to document their accomplishments so that new students don’t have to start from scratch when their predecessors graduate.