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Not this, not again, not here

How one university took a stand against rape culture

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Oh, for we barkers in the exhausting carnival of public debate, few things are as liable to loosen the rollercoaster brakes so much as one term: "rape culture."

On its face, the phrase is utilitarian, blunt. It was raised into existence to describe a troubling pattern of ways that our culture shakes off sexual assault. It is useful in this way, though not without its faults — for instance, I balk at the hardness of it, having a natural affinity for painting issues in unfocused greys. What is worse is the way others would rather debate the term, then actually talk about sexual assault and rape.

It’s so exhausting, this constant argument over what rape culture is and it isn’t, over which kinds of casual dismissal of rape are benign and which can be proven malignant. Is it rape jokes? ("They’re just jokes.") Is it images of sexualized violence dressed up in fashion spreads? ("Everyone knows those aren’t real.") Is it the ways the justice system can conspire against victims, or the fact we still sort of suck at real-talk over healthy sexuality and consent?

Occasionally, these debates are punctuated by occasional gusts of musty old breath, exhaled by columnists who reek of the contempt for survivors who, in their view, aren’t battered enough to convince. They argue the precise shape of the problem, quibbling over variations in rape statistics (is it one in five women on North American campuses? Or one in six? One in twelve?) with no care to consider that all represent tens of thousands of real survivors, really been harmed.

In one of the most egregious recent examples, Washington Post pundit George Will wrote earlier this month colleges are making a "coveted status" out of living through rape, a status that "confers privileges," privileges which in turn make "victims proliferate." He did not entertain the far more plausible option: since sexual assault is wildly underreported, when colleges make the reporting process less overtly nasty for survivors, more of them come forward. (What a shock.)

At any rate, after years of wrestling with columns like that, they’d left my stomach knotted and bubbling with bile. So, I decided to step off the roller-coaster for awhile, to write and think about other things. Other things, which did not involve bracing for yet another influx of pundits that would rather argue about a term ("rape culture") than challenge the demonstrable patterns of violence it seeks to define, and describe.

Well, now we can try this instead: if you want to know what a NOT-rape-culture looks like check what happened at the University of Ottawa this week.

Some background. In March, the university suspended its Gee-Gees men’s hockey squad, after an alleged sexual assault involving members of the team. (They have not yet announced who, or how many.) The incident occurred in Thunder Bay in February, where the team was playing a couple of games. When the university learned of the situation, they suspended the team and opened their own internal investigation.

This week, with the review complete, the university announced it would act on those recommendations. The message was stunning, clear: not this, not again, not here.

The university didn’t just suspend a few players. It suspended the entire program, through until the start of the season in 2015, and canned head coach Real Paiement. He didn’t have anything to do with the incidents, the university said. When he learned about what happened, he didn’t tell the administration — a fact the university said did "not meet... expectations." They found out later, exactly three weeks after the alleged assault, when a friend of the victim came forward.

The University of Ottawa promptly contacted Thunder Bay RCMP. Their police work is still ongoing, and the university is holding back its own internal report — so as to fulfil privacy rules, so as not to taint the criminal investigation. Besides, the work of court justice, and the work of enforcing a school culture, can have different evidentiary aims. That’s OK. What matters is this: the University of Ottawa didn’t shrug, and they didn’t look away.

This is remarkable, coming as it does after years of agonizing stories about North American athletes who assaulted girls and women, and were protected by administrative indifference at best, outright cover-ups at worst. At the University of Ottawa, the response was strong, it was blunt, it leaves absolutely no doubt the school thinks sexual assault is too serious to try and jam under a rug, or to excuse, or hold up.

Still, the topic bubbled — did the University of Ottawa go too far in suspending the program, in firing the silent coach?

Frankly, no. We won’t know what all the university’s internal review found, since they’re keeping that closed. However, the fact that the university’s release speaks of "rebuilding" the team, suggests the investigator believed the entire culture needed to be wiped clean. That doesn’t mean all the players played a part. It’s not unreasonable to guess the university believes the overall team culture enabled an atmosphere where some players felt they could get away with assault.

On that end, a season-long suspension is a powerful retort, a crystal-clear statement that toxic cultures should not have a place in sport.

Oh, and my mind, it drifts back to last year, when Australian army chief Lieutenant General David Morrison released a video condemning sexual assault in his military’s ranks. He said something then that leaped straight out of the video, right off the transcripted page, and threw a cleansing light into the darkest heart of the painful debate of what rape culture is, or what it isn’t. That statement, which I will remember for all of my days...

"The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept."

The University of Ottawa saw the leering red flag waving, dug in their heels, and stood pat. Kudos to them for that.


Updated on Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 11:32 AM CDT: corrects typo

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