New centre aims to educate students on realities of sexual assault

By Ellen Cottee
Carleton University’s new Sexual Assault Support Centre will focus on combatting the myths that surround Sexual Assault, according to co-ordinator Carrolyn Johnston.

A sexual assault awareness poster circulated by Carleton University
A sexual assault awareness poster circulated by Carleton University

A sexual assault awareness poster circulated by Carleton University

By: ELLEN COTTEE

Carleton University’s new Sexual Assault Support Centre will focus on combatting the myths that surround Sexual Assault, according to centre coordinator Carrolyn Johnston.

“When [people] think about a sexual assault they think about what we used to term as rape, meaning forced intercourse,” she said. “They’re not necessarily aware of the spectrum.”

Canadian law defines sexual assault as “a term used to refer to all incidents of unwanted sexual activity, including sexual attacks and sexual touching.”

As part of its General Statistics Survey of 2004, Statistics Canada reported there were approximately 512,000 “incidents of sexual assault” on Canadians aged 15 or older. However, the report also noted only one out of every 10 sexual assaults is reported, making assaults difficult to track.

Johnston said statistics show eight women are sexually assaulted each day in Ottawa, and said she believes the statistic to be similar in a campus setting.

Carleton University opened the doors to its new Sexual Assault Support Centre in April after plans for the centre were announced in January 2012. The centre was originally slated to open in September of that year, but was delayed multiple times.

Johnston said that while the centre open for over a month, a grand opening is being planned for the beginning of the 2013 fall term.

The idea for a Sexual Assault Support Centre originally belonged to the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Support Centre, formed following the brutal attack of a female student in 2007. Julie Lalonde, a Carleton student and co-founder of the Coalition, said she has mixed feelings about the new centre.

“Are we still pissed that the sexual assault centre is a sham? Yes,” Lalonde said. “[But] are students better off now than they were almost seven years ago? Yes. So it’s a bit of a bittersweet thing for us.”

Johnston said she understands the Coalition’s concerns. “The Coalition was pushing for a university-funded, student-run sexual assault support centre on campus, and they remain committed to that.”

“What we have is a university-funded, university-run [centre],” Johnston continued. “That being said, it’s very important to me that students play an integral role in the Centre.”

As the co-ordinator for Sexual Assault Services, Johnston has been serving the university community with counselling services since 2009. In addition to counselling, Johnston and Sexual Assault Services run the annual Sexual Assault Awareness week at Carleton as well as other initiatives designed to engage students.

Along with educating students about sexual assault and the stigma around it, Johnston said she is looking forward to giving students the tools to challenge rape culture both on and off campus. Rape culture, she said, “encompasses the entire spectrum of sexual violence.”

“It seems to be okay in our society to make misogynistic and derogatory comments around and about women, comments and jokes and things like that making fun of or making light of violence against women,” Johnston continued.

Lalonde agreed, and added she believes rape culture “… Is a culture in which we tell women not to get raped, rather than tell men not to rape. It’s a culture in which we claim to care about sexual assault, and then do everything in our power to enable it to continue.”

Johnston said she hopes to teach students how to stand up when people make misogynistic and sexist comments or joke about rape. She said if it is not challenged, rape culture becomes acceptable.

“Don’t just laugh it off,” she advised students who hear these jokes. “Let them know that this isn’t appropriate.”

Along with education programs and counselling services, the Centre will include a small library, a quiet room for personal reflection and peer support services.

Located in 503 Robertson Hall, Johnston said the Centre is open to any “member of the campus community engaged in programming related to sexual violence.”

Lalonde said she is hopeful about the future of sexual assault services on campus. “It is a completely different campus now,” she said. “I’ve seen things change.”

“The centre will feel like a space that is open to everyone and also to bring down the level of shame that’s often associated with sex assault,” Johnston said. “Maybe coming in, it won’t be so scary for somebody.”

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