Rape culture puts the onus on survivors rather than perpetrators.	(THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo/Darren Calabrese)

Rape culture puts the onus on survivors rather than perpetrators. (THE CANADIAN PRESS file photo/Darren Calabrese)

Explainer: What is rape culture and what does it look like on Vancouver Island?

A rise in online sexual assault allegations prompts conversation

The term “rape culture” became front of mind for many Greater Victoria residents last week when, in the wake of numerous sexual assault allegations and firings, Coun. Stephen Andrew tweeted that he didn’t believe it exists in the capital region.

Andrew quickly deleted his initial tweet calling it clumsy and dismissive. “I wholeheartedly apologize,” he wrote in a new one. “We must address rape culture.”

But for many, the damage had already been done, and the tweet was indicative that not only does rape culture still exist, but many people also don’t understand what it means.

Councillor Stephen Andrew quickly removed this tweet March 28 after receiving public backlash. (Screenshot)

The term was originally coined in the 1970s by second-wave feminists who fought to control the representation of themselves in popular culture and to legislate their rights around rape, reproduction and domestic violence. It wasn’t until 1983 that Canada made marital rape illegal.

But rape culture is about far more than rape. It’s a sociological concept for an environment where sexualized violence is permissible and normalized.

When Alyx MacAdams runs youth workshops at the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre, they have participants imagine rape culture as a pyramid. At the very top is sexual assault, but down below are all the building blocks that make it so pervasive.

Street harassment, catcalling, objectifying comments, victim-blaming, slut-shaming and trivializing rape are all part of rape culture. So is teaching young women not to walk alone at night and sending them home from school for baring their shoulders. It puts the onus on survivors rather than perpetrators.

Of Canadians aged 15 or older, 30 per cent of women and eight per cent of men have been sexually assaulted, according to 2018 data from Statistics Canada. Of them, one in five felt blamed for what happened and the vast majority never reported it to police.

These numbers only increase when intersected with the effects of racism, classism, transphobia and colonization. Indigenous women, for example, face rates of sexual assault three times higher than non-Indigenous women.

These marginalized groups are also more likely to distrust police and less likely to go to them for help.

“Rape culture continues to put survivors in a position where they feel like they may not be believed or fear the consequence of backlash,” MacAdams said.

In 2020, the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre responded to 2,094 people who called its service access line and provided emergency sexual assault response to 74 recent survivors. It also supported 289 new clients in crisis counselling, 106 new clients in long term counselling and 198 new clients in victim services.

The harm of a public official denying the existence of rape culture is that it delegitimizes these survivors’ experiences, University of Victoria gender studies professor Annalee Lepp said.

“You’re erasing the incidents that have emerged.”

It’s particularly harmful, MacAdams added, coming from someone who has a say in public policy and police funding.

Following his tweet, Andrew brought a motion to council on April 1 asking that a task force on sexual abuse be formed. Council voted to postpone his motion, noting that it is expecting a staff report in the next four to six weeks on a similar motion that was raised in June 2019.

That motion, on preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault, asked council to make sexualized violence prevention training mandatory for bar and nightclub staff and requested that a prevention plan be submitted alongside all liquor license applications.

Prevention education is one key part of building what MacAdams calls “consent culture,” or the antidote to rape culture.

“We need to move toward more community responsibility,” they said. It’s time for more active bystanders, more call-outs and more supportive spaces.

For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.

Anyone who wishes to report an incident or has information about an incident can call the VicPD report desk at 250-995-7654 ext. 1. The Victoria Sexual Assault Centre also offers counselling, victim services and a sexual assault response team. The centre can be reached 24/7 at 250-383-3232.

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