U of M survey delves into dangerous attitudes about sexual assault, consent

The University of Manitoba is hoping to have a stark, honest conversation with students about sex and consent, deploying a new survey to understand how many students believe common myths about sexual violence.

WARNING: This story covers topics included in the survey related to sexual assault, rape

The University of Manitoba Board of Governors is set to vote Tuesday evening on a budget that would see an approximate 4 per cent cut to departmental operating expenses. (CBC)

WARNING: This story includes graphic questions from University of Manitoba and University of New Brunswick surveys on sexual assault, rape and harassment on campus.

The University of Manitoba is hoping to have a stark, honest conversation with students about sex and consent, deploying a new survey to understand how many students believe common myths about sexual violence.

U of M sociology and criminology professor Tracey Peter helped model the survey based on questions from a previous survey carried out at the University of New Brunswick.

"We were shocked and the controversy has been around the acceptance of common rape myths or sexual violence myths," Peters said of the results from the UNB survey.

"One of the things we were taken back by was how many [UNB] students didn't actually strongly disagree to the various statements.

​"We thought, 'We better ask some of these questions for our campus community in order to get a sense of where do we even begin in terms of education and raising awareness about sexual violence."

On Tuesday, the U of M emailed all students its University of Manitoba Sexual Violence Survey. The first iteration included an error — some questions didn't give students the option of selecting "strongly disagree" — but Peter says the survey was quickly corrected. Only a small number of students had taken the survey before the issue was resolved, she said.

The survey asks students to answer about 50 questions designed to gauge everything from common misconceptions about sexual assault and harassment, to how satisfied the student body is with the level of resources available to survivors of sexual violence, to how confident students are that U of M administration would respond appropriately to reports of sexual misconduct.

The U of M put together a steering committee about a year ago after the provincial government passed the Sexual Violence Awareness and Prevention Act, mandating that post-secondary institutions have formal policy in place for dealing with sexual violence. 

Widespread misperceptions

The UNB survey found low to moderate endorsement of 18 common myths about sexual assault, defined as "beliefs that reinforce negative responses toward those who experience sexual assault."

One finding that stood out to Peter stemmed from the question "Men from nice middle-class homes almost never rape." Twenty-two per cent of UNB respondents did not strongly disagree with that statement.

"I would've personally thought that that would've been much higher," Peter said.

Another question — a version of which appears in the U of M survey — asked students to rate how strongly they approved or disapproved of the statement, "A woman who dresses in skimpy clothes should not be surprised if a man tries to force her to have sex." Only 24.5 per cent strongly disagreed.

Half of respondents didn't strongly disagree with the statement "Men don't usually intend to force sex on a woman, but sometimes they get too sexually carried away."

More than 80 per cent of UNB students said they felt safe on campus, and though most were moderately confident university administrators would take action in the event of a sexual assault, fewer had faith that adequate resources were available to survivors.

Fifty-three per cent said they wouldn't know how to get help; most (61 per cent) weren't familiar with how to report sexual misconduct; and only nine per cent who reported experiencing some form of sexual misconduct said they utilized UNB counselling services.

One fourth of respondents said they had been sexually assaulted since becoming a student at UNB. 

"If you look at even our courts, our justice system, not just on our campus but all across the country, we see people who hold these misperceptions quite frequently," said Allison Kilgour, vice-president of advocacy for the University of Manitoba Students' Union.

"A lot of us know that these are false and these should not impact the prevalence of sexual violence, but they're still perpetuated."

Sensitive nature

The U of M committee, which came up with the idea for the survey, is comprised of community members, faculty and student representatives, including Kilgour.

Allison Kilgour is the University of Manitoba Students’ Union vice-president of advocacy. (CBC )

"I think it was a positive step in trying to make sure that we are aware of what our campus opinions are," said Kilgour.

"We think it's of the utmost importance. It's one of our core values at UMSU and one of our position statements is fostering a culture of consent on our campus, rather than a rape culture."

Though the questions are of a sensitive nature, Kilgour said the U of M survey takes student safety into consideration by offering lists of resources and content warnings throughout.

Goals of U of M survey

If, as with the UNB survey, there is a large segment of the population that accepts some of the harmful misconceptions about sexual violence and consent, Peter said the university will have to take a few steps back and focus more on deconstructing those myths through education campaigns.

"The goal is that we want to make a safe, inclusive environment for all students because we take issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment seriously," Peter said.

The online survey is expected to take take at least four weeks to complete. The results will be released in a report in the summer or fall, Peter said.

"We wanted to get a sense of are we going to get similar results here, because if we do find similar results, our response as a community really needs to start with issues of consent and what does consent mean," Peter said.

"So if a lot of students that think it's only certain people that do these things then we need to regroup as a university and maybe alter our approach and start at a different spot."

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