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The perils of orientation week

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I had just finished writing my blog about my sexual assault paranoia for young adults leaving home to attend post-secondary education when I read the news about alleged incidents at Western University.

During orientation week at the outset of last fall’s semester, reports over social media alleged that up to 30 women may have been drugged and sexually assaulted at one of Western’s campus residences. In response to these allegations, students planned a walkout, police were called to investigate, and Western implemented mandatory sexual violence awareness and prevention training for students in residences. On December 17, 2021, Western also announced that it had appointed two co-leads to conduct an independent review into the reports of gender-based and sexual violence from orientation week.

Western is not the first nor only university to face criticism in respect of the seemingly ongoing prevalence of sexual misconduct and sexist messaging during orientation week. For years, Queen’s University has had to address misogynistic and sexist signs posted at various locations on campus and in the City of Kingston during orientation and homecoming weeks. In 1989, in response to a campus rape awareness campaign, banners were put up with slogans such as, “No means tie me up,” while in 1997, highway signs greeted new students and their parents with, “Queen’s fathers, say goodbye to your daughters’ virginity.”1 One would have hoped that the 2021 Western incidents, which received widespread publicity, might have had a more sobering effect, but alas, it was not to be. In October 2021, during homecoming weeks, both the cities of Kingston and Hamilton were again home to vulgar and sexist banners.

In the United States, the period of time between August, when most American colleges begin their fall semester, and the American Thanksgiving holiday in November, is referred to as the “red zone.” A U.S. Department of Justice report published in 20072 found that more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults happen during the first semester. The red zone effect is similarly present at Canadian institutions. The Office of Sexual Violence Support and Education of the Toronto Metropolitan University (previously known as Ryerson University) publishes an orientation checklist, “Consent Comes First,”3 aimed at creating a culture of consent on campus. The checklist indicates that 2/3 of all sexual assaults that happen on campus occur within the first eight weeks of school, starting with orientation week.

Students are particularly vulnerable during the beginning of the school year. They are often adjusting to a new city, new housing, new routines, and new peers. For some, it may be their first experience of freedom with no parental supervision. Students are anxious to please and have yet to form a support system. This in turn makes them more susceptible to peer pressure, while not having access to a group of friends who will look out for them. Furthermore, the weeks of orientation and homecoming are often associated with a heavy intake of alcohol and other drugs. Our own investigations into reports of sexual misconduct reflect these facts: allegations of sexual misconduct occur more frequently during the first few weeks of school, may include an additional element of vulnerability such as being an international student, and often involve the consumption of alcohol and/or other drugs.

As of this date, the incidents at Western remain unproven allegations. We may never find out what really happened. While studies have shown the high prevalence of sexual misconduct on campus, they have also revealed a low rate of reporting to campus and law enforcement officials. What is apparent, however, is that there continues to be a risk of sexual assault during the first several weeks of school and that there remains work to be done to address these risks. Likely, change will only come with a combination of tools such as awareness campaigns, education, supports for victims of sexual assault, and easy access to reporting options. Such tools, however, may not address the underlying culture of orientation week that tolerates or condones vulgar and sexist behaviour as a norm. Perhaps it is this culture that really needs to change.

1 Jake Edmiston and Meaghan Wray, “The evolution of Frosh Week,” The Queen’s University Journal, July 26, 2011: https://www.queensjournal.ca/story/2011-07-26/evolution-frosh-week/
2 Christopher P. Krebs, et al. “The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study,” U.S. Department of Justice, December 2007: https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
3 https://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/sexual-violence/images/Orientation_Checklist.pdf

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