Warning: This article contains content about sexual violence and may be triggering for some readers. Please read at your own discretion.
Rene Clarke takes a deep breath and closes their eyes when discussing the violence they’ve endured.
The 23-year-old said they were sexually assaulted a few years ago.
Clarke said they and their perpetrator both attend the University of Saskatchewan — a reminder of something that’s already impossible to forget.
“Trying to not think about it all the time and trying to not have it ruin your life … that’s an everyday battle,” said Clarke, the co-ordinator for the students’ union’s Pride centre.
“That affects my job, that affects my school, that affects everything.”
Many post-secondary students share experiences similar to Clarke’s.
New data from Statistics Canada shows that last year, 71 per cent of students in Canada witnessed or experienced unwanted sexual behaviour by people associated with their school.
The survey estimates 11 per cent of female students and four per cent of male students were sexually assaulted in a post-secondary setting (the report does not provide analysis about gender non-conforming students).
Clarke said the new statistics aren’t surprising.
“It’s a silent issue, which doesn’t make sense because it’s affecting almost everybody that I know,” the psychology student told Global News in an interview.
‘U of S has a lot to do’
USask created robust sexual violence prevention policies and training programs about five years ago, said Patti McDougall, vice provost of teaching, learning and student experience.
“One of the indicators of when I knew we were doing a better job was when we had more people coming forward to report,” McDougall said.
In 2019, USask protective services received 11 reports of sexual assault and harassment, she said. Six complaints of sexual violence went forward to a hearing during the 2019-20 academic year, when about 26,000 students were enrolled.
Those numbers indicate underreporting of abuse, McDougall said.
Clarke said they and other students may not disclose incidents of sexual violence to university staff due to a lack of confidence in the reporting process.
Clarke said they haven’t come forward formally because they think the intake team doesn’t have adequate training.
“What’s the point if I’m just going to go there and I’m afraid that I am going to have my entire testimony … torn apart, when I’m just trying to report the thing that happened?” they said.
Identifying as queer and gender non-conforming creates an added layer of vulnerability, Clarke said.
The intake process sets the stage for healing or getting justice, so it should be run by counsellors who specialize in trauma recovery, they said.
Tasnim Jaisee, a USask student and co-ordinator for the students’ union’s women’s centre, agrees. Jaisee, 21, said she knows many students who choose not to report.
“They’re scared of the stigma, misconceptions, public harassment when you report sexual violence,” she said.
Student affairs and outreach manager Tracy Spencer said her team includes four registered social workers trained to provide initial support to students who have experienced sexual violence. They connect survivors with trauma-informed counsellors on campus or at Saskatoon’s Sexual Assault and Information Centre.
“We need to make sure that we provide compassionate and caring responses to survivor-victims of sexual violence, because that really sets the stage for their healing journey,” Spencer said.
Jaisee said the university is on the right track, but more needs to be done.
“It is way beyond time that we start actually properly addressing these issues at the university and I think the U of S has a lot to do,” she said.
Going forward, she hopes to see a sexual violence reporting centre on campus where students are connected with trauma specialists from the start.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
Visit the Department of Justice’s Victim Services Directory for a list of support services in your area.
Women, trans and non-binary people can find an additional list of resources here.