In 2014, a student association at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) caused quite a stir when it posted the names of three professors on Facebook who were suspected of sexually harassing female students. It just so happened that at the same time, a group of female researchers from six Quebec universities (UQAM, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Université du Québec en Outaouais, Université de Sherbrooke, Université Laval and Université de Montréal) was beginning to look into the incidence of sexual violence and harassment on the province’s university campuses.
ESSIMU (Enquête Sexualité Sécurité et Interactions en Milieu Universitaire) is headed by Manon Bergeron, professor of sexology at UQAM. In a French-language interview with University Affairs, Dr. Bergeron said the timing of the two developments were “mere coincidence.”
“The inquiry was sparked by orientation activities at UQAM in 2013, which were denounced by many as sexist and homophobic,” Dr. Bergeron said. “We want to document sexual violence on our campuses by collecting enough evidence to support the allegations.”
Blaming the victim
A total of 9,284 students and staff members from the six universities responded to ESSIMU’s survey. Among them, 37 percent claimed to have experienced some form of sexual violence, ranging from harassment to assault, committed by someone associated with the university from the time they first started attending the institution. Among all survey respondents, some 41 percent of women and 26 percent of men reported having experienced acts of sexual violence. The same was reported by 49 percent of respondents identifying as sexual minorities and 56 percent among respondents identifying as belonging to a gender minority.
What is disheartening for Geneviève Paquette, a co-investigator on the project and a professor of psycho-education at U de Sherbrooke, are the inappropriate responses by the people handling complaints. “Victims’ claims are met with skepticism, they are questioned about what they were doing at that location, or they are told to forget about it,” she told University Affairs during an interview conducted in French.
The ESSIMU investigators are now planning to use their data to formulate recommendations for university administrators and other academic leaders. Among their goals, the ESSIMU researchers hope to highlight the importance of sexual violence prevention strategies and to provide sound information on how to respond appropriately to complaints when incidents do occur.
The group also intends to lobby governments, which they say have a tendency to shift the responsibility onto university administrations. “This type of behaviour on the part of university staff and students signals a need for upstream awareness-raising, at the primary and secondary levels,” Dr. Paquette said. “It shouldn’t be up to universities to teach sexual consent.”
The inquiry is now entering the qualitative-data gathering phase. “We are hoping to interview victims to understand how events unfolded, find out whether or not victims reported the incidents, and why, and whether they received adequate support. This will help us fine-tune our recommendations and develop effective prevention and intervention strategies,” Ms. Bergeron said.
In Quebec, people are beginning to recognize the seriousness of sexual harassment and sexual violence in university settings. On October 20, Hélène David, Quebec’s minister of higher education, announced that the provincial government would be holding consultations on campus sexual violence. The announcement came after more than a dozen women filed complaints of sexual assault committed at U Laval residences.