Letters to the editor: December 2013
“Fortress York” in your October issue raised several important points and was particularly timely, considering the recent debacles at various Canadian universities around frosh week rape chants. York is far from unique. When there is a culture of rape on any campus, when we allow a “boys will be boys” mentality, we create dangerous spaces for young women. Rape culture blames a woman for her attack, shames her for being vulnerable and questions whether it was a “real” rape.
—Bailey Reid, Ottawa
I’m a third-year York University student, and I’ve lived both on campus in residence and off campus in the area referred to as the Village, so I feel qualified to speak on the issues raised in Katherine Laidlaw’s Toronto Life article “Fortress York.”
On the cover, I was greeted with the words, “Why there are so many rapes at York U.” I can only assume you used the word “rape” to refer to any kind of sexual assault, because while many sexual assaults have taken place on the York campus, only a small percentage have involved non-consensual sexual intercourse, which is typically how rape is defined. When I turned to the article inside, I saw York referred to as a “hunting ground” for sexual predators who “lurk in the bushes.” This is fear-mongering, plain and simple.
Why does the press seem intent on perpetuating feelings of fear and anxiety among students? Why do they condemn the university instead of focusing on the perpetrators? Why aren’t we putting all of our efforts into making York and the surrounding area a better place to be?
—Holly Penick, Toronto
“Fortress York” struck me as a one-sided attempt to defame York University and stir up fear among those who are applying to universities. I’ve been part of the York community for more than 14 years, as a student and an employee, and I’ve spent time on campus in the early morning and late into the night. Not once have I experienced a single incident of harassment, assault or even a feeling of fear. Had my parents read this article years ago, they never would have supported my decision to join this incredible community. I love York. It’s a wonderful place to be, and it would have been sad if I’d never made the move to come here.
—Tara McMillen Pinto, Toronto
It was an unpleasant surprise to open the October issue of Toronto Life and find an article sensationalizing sexual violence, sexual assault and rape on the York University campus. To us—feminist scholars, struggling to work with questions of gendered and racialized violence both empirically and critically—the article was little more than a caricature of reality.
First, yes, there is assault and sexual assault on the York University campus. Across Canada, women experience sexual assault at levels that ought to shock, but are instead treated as either secret or banal. The article’s attempt to put this problem on York alone is wrong. York has a number of initiatives to counter sexual assault; improving safety on campus is an ongoing goal. But the idea that York is a haven for rapists perpetuates some harmful myths that don’t help anyone.
Second, the article uses racialized geographies to paint York as uniquely struck by an epidemic of sexual assault. York is in the same neighbourhood as Jane and Finch. The blanket association of this entire community with crime and the media’s complicity in demonizing our neighbourhood have long been protested by residents and others.
Recounting a dramatic, lurid story, where predators lurk in bushes and the campus is a hunting ground, provides no useful service to anyone. Instead, it advances a dangerous falsehood that women will be safe if we stay close to home (as long as that home is in a particular zone of the city). It manages to both exaggerate and minimize the significance of sexual assault on university campuses and elsewhere.
—Barbara Crow, Sonia Lawrence, Lisa Philipps, York faculty
I’m a second-year York student, and I have never once felt unsafe on campus. Articles like “Fortress York” instill fear and uncertainty in people who are not familiar with the school. My friends from my hometown sometimes refuse to bus up to York to visit me for a night because they are afraid. The area surrounding the campus is not as scary as the article suggests either. The strip malls along Keele Street are not “seedy.” Day or night, I’m comfortable walking to Subway or Tim Hortons or Domino’s Pizza, and I’ve never experienced a problem regarding safety.
—Crawford Luke, Toronto
“Fortress York” presented a wholly distorted picture of women’s safety on the campus of York University. The article employed one out-of-context statistic to make sweeping and misleading generalizations that foster an atmosphere of fear in the York community and beyond, and cause undue reputational and other damages to the university.
On the cover, the magazine suggests that York’s campus has been the site of a disproportionately high number of rapes. This is patently false. The article also characterizes the campus as a “hunting ground for sexual predators,” using language that is inflammatory and baseless. Distorting and misrepresenting facts may help to sell magazines, but it does nothing to address the serious issue of sexual violence. The unfortunate reality is that no community is entirely safe. York does not exist in a bubble, either. As a society, we all face the challenges of addressing violence against women.
York is safe. Toronto Police Service data shows that York University Heights had 17.7 reported sexual assaults per 10,000 residents in 2011; the downtown neighbourhood that encompasses the University of Toronto had 27.1 sexual assault incidents per 10,000 people; and the Church-Yonge Corridor, where Ryerson University is located, had 21.2 occurrences per 10,000 people. While there is no acceptable number of sexual offences, York’s incidence rate is lower than similar-sized communities.
The writer reports that there were “at least 17 sexual offences, including assaults and harassment,” reported on York’s campus in 2012. While everyone has the right to feel safe and we are in no way diminishing the severity of any of these occurrences, it is false to categorize all of the incidents of sexual assault as rape. It is important to recognize that the charge of sexual assault in the Canadian Criminal Code is a broad, inclusive charge that covers the widest possible range of sexual offences, from any form of unwanted sexual contact to rape.
Furthermore, the writer compares the number of reported incidents on U of T’s downtown campus to those at York while failing to provide this important piece of context: both U of T and Ryerson University are located in the middle of downtown Toronto and are integrated into the surrounding non-university neighbourhoods.
An incident involving a student at the corner of Bloor and St. George or at Yonge and Dundas, both steps from their respective campuses, is not likely to be connected to those institutions. However, occurrences near York’s campus are frequently attributed to York, including two incidents referred to erroneously in the article.
We do not find these comparisons helpful in any case because the only acceptable number of incidents of sexual violence anywhere is zero. Nor do we accept the characterization of the Jane-Finch community as “notoriously crime-ridden.” These are York’s neighbours, and we have a long and rewarding relationship of working together.
Instead of spreading distortions and misinformation, Toronto Life would better serve its readers by sticking to the facts and focusing on sexual violence as a societal concern, rather than portraying this serious issue as someone else’s problem.
York is proud to take a leading role in helping to end violence against women. Over the past several years, the university has taken a number of steps to ensure that York is as safe as possible. Those steps include education and awareness programs, improved infrastructure, enhanced staffing and forums for open dialogue. We are also committed to sharing serious safety-related information with our community. We firmly believe that all universities and colleges should be similarly transparent.
—Mamdouh Shoukri, York University president and vice-chancellor
EDITOR’S NOTE: Toronto Life acknowledges that York University has gone to great lengths to make its campus as safe as possible. In addition, the magazine never meant to suggest that York is the only university in Toronto faced with the challenges of addressing violence against women.