To the St. Mary’s University frosh leaders, from a former frosh volunteer and an assault survivor.

Dear SMU frosh leaders,

It goes without saying that many in the world are watching you with gritted teeth and clenched fists. Congratulations — it’s rare that Canadian news reaches outside of Canada.

Let me preface this by saying that when I say “frosh volunteer” I don’t mean to say I was a frosh leader — “Ice Breakers” as we called them at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University. I spent my latter years as a service volunteer. I represented, promoted and worked as a member of Foot Patrol, for which I was a year-round volunteer. We specialized in walking (and driving) people home after dark in well-equipped teams of two. Along with the other services represented at O-Week — BACCHUS, our safe-sex and alcohol awareness group; Peer Help Line, whose purpose is hopefully self-explanatory; EcoHawks, who promoted recycling and environmental friendliness; the Emergency Response Team; and the Student Food Bank — we helped to introduce incoming students to many of the programs and services that were there to help them through their time at Laurier. To me, that was the true spirit of O-Week, though I’m sure Ice Breakers would respectfully disagree.

Many consider the true spirit of O-Week, Frosh Week, whatever you want to call it, to be school spirit — discovering the clubs there are to join, meeting new people and, of course, cheering your hearts out. Cheers can be pretty darn silly, I’ll admit, and sometimes the content is downright nonsensical. But despite all of the nonsense I’ve witnessed, I’m confounded not only at how you were able to get away with your pro-rape cheer for several years, but why you conceived the idea in the first place.

I’m aware that as a assault survivor much of my opposition to this will be chalked up to “emotional response” and “biased.” At this point, though, I couldn’t care less.

For those of you who aren’t filled with remorse and regret over the cheer, you probably are resorting to the J-word. “Joke.” And “just.” “It’s just a joke.”

I’ve known many people who fight for the rights of the jokester. The right to categorize jokes as sacred. The idea that when we are on an elevated pedestal when we say something that makes others laugh — whether it’s in a circle of our peers or standing on a stage several feet above a crowd, microphone in hand.

But ask yourself — why do we laugh in the first place?

One has to grasp at straws to find an answer other than “rape is funny.” But we all know that it isn’t, don’t we? “Of course,” you say. “But it’s a joke?”

So again full circle — why is it a joke?

You probably can’t pinpoint the moment when you were taught that something like rape was funny. And I can’t blame you. It’s come at you from all angles. And yes, there are some areas of society in which that attitude is more saturated. But instead of pointing fingers at your parents, your sports coaches, your fraternities, I’m going to tell you who I blame:

I blame a culture that teaches young men that they’re entitled to the bodies of young women. I blame a culture that commoditizes sex. I blame a culture that makes one-liner jokes about pedophilia and child molestation such as “if there’s grass on the field, play ball” and I blame the culture that doesn’t even find that to be outrageous. I blame the culture that compares me to a Nazi because I refuse to see something like this as a joke. I blame our culture that doesn’t see a problem with Robin Thicke’s music video in which he uses nude women as props but sees a problem with a cheeky, student-made parody video in which the genders our switched. I blame people who purposely seek out drunk women because they are easier to have sex with. I blame comedians who say “Wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped right now?” and the people who laugh at them and the people who defend them. I blame a culture that allows “#itaintrapeif” to trend on Twitter. I blame schools that tell girls to consider breast reduction surgery if they’re sick of being made fun of for the size of their breasts. I blame the people who managed to convince everyone else that false rape accusations happen at the same frequency as actual rapes. I blame everyone and everything that dehumanizes women, treats them as objects, and makes them out to be prizes.

I blame the culture that told me it wasn’t rape because the person I was dating did it.

This isn’t to say you as individuals should walk away from this unscathed. But I hope that while you’re sitting through your mandatory sensitivity training — which I’m sure seems like a much worse punishment to you than it actually is — you start to think about the people and places and experiences from which you’ve learned all those little things, the little things that add up to the belief that that cheer was okay.

Then I want you to go about unlearning it. I’m not going to tell you how. You’re grown adults. Learn yourself.


Lip service to mental illness is not the final frontier

It seems you can’t pick up a student newspaper, hear a student council election speech or pass by a campus bulletin without seeing or hearing the words “mental health.”

Mental health: we need to talk about it. Mental health: it’s as important as physical health. Mental health: erasing the stigma.

This is good, right? We do need to talk about mental health issues, especially among university students. I first noticed the increased saturation of conversations about mental heath at my alma matter, Wilfrid Laurier University, following a tragic and terrifying residence fire in my freshman year, 2009, which resulted in the death of one student, a well-liked varsity athlete. The fire was ruled as a suicide the following school year, and residence life dons were subject to more thorough training to recognize issues similar to the ones which lead to the tragedy.

The problem I now see is that “mental health” has become a new buzz-term said over and over by people who either don’t understand or don’t want to talk about the severity of mental illness.

In attempting to remove the “stigma” of mental illness, we’ve also avoided talking about the parts of mental illness that are downright ugly.

The words “mental health” are used in such general, nonchalant ways and as a result all mental health problems are regarded as homogeneous, with homogeneous solutions. Campus “experts” often cite class stress, separation anxiety from home, adjustment to a new life and relationship problems as common issues for students, and while these certainly need to be addressed, it seems that they are pussyfooting around some real big, significant problems — problems that maybe aren’t so easy to “just talk” about.

As many times as I have simply heard the words “mental health,” “issues,” and “stress,” and occasionally the words “depression” and “anxiety,” I could count on one hand the number of times I have heard the words “self-harm,” “suicide,” “disordered eating,” “addiction,” “abuse,” “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “assault” used in mental health campaigns.

Launching campaigns to assure people that they’re not alone and they’re not weird because they’re stressed out is all well and good, but there’s a difference between common anxieties shared by the vast majority of a student body and far grittier problems such as addiction.

While I definitely cooed at the notion of Laurier’s “puppy room” last December during fall 2012 exams, to hear that it was regarded as a “mental health” campaign only further emphasized to me that student mental health campaigns are still merely scratching the surface of true mental health problems. Not every problem can be solved with a puppy. In fact, most cannot.

Having someone to discuss your issues with is often invaluable, but that does not mean that it is helpful for everyone. Money being put toward mental health issues for post-secondary students should be put into more councillors equipped for dealing with very specific problems, not bubblegum poster campaigns.